Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Three-Layer Fresh Coconut Cake

"Have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers which could not be given now, because you would bot be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."
~Rainer Maria Rilke

On the wall behind my desk is a patchwork of papers, strips of poem cut from magazines, index cards with scrawls and prayers and incantations. This quote is one of them. I am in the thick of a mess of writing. The thoughts are scattered with broken bits everywhere, the writing itself tousled a bit and not well-behaved. And my subject matter has made a plunge for the depths. The other day I had to wrap up my writing time by plunking out a poem about rainbows. Just because I needed something vaulted and bright.

Heavens to Betsy, even this totally cheerful, white-capped birthday cake looks a little grim. We're in excavation territory, folks. I hope we survive.

Before I tell you more about the cake though, let me just give some specifics on what's going on around here. Mess. Lots of mess. Business in the best way. If this bores you, I won't be offended if you skip to the bit about the coconut cake. But some of you asked for it. :)

Last post I mentioned a  a poetry workshop and a contract. So here's the deal: I wrote my first poem when I was ten, a child's feminist version of the Disney movie, Pete's Dragon, and I kept on writing until finally, I wrote a wee chapbook of poems for my creative thesis back in grad school. But since then (and since babies one and two) I've mostly piddled about with poems without much oomph or direction. The Master Workshop for Poets is my attempt to make an attempt. Sometimes we need someone else's fire to start our own. And now I've got a little hearth heat going. It feels good.

The contract, on the other hand, is a mentorship I started the first of January. I'm working with local teacher/writer/poet Rae Gouirand in hopes of making some big leaps in a project I've been dawdling over for years. She drew up the contract to remind her and me what exactly we expect from each other, and from ourselves, for the next six months. My job is to write my heart out, go on some pilgrimages, and read what she gives me. Her job is to read my pages and respond and not glaze over too much when I'm talking about structure and content. Rae happens to be a brilliant teacher. Her strength is in her ability to find, highlight, and bring out the brilliance in her students. To legitimate. To take a piece of writing and meet it as an entity of its own, and then to ask the right questions that help the writing get to where it wants to be. She is sharp, knows the wider literary community and its goings on, and manages a shocking level of grounded wisdom and integrity.

Can you tell? I am over the moon excited to be working with Rae. Locals take note: she hosts year-round workshops in creative non-fiction, poetry, and, world take note: an online course, too. This is her first year of her officially mentoring. And I get her. Wee!

If you want more information about what I'm doing, don't hesitate to email me. I'd love it.

You deserve a piece of cake if you read all that. I make it a point to not talk about my projects too much in real life, whether they are cakes or manuscripts or poems. I just bake them, or make them, and let them speak for themselves. So, thanks for sticking with me.

My sister requested my mother's coconut cake for her birthday a couple weeks back. It is a white cake with marshmallow frosting (or "marshmallow fluff" as Mara insists on calling it), coated in a layer of coconut. It is tropical, and American, and all kinds of frivolous. Eaten a good stretch away from dinner and I certainly swooned my fair share.

The cake itself is a winner. I have tried a few failed white cake recipes in the last few years. I've made this one now three or four times, all with different flavorings, all to my liking. But what I liked best about this white puffball of a dessert is the fresh coconut. Coconut is, for me, an imported splurge on the same level as chocolate and coffee and bananas: worth the treat. And fresh coconut even more so. The shreds are moist and delicate and conjure up memories of the green mountains of Honduras where I drank coconut milk straight from the nut straight from the tree. I remember being very thirsty. And the coconut milk from this one was every bit as satisfying.

An added plus: you get to use an ice pick and a hammer. Rough and tumble meets faery fluff. My kind of baking.

You might guess that with the writing and the baking other parts of life have gotten messier. Right-o! Dinner has been scandalously boring, the house a mess, and my wardrobe habits more and more often tend towards "frump-girl" status. Never mind you most of it though. The real issue is dinner.

More on that soon.

Three-Layer Fresh Coconut Cake

We have made this cake quite a few times, but never before with fresh coconut. There is no comparison. Fresh coconut has the softness of sweetened coconut without all the sugar, as you might imagine. There is also a clarity to the flavor, not quite a greenness, but a warm, sweet life. I bought two coconuts just in case, and it's a good thing. I'm hooked.  

And next time I'm going to try all coconut oil instead of part butter. If any of you give that a swing let me know how it hits. I'd love to hear about it.

Adapted and inspired by: Better Homes and Gardens April 2010 issue, and Fine Cooking December 2009/January 2010 issue. The frosting especially is from Scott Peacock, who was at the time of publication the executive chef of Watershed Restaurant in Decatur, Georgia.

For the cake:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup flavorless oil (or coconut oil!!!)
2 1/2 cups sugar
8 whites (aka 1 cup)
3 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup coconut milk or coconut water
1 tablespoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease three 8-or 9-inch rounds, then line the bottoms with greased parchment. Have the butter, egg whites, and coconut milk at room temperature.

