As every Southern belle knows, one way to impress your friends and family is to bake something for them for their birthday or drop off some cookies ‘just because’ or happen to have a beautiful three-layered cake at the center of one’s table when a visitor drops by that you ‘had just felt like whipping up.’ I come from a long line of strong, Southern women and my paternal grandmother was quite the chef. I can honestly say that up until a few months before she died, I would walk into her house and smell something baking or cooking. I guess I get the kitchen bug from her.
I’m not sure Mimi ever made a coconut cake, as my father (her son) is quite adamant about his dislike for the fruit (Or nut? We had this debate as we ate it.) but had she chosen to make one despite her family’s distaste, I would like to think she would have used this recipe. Granted the cookbook from which this recipe originates is rather new, I am sure she would have appreciated the beauty and gracefulness of the cake and the instant fancy-factor it adds to any place it sits – even on my ottoman in a drab apartment. I at least gussied it up with a broach of my grandmother’s that I wear.
I think Mimi would be proud.
Southern Coconut Cake
Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes
Equipment – Three 8 or 9 inch cake pans, a couple mixers (or a lot of clean bowls and mixer attachments), a candy thermometer, a bag of sweetened coconut.
5 egg whites
½ cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups cake flour
2 1/3 cups sugar
4 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter at warm temperature
1 cup unsweetened coconut cake (I went back and forth on whether this meant the kind in the can in the baking aisle or the kind in the milk section. I went with the former.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray the bottoms of three 8-inch round cake pans with vegetable cooking spray and line the bottom of each pan with a round of waxed paper and spray that with vegetable cooking spray. It is helpful if each pan is the same brand and type of pan – I had to borrow a pan from my mom and the third layer came out a little different as far as rise and cooking time. Not too much that it was a disaster, but enough that it was a nuisance.
Put the egg whites in a mixing bowl and whisk slightly. Add the ½ cup milk and the vanilla and mix thoroughly and set aside. In a separate mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. With the mixer on low, beat to mix well and break up any lumps. Add the butter and coconut milk and, with the mixer still on low, beat to combine. Raise the speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
Add the egg white mixture in 2 or 3 additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl and mixing just long enough to incorporate between additions. Divide the batter evenly among the three pans. Bake for 30 minutes or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool in their pans for 10 minutes then turn them out onto cooling racks to cool completely.
For the Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting
12 ounces cream cheese, slightly chilled
1 stick plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
3 egg whites
Place the cream cheese in a mixer bowl and beat on medium speed until slightly fluffy and smooth. Add the butter 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, mixing until smooth. Set this aside at room temperature while the buttercream is prepared. To prepare the buttercream, combine the granulated sugar and water in a small, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Continue to cook, without stirring, until the syrup reaches the soft-ball stage (about 238 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer.
Meanwhile put the egg whites in a mixer bowl and have the mixer set up and ready to go. When the syrup is ready, turn the mixer to medium-low and begin mixing the egg whites. Slowly add the hot syrup to the whites, taking care not to pour it directly onto the beaters or it may splash. When all of the syrup is incorporated, raise the speed to medium-high and beat until the egg white mixture has cooled to body temperature and a stiff meringue forms (this will take awhile – I didn’t do it long enough).
With the mixer on low speed, begin adding the cream cheese mixture by the spoonful. When all is incorporated, raise the speed to medium and whip until the frosting is smooth and fluffy.
To Assemble the Cake
Lay the first layer, flat side up, on a plate. Put about a cup of the icing onto the top of the cake and spread to the edges. Sprinkle about ½ a cup of coconut on top of the icing. Place the second layer, flat side up, on top of the first. Repeat the icing and coconuting on this layer. Finish with the third layer then ice the sides of the cake. Supposedly you can press coconut onto the sides without too much difficulty but since I didn’t whip my icing enough, I needed to pretty quickly put my cake in the refrigerator once I had frosted the sides. If I had tried to coconut the sides, I would have ended up with a lot of coconut-mixed-with-frosting around the rim of my cake and fairly lightly frosted sides of the cake.