I ended 2016 in a blizzard… of sugar, flour, coconut and pistachio dust. But it was not a harrowing experience. It was a labor of love. And at the end of the storm were, I think, my best cakes of the past year.

Baking a cake for someone you love is a lot like painting her portrait. When I started planning a birthday cake for my friend Deb in December, I wanted to celebrate what makes Deb such an amazing human being—her sweetness (Admittedly, that was kinda easy since it was a cake.), but also her magical view of the world, her love for all things summer, her beauty, her keen intellect, her fixation on order and rules, and her never-ending love of fun. It was going to be a complex confection, to say the least.

For guidance, especially with cakes, frostings and fillings, I turn to my trusted Joy of Cooking. I now have two copies of this famous culinary reference and cookbook: the one I purchased in 1997 is yellowed, dog-eared and covered in tiny notes; my most recent flea-market find of a pristine 75th anniversary edition is, as yet, unblemished (Give me time.). Both were open on the worktable as I began building my palette and sketching my plans.

Joy of Cooking even came up later at the party, with everyone—including a real chef—agreeing that the publication icon is indispensable for any serious cook and especially helpful to those fledglings in the kitchen. That’s because, beyond the scope of its amazing collection of recipes, is its equally amazing creator Irma Rombauer, a single mom with no professional culinary training who decided to turn her negative situation into a fulfilling life by sharing her favorite recipes and becoming “a friend” to “neophyte cooks everywhere.” She sold the first edition of her cookbook straight out of her apartment. Now in its 75th edition, Joy of Cooking is a testament to the magic of positive energy, the importance of passing down culinary knowledge (i.e. connecting) and the power of women to change the world, using whatever skills and tools are at hand.

I’ve plugged it before, but will do so, again, now: Buy Joy of Cooking. Sure, you can go online and check things out; they have a great website. But get your book, turn down those corners to mark your favorite recipes that you will make throughout the coming years, scribble your own notes and ideas in the margins and someday pass it down to your children—that’s what I’m planning to do. But… back to the cake…

To Deb’s ordered way of thinking, all birthday cakes contain a minimum of three layers—honoring that rule, I decided on two creamy white coconut layers on either side of a citrus-scented buttermilk layer. Of course, there was now an extra layer, but I ask: is this really a problem? The extra buttermilk layer is tightly sealed in the freezer—yes, that little freezer!!!!–awaiting a starring role in the next birthday cake or a bath of chocolate ganache, if I’m in a pinch to pull off dessert.

So I was on my way with some island flavors, a good deal of buttery richness and quite a bit of sugar. Moving my attention to the filling, I chose traditional lemon curd because it is more tangy than sweet, which helped balance the sugary quality of the cakes, and imparts explode-in-your-mouth lemon flavor—pucker up! And of course, it is the color of summer sunshine.

Now for the frosting, something glossy, creamy, light—Italian Coconut Meringue! Finish it off with decorations that bring springtime to the table: some leaves of ground pistachios and some thawed and dried giant blackberries from my (you guessed it) freezer. Finally, you can’t have too much coconut, in my mind, so I added a sprinkle of toasted coconut flakes to nestle between the blackberry blossoms.

Give it a try, following my step-by-step process below, or just use my idea as a guide to create your own masterpiece! Maybe your cake will have two buttermilk layers, a different filling or buttercream frosting. Deb’s only rule was at least three layers, remember.

Coconut and Citrus Layer Cake with Italian Coconut Meringue Frosting

Yield: 10-12 servings

Serving Size: one generous slice

Coconut and Citrus Layer Cake with Italian Coconut Meringue Frosting

Ingredients

    For the coconut cake layers
  • Two and a quarter cups sifted cake flour
  • Two and a fourth teaspoons baking powder
  • One-half teaspoon fine salt
  • One and two-thirds cups sugar (white evaporated cane juice, not raw sugar for this one)
  • One stick unsalted butter, softened
  • Two large eggs (I used extra-large eggs since I had them on hand for richer taste. You could also use three large eggs and be just fine.)
  • One 13.5 ounce can full-fat coconut milk, whisked lightly to incorporate the cream and milk, if it has separated (I like Native Forest brand—perhaps because it is highest in fat of all organic coconut milks. What can I say?)
  • One tablespoon vanilla extract
  • For the buttermilk citrus layers
  • Two and one-third cups sifted cake flour
  • One and one-half teaspoons baking powder
  • One-half teaspoon baking soda
  • One-fourth teaspoon fine salt
  • The zest from one large organic lemon and one large organic orange (Organic is very important here because you are consuming the peel.)
  • One-half teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • One and one-half sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • One and one-third cups sugar (I have used raw sugar here, but take it through a processor to make it finer, if you go raw.)
  • Three large eggs, whisked together with one teaspoon vanilla
  • One cup buttermilk (I strongly recommend Kalona, if it is available in your area.)
  • For the Lemon Curd Filling (from Joy of Cooking)
  • Three large eggs
  • One-third cup sugar (I suggest white evaporated cane juice, not raw sugar for both visual appeal and consistency.)
  • Lemon zest from one large organic lemon
  • One-half cup strained fresh lemon juice
  • Six tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • One-half teaspoon vanilla extract
  • For the Italian Coconut Meringue Frosting
  • Four large egg whites
  • One-half teaspoon cream of tartar
  • One-eighth teaspoon or a large pinch fine salt
  • One-quarter cup water
  • One-half teaspoon vanilla extract
  • One-quarter teaspoon coconut extract
  • For the decorations
  • One-half cup finely ground raw pistachios
  • 10 to 12 large blackberries, washed and dried
  • One-half cup large flake, unsweetened coconut, lightly toasted

