This cake is a sinful beauty. A buttery yellow batter born and bred in the Deep South, baked to a golden hue, then layered with magnificent meringue frosting and covered in coconut flakes. Undoubtedly, the belle of the ball.
I found the recipe in the latest issue of Saveur. I bought it in the airport on the way to Bozeman, plotting to bake something special for Pom’s birthday. The entire Happel family, along with 3 of Sister Hazel’s friends, were gathering there for what turned out to be an unexpectedly brief reunion. Due to a missed plane connections, our family had less than 24 hours together. Within that narrow window of time we managed to go cross-country skiing, tour the new house with a magnum of bubbly and a giant bowl of popcorn in tow, pop over to see Dennis the contractor and his family, grill bison burgers, roast vegetables, and devour this cake. Not too shabby.
It is true that the belle of the ball can sometimes be considered a bit high maintenance to those who know her. Admittedly this cake, and more specifically this cake’s frosting, is no exception. It is absolutely worth the effort and you will fall in love, despite it all. I want to try making just the frosting again and layering it onto a chocolate cake. Dulce de leche cake would be incredible too.
For now let’s stick with the original recipe. Coconut Cake. I confess, I made a few mistakes and substitutions along the way and it still turned out better than fine. Lessons learned, in chronological order:
Do not leave cakes to cool in the pan. Ever. I baked the cakes the day before and left them to cool because I was in a rush to get out the door. I do not recommend this method. Ever. Elle, my sister’s good friend, cake photographer extraordinaire and my right hand helper, helped to coax the cakes out but it wasn’t pretty. They wanted to stay in the pans forever.
Sugar is sweet and forgiving. The recipe calls for a candy thermometer but I didn’t have one. I decided simply to watch the boiling sugar and asked Hazel to tell me when 4 to 5 minutes was up. The sugar must have been boiling for at least 7 minutes before I realized that either time was moving like molasses or the timer wasn’t working. Hazel had thought I said “45 minutes” and set the alarm on her phone accordingly. Fortunately, the sugar was miraculously forgiving and the frosting still managed to dazzle.
Fancy frosting is like sunny day or a nice tan or a great pair of shoes – it makes everything look better. Honestly, I would be slightly terrified of this cake had it been executed flawlessly. I took comfort in knowing that it was a bit lopsided and crumby underneath. After all, a few imperfections here and there can make things deliciously desirable.
Ms. Divine Coconut Cake
Adapted from Saveur
FOR THE CAKE:
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for pans
2 1/2 cups cake flour, plus more for pans, sifted
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups sugar
FOR THE FROSTING:
4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 t teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup fresh coconut water
3 cups grated coconut
For the cake:
Heat oven to 350°. Butter and flour two 9″ cake pans, and set aside.
Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl; set aside.
Whisk together buttermilk and vanilla in a bowl; set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, cream butter and sugar on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. On low speed, alternately add dry ingredients in 3 batches and wet ingredients in 2 batches. Increase speed to high, and beat until batter is smooth, about 5 seconds.
Divide batter between prepared pans, and smooth top with a rubber spatula; drop pans lightly on a counter to expel large air bubbles. Bake cakes until a toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Let cakes cool for 20 minutes in pans; invert onto wire racks, and let cool.
Optional: Using a serrated knife, halve each cake horizontally, producing four layers; set aside. (I opted not to do this and found the cake to frosting ratio with 2 layers to be quite lovely.)
For the frosting:
Place egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form; turn mixer off.
Bring sugar, syrup, salt, and 1/2 cup tap water to a boil in a 2-qt. saucepan over high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar; attach a candy thermometer to side of pan, and cook, without stirring, until thermometer reads 250°, 4–5 minutes. (If you don’t have a candy thermometer, don’t worry! It will still work. Just cook without stirring for about 5 minutes.)
Turn mixer to medium speed, and very slowly drizzle hot syrup into beating egg whites. Add vanilla, and increase speed to high; beat until meringue forms stiff peaks and is slightly warm to the touch, about 3 minutes.
Be sure you will have enough frosting to layer between and cover the entire cake. You will have much more frosting to work with if you make a 2 layer version of this cake. If you’re making the 4 layer version just be sure not to use more than 1 ½ cups of frosting for each layer.
Place one layer on a cake stand, drizzle with 3 tbsp. coconut water, spread with frosting and sprinkle with grated coconut; top with another cake, drizzle with 3 tbsp. coconut water, spread with frosting, and sprinkle with coconut. Repeat for all layers. Cover top and sides with remaining frosting, and cover outside of cake with remaining coconut, pressing it lightly to adhere; chill cake to firm frosting. Serve chilled or at room temperature.