With spring in the air, coconut cake seemed like the perfect recipe to offer readers. But which cake?
There’s no generic formula. Oh my, no. Cakes can be white or yellow, filled with custard or lemon curd or frosting, be coconut-y through and through, or simply sport a drift of flakes.
Various recipes looked promising and, when auditioned, got their share of compliments. Still, one cake could have been more tender. A lemon filling was refreshing, but did it complement or undercut the coconut?
During a recent visit to my folks in South Dakota, I’d baked another version that was perfectly good, yet still not what I was seeking. Then my sister mentioned a scrumptious cake that we’d loved as kids, a feather-light sponge cake layered with custard that our Aunt Faye made from a recipe she’d gotten from her sister-in-law, Helen.
We’d all once had the recipe, and all had mislaid it. So when my sister said that she’d found it, the rejoicing commenced.
Yet as with most nostalgia, the recipe didn’t match the memory – nor the times. It called for gelatin, no longer a kitchen staple. We could do better, and still honor its roots.
For starters, we boosted the batter’s flavor with coconut extract. Coconut milk was an easy swap for the custard’s plain milk and also made it unnecessary to fold in coconut flakes, which improved the texture. Scalding milk no longer is necessary for health concerns, and cornstarch provided the body that gelatin once did.
Instead of folding the custard into whipped cream, we used the custard as filling and the whipped cream as frosting for a more attractive cake.
Finally, we shifted from that church basement standard, the 9-by-13-inch pan. Turns out the batter makes two lovely 8- or 9-inch rounds, which result in a showier, multilayered cake.
A final plus: This dessert should be made the day before – even two days! – so it can thoroughly set and chill, making it a perfect do-ahead. Swoosh on the whipping cream anytime within 24 hours of serving and toss on a generous blanket of toasted coconut.
The result is even better than a childhood memory.