Instructions

    To make the coconut cake layers
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Grease two nine-inch round cake pans with butter. Line the bottom of each pan with parchment paper cut to size and grease, as well. Dust lightly with about a tablespoon of additional flour.
  3. Combine the cake flour, baking powder and salt with a whisk. Set aside.
  4. Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Begin beating the butter until it is smooth and then gradually add the sugar, beating on medium, then high speed until well combined and light and fluffy, three to five minutes.
  5. Add the eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition.
  6. With your mixer on low, begin adding the flour mixture alternately with the coconut milk, beginning and ending with the flour. Stir in the vanilla.
  7. Divide the batter evenly into your two prepared pans, tapping the pan bottoms on your work surface to remove air bubbles.
  8. Bake for 30 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center of the layers comes out clean. Rotate the pans within the oven at the halfway mark.
  9. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes; then, turn out to cool completely on baking racks. Pull off the parchment paper.
  10. To make the buttermilk citrus layers
  11. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  12. Grease two nine-inch round cake pans with butter. Line the bottom of each pan with parchment paper cut to size and grease, as well. Dust lightly with about a tablespoon of additional flour.
  13. Sift together the pre-sifted cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, citrus zest, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.
  14. Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Begin beating the butter until it is smooth and then gradually add the sugar, beating on medium, then high speed until well combined and light and fluffy, three to five minutes.
  15. Whisk together the eggs and vanilla; then, gradually beat in the egg and vanilla mixture, taking a minute or so to complete this step.
  16. Now, with your mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk in two parts, so that you begin and end with the flour.
  17. Divide the batter evenly into your two prepared pans, tapping the pan bottoms on your work surface to remove air bubbles.
  18. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center of the layers comes out clean. Rotate the pans within the oven at the halfway mark.
  19. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes; then, turn out to cool completely on baking racks. Pull off the parchment paper.
  20. To prepare the filling
  21. In a medium stainless steel or enamel saucepan, whisk the eggs, sugar and lemon zest until the mixture is light in color. Add the fresh lemon juice and the butter.
  22. Cook, whisking constantly, over medium heat until the butter is melted. Continue cooking and whisking until the mixture thickens and begins to gently simmer. Continue a few seconds longer. Using a sturdy rubber spatula, scrape the filling into a fine mesh strainer that you have placed over a bowl, and, using the spatula, work the curd through the strainer. This process will eliminate any bits of egg white that started to solidify during the cooking process. Once strained, stir the vanilla into the curd.
  23. Let the lemon curd cool and then refrigerate until ready to use. Place plastic wrap on the surface of the curd to protect it. It will continue to thicken slightly and become wonderfully spreadable. Keeps in the frig one week.
  24. To make the frosting
  25. Begin with an impeccably clean mixing bowl, whisk beater attachment and spatula; any spec of oil, acid, etc. will defeat your egg whites. Have your sugar and water in your pan on the stove, ready to roll.
  26. Place the egg whites, cream of tartar and salt in your mixer bowl and whisk at high speed until stiff peaks form. Test by dipping your spatula into the foamy egg whites. If the tips stand up straight, you're done; if they curl over, keep going another minute or so. But do not over beat or the egg whites will be dry and the texture of the frosting less than silky.
  27. At the moment your egg whites are stiff, turn on the stove burner and bring your water and sugar to a boil. Cook without stirring until a candy thermometer registers 238 degrees. Temperature is critical because the hot sugar syrup will bring the raw egg whites to a safe temperature for consumption. I have a multipurpose, instant-read thermometer that works just fine.
  28. Begin again beating your egg whites on high speed as you pour in the hot sugar syrup in a thin, steady stream. Sounds crazy, I know, but trust me. The key is to have the mixer near the stove for flow and convenience and to have patience adding the hot liquid. What appears suddenly is a dense, glossy frosting, almost the appearance of new-fallen snow. Stir in the extracts with your rubber spatula.
  29. You must use Italian meringue immediately; it cannot be stored like a buttercream or quick icing. So have your cake layers and your filling ready.
  30. Assembling the cake
  31. Begin with whichever cake layer will be double—I put my first layer of white coconut cake on my cake plate, wedging some sheets of wax paper underneath it partway in order to catch dripping filling and frosting. Those were removed before the final presentation.
  32. Divide your lemon curd in half, spreading the first half on the bottom layer, then topping this with your center layer and repeating the process. It will help to keep the filling slightly back from the edges of the layers so that it does not run out into the frosting. Add the third cake layer and reach for the frosting.
  33. Begin with the sides and then finish the top. This meringue mounds nicely and will gain stability in the refrigerator as it waits for the big candle moment, so don’t shy from a thick layer all around.
  34. To decorate
  35. I made an individual leaf stencil with thin card stock and laid it carefully and lightly on the top of the cake: I positioned two per blossom. I sprinkled in the pistachio dust, pressing lightly into the frosting and doing my best to keep it from traveling outside the stencil. A little did, but it looked just fine. I then took my biggest and prettiest blackberries and placed them where the two pistachio leaves came together, two or three per blossom. Then, it was just a matter of sprinkling with toasted coconut.

