About a month ago, the hostess of the new year’s eve dinner party to which I had been invited (touted to be one of the most exclusive and sought-after invitations among some) dropped a subtle hint. Her husband was coconutty.
Much to the horror of some, I like a bit of a challenge when it comes to host gifts. Unless I’m terribly arrested, I prefer not to pluck my gifts, prepackaged, from the shelf.
No wine. No cheese. No tinned cans of nuts or baskets of fruit.
So, for this occasion, I canvassed my ever-expanding library of cookbooks for a coconut cake recipe.
I wanted something straightforward, something classic, and something impressive. Above all, I wanted something coconutty.
Though I found about a dozen coconut cake recipes, only one really fit the bill. In fact, it was perfect: Frank Stitts’s 7-Layer Coconut Cake from his cookbook, “Southern Table Traditions.”
This cake is a project. But it is worth every penny of your investment, every minute of your time.
It’s delicious. It’s moist. It’s coconutty. It’s a monster.
Whereas I find most coconut cakes too sweet, gritty with that hideous, sweetened, shredded coconut that might as well be flecks of wax coated in powdered sugar, this cake is more buttery than sweet. Calling for unsweetened, ground coconut, the flavor is more subtle – you smell and sense the coconut more than you taste it.
Making the cake in parts, successively, over three days, I produced a respectable version in time for the party.
The first night, I baked the cakes, wrapped them tightly in plastic wrap, and popped them into the freezer. The second night, I made the coconut pastry cream filling and chilled it. On the day of the party, I defrosted the cakes, sliced them, layered them with the pastry cream, and then made the frosting, a Swiss meringue that required immediate application else expiration.
I’ll admit, it wasn’t the prettiest cake, but it was decent enough to produce peels of laughter, squeals of joy. My hosts were too kind.
So taken with the cake was I (this challenge wasn’t over), I decided to produce another one for sport over the new year weekend.
Having learned from my trial run (which I should have done at least once before the party), this time, I trimmed the cake layers more carefully (I was being very lazy the first time), which gave me a more even and shorter stack of layers. It also gave the layers a tidier look on the inside: no strata of dark golden cake crust, just pure, buttery yellow crumb.
Not needing to transport the cake, this time I frosted it directly on the cake stand and piped a skirt around it. I also changed the piped design on the top (I’m always looking for a reason to practice my poor piping skills!).
For the outer crust of shaved coconut, I toasted the coconut a shade darker and piled it on generously. The first time, the coat was a bit patchy. This time, I made sure the cake was shaggy with coconut. I liked the look of this second version better (later, I realize that I had essentially made the version pictured in Stitts’s cookbook). Plus, it left me with two, crusty cake domes, some trimmings, and about two cups of the coconut pastry cream (filling), all of which made a few midnight snacks. Here’s the recipe, with Stitt’s original headnote, followed by some of my notes on the recipe.
Seven-Layer Coconut Cake
Serves 12 to 14
When you want something truly lavish-looking, this dessert is a sure bet-an awe-inspiring seven-layer tower of fluffy icing and toasted coconut. While there are several components to this recipe, it is quite simple to prepare and impressive to serve. We use unsweetened raw coconut and toast it to bring out its nutty, tropical flavor. Avoid the sweetened grated coconut in the baking aisle of your supermarket – it is much too sweet.
For the Pastry Cream (Makes about 5 cups)
4 cups half-and-half
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup cornstarch
7 large egg yolks
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, diced
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the Cake
4 cups sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
8 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 1/3 cups sour cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
For the Frosting
5 tablespoons cold water
3 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 vanilla bean, split, or 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 to 1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut, lightly toasted (see Note)
To make the pastry cream, combine the half-and-half and coconut in a large nonreactive saucepan and bring barely to a simmer over medium heat. Turn off the heat, cover, and let infuse for 30 minutes.
In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cornstarch, whisking until no lumps remain. Set aside.
