Looks ain't everything. Initially inspired by a coconut cake in Nika Hazelton's American Home Cooking, my version has gone through many changes over the years. It is extra good with freshly grated coconut. However, made with a bag of sweetened coconut, or the nice new unsweetened frozen stuff, it is quite a production, (and very good). So if you are not up for attacking a big hairy rock, and peeling and grating your fingers off, then don't do it that way. This will be more than enough fuss without that- and I have set the whole long business out, so don't be holding your breath. The custard filling was, by the way, a later addition. The idea of using the custard to flavor the buttercream came from The Cake Book by Tish Boyle. In its current state, this recipe is a pretty close adaptation of hers.
I have never before made this cake in cold weather-I think of it as a Fourth of July or Labor Day picnic sort of thing. Simultaneously luxurious and plain, it looks the hokey part on a picnic table covered with a checked cloth, surrounded by platters of fried chicken or barbeque, pickles, coleslaw and baked beans, and the like. And I was going to make it this summer, and post a picture, because it is a classic bit of americana. I just didn't get to it. But then, I volunteered to do a birthday cake this Friday night, so here it is. Out of season, in all its trashy yet subtle splendor.
Nothing snooty about this cake. But how can it be tacky, when it is all shades of white? Like the garden of some insanely refined aesthete, it glows quietly in the moonlight. Nonetheless, it has a deceptive look of cake mix and Cool Whip. Its trailer park aura cannot be denied. Serve it with ice cream (dark chocolate is wildly good with it) or with berries, or plain. It will surprise people when they taste it, which is fun. And if you like coconut, you are sure to like it.
Once, I filled the cake and frosted it thinly with a dark chocolate ganache before covering it with the buttercream and coconut. This was good, but gilding the lily really. I love chocolate and coconut together, but this oversized reversed Mounds bar was not my favorite. Better to let the coconut cake speak for itself, and add the chocolate with some ice cream, if you're longing for it. Up to you.
It is made with quite a bit of butter, 6 egg whites, cake flour, vanilla, and a mixture of canned coconut milk and whole milk. The custardy filling has a base of coconut infused milk. It uses up 4 of the remaining egg yolks, and has , like the flavoring syrup, a bit of rum. The icing is a very simple butter cream, with about half a cup of the custard mixed in, and there's plenty of coconut pressed all around. Some might find this a lot of bother for a cake that looks like a 12 year old's first shot at a box of Duncan Hines, but , to repeat myself, looks ain't everything.
I forgot to take a picture of the whole cake, but you can probably tell from the leftover slice, complete with hole from a birthday candle, that it is not especially elegant looking. Made with the two 9" layers divided into 4 thin ones, it would be eligible for display under a glass dome atop the counter of a classic diner. But if you go that route, make half again the recipe for the filling and for the buttercream. I think my two layer one is more the family reunion model. This is what you need for the 2 layer version:
Ingredients for Cake, Filling, and Frosting
Cake flour 3 1/2 cups
baking powder 1 tbsp
salt 1 tsp
Whole milk 2 1/3 cups
canned coconut milk 2/3 cup
Coconut, peeled and grated 2-3 cups
egg yolks 4
egg whites 6
sugar 2 1/2 cups
cornstarch 2 tbsps
rum 3 tbsp
butter 5 sticks (20 oz), softened
powdered sugar 1/2 cup
vanilla 3 tsps
Make the cake
Preheat oven to 350F, and grease and flour two 9" cake pans. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. Mix 2/3 cup whole milk and the canned coconut milk together well, and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat 1 1/2 cups of sugar and two sticks of butter until light colored and smooth. Add the egg whites, one at a time, beating until well combined. Scrape down sides from time to time, with a rubber spatula. Add 2 tsps vanilla. Alternately add the milk and flour mixes, about 1/3 of each at a time, mixing and scraping down until well blended. Divide batter between the 2 pans, and bake on a centre rack until the cake bounces a bit in the middle- about 25 minutes. Cool on rack for 10 minutes, remove from pans, and continue to cool on rack.
While the cake bakes, make a bit of rum syrup and soak some coconut
For the syrup, mix 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar with 2 tbsps rum. Bring to a bowl, mixing sugar til dissolved. Cool.
In a little pan, mix 1 1/2 cups milk and a cup of coconut. Heat until milk is warm, and turn off heat. Let it all sit for an hour. Now your cake should be cooled. Brush the bottom part of each cake layer with plenty of rum syrup.
Strain the coconut milk, retaining the milk, and discarding the coconut. (Press hard on the coconut, to get as much milk out as possible.) In a 4 cup pyrex cup, mix the egg yolks and 1/4 cup sugar and the cornstarch until sooth. Keep by the stove. Heat the strained milk until simmering. Quickly mix a little of the hot milk into the egg yolks in the cup, and then pour the yolk/milk mix back into the hot milk. Heat until it begins to thicken up, whisking vigorously. Turn off the heat and continue whisking. Scrape it into the pyrex cup, and whisk some more, until it is cooled to lukewarm, and thick and smooth. Spread half of the cooled custard on one layer of your cake, which you have set on the serving plate. Put narrow strips of parchment all around the bottom of the cake, just tucked under the edge of the cake, to protect the plate from the mess to come. Set second layer on top of first.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat 3 sticks of butter, the powdered sugar, the last tbsp of rum, remaining custard, a tsp of vanilla and a pinch of salt, until smooth.
Frost the cake
Once the cake is frosted, press generous handsful of coconut into sides of cake, and sprinkle over top. Go crazy, skimpiness will not be rewarded. Clean up the platter, and refrigerate for a couple of hours to set up nicely.
And that's the whole deal. Pretty is as pretty does, or something like that. Please let me know if I have made proof-reading mistakes-I feel I must have, this is so long, and typing it up has made me woozy eyed.