In the bowl of a stand mixer beat the butter and sugar until (very) light and fluffy. It should be almost white. If you use coconut oil, add that now, too. Otherwise, add the oil with the eggs, a little at a time, until fully incorporated.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and sea salt together into a medium-sized bowl and whisk.

In a glass measure, combine the vanilla and the coconut milk (or water). Add this milk and the flour to the batter alternately, beginning and ending with the flour. I do three additions of flour and two of milk. Stir just until smooth. Do not overmix.

Divide the batter between the three prepared pans and smooth the tops. Slide into the preheated oven and bake for 35-50 minutes, or until the cake springs back when pressed in the middle, a cake tester poked in the center comes out clean, and/or the edges of the cake shrinks back from the sides of the pan.

Cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks until cool completely before icing.

While the cake cools, prepare the marshmallow frosting.

For the frosting:

1 fresh coconut
3 egg whites, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Prepare the coconut: With an ice pick, poke a hole into the one of the dark, depressed rounds on the top of the nut, let's call them eyes. I used a hammer to pound the pick in. Poke one more hole in another eye and invert over a glass. It is slow-going unless you shake it. (Think hot sauce, shake shake shake.) You can use the coconut water in the cake, or you can just drink it. I did the latter. Once drained, crack the coconut shell by pounding all over with a hammer, like you mean it. I took the operation outside and pounded the thing on a towel.  You want it to not only crack in half, but in a few places. Any very large sections can be cracked and broken again. I like pieces about the size of my palm.

In a medium saucepan, stir together the sugar, cream of tartar, and water. Continue to stir and cook over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Stop stirring. Cover with a lid and crank up the head to medium to bring to boiling and boil for 2 minutes. Remove the lid. Do not stir. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and cook the syrup until it reaches 240 degrees Fahrenheit, about five minutes.

While you wait for your syrup, whip the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium-high until frothed. Add the salt and whip until medium peaks form.

When the syrup is ready, remove from the heat and pour into the egg whites in a steady, thin stream with the mixer on low. Measure in the vanilla and whip on medium-high until the icing is light, white, and fluffy, and the icing is of structured spreading consistency (3-4 minutes). The icing will set up relatively quickly, so frost the cake immediately.

Lay the first layer of cake bottom side down on a cake plate, spread a large dollop of frosting on top (about 1-1 1/2 cups) and sprinkle generously with the fresh coconut. Repeat for each layer. For the top layer, frost the sides of the cake as well, then coat it all with the fresh coconut. I had the perfect, albeit generous, amount of frosting and coconut. Serve soon, and enjoy.


  1. "scandalously boring." That is so well put, and so freeing. I love when cooks admit that home dinners are often just simple and nuthin much. My inner self is screaming to be more boring with dinner so that I can be more creative elsewhere (and also not feel so badly when things are inevitably burnt/undercooked at the same time b/c tiny people are screaming and my attentive capacities are mush). It feels unfair, but since we're in the picky stage of preschool-hood, others might be super appreciative. Lord help us, Amanda. I'm so glad to know what your projects are. I feel like every time I read your blog, it sounds more and more fantastic and beautiful.

  2. btw, I am putting that quote up pronto. And that cake looks amazing. You need to post healthy salad recipes again, because I am still planning on being elegantly slim when I'm older (haha. which probably won't work, because life needs cheese and marshmallows and bread and butter and pasta... and also I come from "farm stock" as my mother sensitively put it).

    1. My goodness, this made my night. I laughed out loud. Healthy salads. Check. So I guess more pastry is out of the question? Right. I'll get on that. And: farm stock! Ha! I'd call my stock "hulking Scandinavian," I've never had much hope in "elegantly slim," especially with these cakes. Thanks for the giggles.

    2. Even though I don't have any preschoolers and I don't make very elaborate cakes (or very healthy salads), I would like to remind both of you that you are two of my favorite writers and you inspire me. I can't wait for more Amanda poetry.

    3. This is dorky, but I just keep thinking the same thing: Forge on brave souls! Like, with my fist in the air (as if I knew how to hold a sward).

    4. Amanda, just that you called it a sward...that was a perfectly placed typo. And Beth, holy cow - thank you! That's quite a remark coming from someone whose writing (from class practice no less) I still refer to and think about. You two are some of my favorite writers, though at this point it might just sound like flattery. Late to the mutual admiration party (but pretty chuffed to be invited!)

    5. Emily, I do wish I did the sward intentionally! For those of us who missed it, sward is all about the land, which is um, precisely my subject matter. I did mean sword, though. The kind with a sharp point. Which would also work for me. And I should chime in, Beth, I still think about your poem about Vancouver. Beautiful. And the bird one, where you name the throat. So, mutual all around! Emily, your guest blog post that hasn't run yet...