It took some work to re-create the dessert he remembered from his childhood, but the result does both his mothers proud. Get the recipe for this homemade dessert, and let us know what you think in the comments!
I had two mothers: Caroline and Dorothy. Caroline gave birth to me, and Dorothy helped her raise me. Caroline was an incredible foodie — she didn't cook everything we ate, but her fine hand was evident in every bite. Dorothy was a superb natural cook, and had what I call "the touch." They were an extraordinary team, and it's fun to write about them when Mother's Day is here because the original coconut cake recipe that I used as a springboard for this one was truly a joint effort. Sometime around 1981, Caroline watched Dorothy make this beloved dessert and wrote down everything she did. Dorothy intuitively cooked by feel, and although she had made the cake hundreds of times, this was the first time the recipe had ever been put on paper.
When I was doing research for my book, I found the card in Caroline's recipe box, in her expressive, blue-Penteled hand, and decided to try it. Despair. Surely I'd done something wrong. I made it again, and again it didn't work. Dorothy and Caroline were both gone by this point, so I couldn't exactly call them with questions. The only thing to do? Start over.
I developed what I will forever call "Dorothy's Coconut Cake," although it's actually not. This cake has every bit as fine a crumb as the one I remember, and is as light as a cloud, but I've made a few changes that really enhance it — ones I'm sure C. and D. would have made if only they'd thought of them.
To get the maximum coconut flavor into these layers, I prick them with a fork and brush them with a glaze before icing. Six layers may look complicated, but they aren't — it's just the cakes from three regular pans, sliced in two horizontally. (A tip: It's so much easier to slice these cakes when they are really cold. You can do this for all your cakes — it's a super-impressive trick.) The original icing wasn't cream cheese–based, but when you taste this one, you'll understand exactly why I changed.
So, here's to my two mothers! I hope you'll find this scrumptious beauty every bit the showstopper I loved so much when I was growing up. Trust me, they'd both be really pleased if you like it one-half as much as I did.
Happy cooking! Love, Alex.
Yield: One 9-inch round cake, approximately 16 servings
For the Cake
6 tablespoons cold salted butter, plus more for pans
2¼ cups sugar
1½ tablespoons vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter, melted
5 egg yolks
3 whole eggs
2½ cups cake flour, plus more for pans
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ cup buttermilk
¾ cup heavy cream
For the Glaze
½ cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter and flour three 9-inch round cake pans, put a parchment round in the bottom of each pan, and butter and flour the rounds.
2. On medium speed, beat the cold butter in the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until it is very light, about 5 minutes. Continue beating while gradually adding the sugar, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
3. Add the vanilla and beat for 5 more minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl again. The mixture will be very coarse and grainy. Turn the mixer to the lowest speed, add the melted butter, egg yolks, and whole eggs, and then turn off the mixer.
4. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.
5. In another bowl, mix together the buttermilk and cream.
6. With the mixer on the lowest speed, add half the flour mixture, and then half the buttermilk mixture. Add the remainder of the flour and buttermilk mixtures, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Do not overmix or the cake will be tough.
7. Pour the batter evenly into the prepared pans, tapping each pan on a sturdy surface to release air bubbles if there are any, and bake for 25 to 30 minutes until a toothpick or knife comes out clean.
8. Cool the cakes for 10 minutes, then run the dull edge of a knife around their perimeters and invert them onto a cold baking sheet or rack. (Note: These cakes may be frozen for up to 3 months.)
9. When you are ready to ice the cake, slice each layer in half horizontally so that you have 6 layers.
10. To make the glaze, whisk together the powdered sugar and coconut milk in a small bowl. Pierce each cake layer with a fork in several places and then spoon or brush the glaze over them before icing.
11. Make sure all the layers are completely cool before icing.
For the Coconut Icing
Yield: Enough for one six-layer 9-inch cake
1½ cups fresh or dried coconut, shredded and toasted
18 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
18 tablespoons salted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
7½ cups powdered sugar
2¼ teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons coconut milk
5⅓ cups sweetened flaked coconut
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Spread the fresh or dried coconut on a metal baking sheet and toast for about 5 to 7 minutes, until it is brown. Remove from the oven and reserve.
3. In the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla extract, and beat the mixture on medium speed for about 5 minutes, until it is light and fluffy.
4. In a large mixing bowl, combine the powdered sugar and salt, and add it to the cream cheese mixture, 1 cup at a time, beating it until it is smooth after each addition. Turn the mixer to the lowest speed, add the coconut milk, and stir in the sweetened flaked coconut.
5. Arrange the cooled layers, one by one, on a cake stand, icing each layer as you assemble, using approximately 1 cup of icing per layer, and then top with the toasted coconut.