Beat the egg yolks in a medium bowl. Bring the half-and-half back to a boil, then remove from the heat. Whisk the cornstarch-sugar mixture into the beaten yolks a little at a time until the mixture is smooth and thick. Gradually add about 1 1/2 cups of the hot half-and-half to the egg-cornstarch mixture, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs. Add the mixture to the remaining half-and-half and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until thick, about 10 minutes; it should register 175 F on an instant-read thermometer. After one or two big bubbles appear at the sides of the pan, remove the pan from the heat before the pastry cream comes to a boil; you don’t want it to boil or the cornstarch will break down and liquefy, ruining the pastry cream.
Whisk in the butter and vanilla and transfer the pastry cream to a bowl or other container. Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the pastry cream to keep a skin from forming. Chill for at least 4 hours, or overnight, before serving. (The pastry cream can be refrigerated for up to 3 days).
To prepare the cake, preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy. Reduce the speed to medium and add the egg yolks in a steady stream, stopping to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as necessary. Add the sour cream and vanilla and scrape down the bowl again. Reduce the speed to low and add the dry ingredients a little at a time, beating until incorporated after each addition. Scrape down the bowl a final time, making sure no lumps remain and all the flour is incorporated.
Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans. Bake for 35 to 40 minute, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the middle. Let the cake cool completely in the pans on a cooling rack.
Invert the cakes onto a rack. With a long serrated knife, slice each cake horizontally into 4 layers about 1/2-inch thick. (For easier slicing, chill the cakes in the freezer for a few minutes. Place one cake layer on a cake stand or plate and spread a 1/2-inch thick layer of pastry cream over it. Add another layer and cover with pastry cream. Continue with 5 more layers (you’ll have an extra layer, in case of breakage) and the remaining cream. Leave the top layer plain. Chill the cake in a freezer for a few minutes to firm it up while you prepare the frosting.
Combine the water, egg whites, sugar, corn syrup, and salt in a large heatproof bowl. Set it over a saucepan of rapidly boiling water and, with a handheld electric mixer, beat on medium speed for 4 minutes. Turn the mixer up to high and beat for 3 minutes more until the whites have doubled in volume. Transfer the frosting to another bowl (to expedite cooling). Add the vanilla seeds or extract and beat for 3 minutes more to cool the frosting. The frosting must be used immediately.
Frost the top and sides of the cake, working quickly – once the icing is on the cake, it tends to come off the more it is worked (if desired, reserve a little frosting for garnish). Cover the sides of the cake with toasted coconut and sprinkle the top with more toasted coconut or lave the top white and pipe the reserved frosting into rosettes all around the edge.
Note: To toast the coconut, preheat the oven to 300 F. Spread out the coconut on a shallow stainless steel baking sheet. Toast in the oven until the coconut turns golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes ore so, being careful to not let it burn. Let cool completely.
1. I found that I didn’t need to cook and whip the frosting nearly as long as the recipe calls for (Stitts calls for 7 minutes total, I found that it was ready after 5 minutes). After the frosting has doubled in volume over the double boiler, remove the frosting from the heat and continue whipping until the frosting turns glossy white. It will start to deflate again as it cools. If you let the frosting cool too much, it will start to turn stringy and sticky. As Stitts warns, use it immediately after you’re done whipping it.
2. Use cake pans with high sides. These cakes will dome slightly. Although Stitts tells you to cut the cakes into 4 layers, I would suggest that you trim the cake domes off before portioning the remaining cake into four slices each. You will have to work carefully – without the domes, my cakes yielded layers just shy of 1/2-inch thick each.
3. I haven’t had to toast the coconut for nearly as long as Stitts calls for. In my two experiences, about 7 minutes was sufficient to give the coconut a nice, rich golden brown color.
4. Depending on how you store the cake, the frosting – essentially a Swiss meringue stabilized with a bit of invert sugar (the corn syrup) – will harden after a day. This cake is best eaten the day it is assembled.