Notes

Clearly this cake is complicated. It is divided by ingredients and directions so that you could pick and choose the parts you'd like to try. As stated in my post, I made this cake over several days as I prepared for my party. Works for me.

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There were actually two birthdays to celebrate in December at my house—my friend Deb’s and my friend Norm’s. Norm is an amazing musician and has played with the likes of Carlos Santana. He’s all cool and creamy jazz. Not surprisingly to me, he’s all about cheesecake, too. So for Norm’s cake I made my favorite go-to Cheesecake Cockaigne straight out of Jo y of Cooking. While I took quite a few liberties with the original recipes that inspired Deb’s cake, I played strictly by the “Joy of Cooking rules” with Norm’s. Never mess with perfection. As if you need another reason to get your own copy of the Joy of Cooking, this cheesecake should persuade you. It is perfection on a plate, everyone’s favorite, simple and classic, perfectly balanced.

Note that according to the authors, “Cockaigne” is the term used in the Joy of Cooking to denote a recipe that Marion Becker loved, Marion Becker being the daughter of Irma Rombauer and a major contributor to its many editions. In Joy of Cooking, the reference to Cockaigne also harkens to its definition as a mythical land of plenty. Buy the book; bake the cake; blush with modesty as the praise rolls in.

Recipe card for Cheesecake Cockaigne from Joy of Cooking

 

Helpful Hints When Baking Cakes

  • Unless specifically noted, all ingredients going into your cake layers should be at room temperature. This holds true for most baked goods, from cakes to quick breads to muffins. According to Joy of Cooking, room temperature is between 68 to 70 degrees. In my house, it takes about three hours to bring butter and other ingredients to the appropriate temp. For separating eggs, do the separating right out of the frig because it is easiest when the eggs are cold, but let the whites come to room temperature before making the frosting so their volume will explode in your mixer.
  • Pan Prep: While some think this extra step is unnecessary in the world of non-stick pans and cooking sprays, I always line the bottom of my greased and floured cake pans with parchment paper that I’ve cut to size. I then grease and flour the parchment paper once it is positioned in the pan.
  • If the recipe says “sifted cake flour” it means you should sift the cake flour before measuring it, since the volume will change. I know, it’s an extra step, but the cake will be worth it.
  • Prep the kitchen before you begin the recipe—make sure all ingredients are ready to go into the recipe without delay and organize things (especially in a small kitchen like mine) so that there are no (or few) disasters at critical moments. While this is especially important with cakes and frostings, it’s just a good rule of thumb no matter what you are preparing, I think.
  • Never—ever—underestimate the power of a good-quality, heat-proof rubber spatula. It is your magic cake wand, in my opinion. Use it to scrape down the sides of your mixer bowl as you add and combine ingredients. And don’t be afraid to turn your mixer off to do this—take your time within reason and create a stupendous batter. This rubber spatula will also help get every single drop of batter into your pans or dollop of frosting on your cake. Nothing, to the dismay of bowl-lickers, will be left behind.
  • If you are tackling a somewhat complicated cake such as the one I made Deb, it helps to space out your work. I actually made the cake layers on different days, wrapping the completely cooled layers in foil and then placing them in a freezer bag in the…FREEZER! The intense cold actually intensifies the buttery richness, in my opinion. I finished the filling two days before the party, keeping it covered with plastic wrap directly on its surface, and whipped up the frosting and assembled the cake the day of the party. This type of plan helps maintain your sanity and shouldn’t affect the flavors in your cake if you store carefully. Here, too, is another good reason to invest in the Joy of Cooking—it is FULL of helpful information at every turn of the page. I don’t know where I’d be without it.
Cheesecake Cockaigne with pistachio dust trim and pomegranate seed decoration.

Norm’s Cheesecake Cockaigne with pistachio dust trim and pomegranate seed decoration.

So, how did you end 2016? We all shared a Hard Cider Persimmon Sunrise. Yes, there were fireworks.

Two glasses of Hard Cider Sunrise

Happy New Year!

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