Coconut Cake Revival Transcript

The Diner

GUEST: Waitress
                Old Lady

WAITRESS: [cuts AB a wedge of coconut cake]

    Ahh, coconut cake. A perfect gestalt of Southern sensibility and South Sea sensation. Moist, fragrant, an infused foundation to frosting, with tropical goodness. This is my desert island dessert. Now as everyone knows, the best place to find top-quality cakes is small, Southern diners supplied by a local cake lady. Now, seen by few, photographed by none, this townís cake lady is a high priestess of the craft. [takes a bite and is not pleased]

AB: [with his mouth full of cake, calling over the waitress] Excuse me, maíam. Maíam. Um, this is not, um, Her, cake.
WAITRESS: Oh, we get all our cakes from ďCakes MartĒ now. Folks like a value, you know. [walks off]

    Yeah. I donít know. This is ... this is just white boxed cake with whipped shortening frosting with some old coconut flakes slapped on the side.

OLD LADY: [camera pans to reveal Old Lady sitting at the table behind AB] Donít seem right, does it?
AB: No. What happened? Did the cake lady retire?
OL: Well, rumor has it she got squeezed out of the market. Couldnít keep competiní with the Cakes Martís priciní.
AB: Well, didnít somebody complain?
OL: Ah, at first, a few people, old timers like me. But you know how folks are. Give Ďem a big enough piece, they can get used to anything.
AB: Well, I donít know if I can. I certainly canít get used to this. Yecch.
OL: Sonny, you know what I always say? The past tasted better than the future. [exits]

    Another Standard Bearer falls in the war against culinary mediocrity. Well, Iíve taken all I can take and I caníst take no more. It may take some research, a little experimentation, and a lot of coconut, but I will find a way to revive the legend of the Cake Ladyís work, and produce a coconut cake thatís honest-to-goodness ...

["Good Eats" theme plays]

The Diner

GUEST: Nancie McDermott, Cake Historian

     [examining the diner's coconut cake] First thing wrong with this cake is the processed coconut flakes. An authentic southern coconut cake cannot exist without fresh coconut. Of course, coconuts werenít readily available until the 20th century in this country. And yet, coconut cake, I thought, was a long-established southern tradition. So, whereíd they get the coconut?

NANCIE MCDERMOTT: Well, the Caribbean, of course. Fresh coconuts came in through the southern port cities of Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans long before it was widely available in other places.
AB: [bewildered] And you are ... ?
NM: Oh, sorry. Nancie McDermott, cake historian.
AB: Oh, hi.
NM: [whispering] Iím on the trail of the Cake Lady.
AB: Oh, well, Iím afraid youíre not going to find one here; not any more. Indeed, Iím afraid that our fine ancient friend [the coconut cake] here may be done for.
NM: Well to tell you the truth, layer cakes like this donít go back all that far in American history. They werenít possible until the advent of the cast iron stove and baking powder. That made it possible for a home cook to make something as delicate as a layer cake.
AB: So weíre talking, 1850ís?
NM: Exactly. And the first layer cakes were thin layers sandwiched together with jelly or jam, homemade jelly or jam. They're called jelly cakes. The coconut cake, as we know it, only dates back to about the late 19th century. But itís been wildly popular ever since.
AB: And I assume that all authentic recipes called for freshly grated coconut?
NM: Absolutely. Although the challenges of getting and grating a fresh coconut have always made it more of a special occasion. It would be something that youíd make for the family reunion or Christmas. [her cell phone rings with a GE ringtone, she looks at the phone and gasps] Oh, got a lead! I got to go!
AB: Oh, good luck. And listen, if you find the Cake Lady, tell her that Iím not going to give up the fight. And Iíll never forget the flavor.
NM: If I see her, Iíll tell her.
AB: Okay, thanks.

    Well, it looks like Iíve got some shopping to do.

Whole Foods Market
Atlanta, GA Ė 2:15 pm

    Coconuts generally come in three market forms. Here we have coconuts in the husk. Theyíre a lot of work to harvest. Then we have cut or immature coconuts, known for their jelly-like interiors. And of course, mature coconuts which have been freed of their outer husks.
    Now the meat of the mature nut is firm and full-flavored; perfect for the task at hand. Now when buying, pick nuts that seem a little heavy for their size. And check for cracks and moldyóor ďcryingĒóeyes, both of which are signs of trouble. And give it a shake. You should hear a good bit of liquid sloshing around in there. If you donít, it means that the nut is old and probably on the back side of its useful life curve, so to speak.
    Now kept in this wrapper, a nut should last anywhere from, eh, two to four months. And for this recipe, eh, weíre going to need, probably one, two, three. Good nuts, all. That should do it.

The Kitchen

    When Portuguese adventurers crashed the South Seas during the 15th century, they came across coconuts. And they took a look at the indentations on the end, and it reminded them of a ďcocoĒ, or a goblin face. And so they named them, appropriately, ďcoconutsĒ, even though they are not, technically, nuts. Theyíre drupes. But I guess ďcocodrupeĒ sounds kind of like a silly name.
    Anyway, the eyes are important to us because they are the gateways by which we enter into the goodness of the coconut. We need to tap through two of them in order to drain the water inside. And traditionally, weíd use, you know, a mallet, an awl or a nail or an ice pick what have you. But that all seems a little medieval when you consider the fact that we have one of these. [pulls out a drill] Hah hah hah hah. That should do the trick. Something in the quarter-inch or three-sixteenths range. Watch your eye, big guy! Hah hah hah [drills] Thatís a little better. Now, all we have to do is drain out the water, which we want to reserve for later use. Lidded up and locked in your chill chest, your coconut water should remain viable for at least a week.

    The more that I think about it, I suspect that two drilled and drained coconuts, which will yield about 10 ounces of meat apiece, will be enough for this recipe. Now, to crack them open, bake at 375 for 15 minutes. And always remember, drill them out first.

375 Degrees

    As you can see, the hard shell is now cracked. You can remove it with either a screwdriver or an oyster knife. Now once thatís off, you still have to remove the brown husk which clings tightly to the meat. And for that, there is nothing better than a vegetable peeler.
    Once youíve got all the peeling done, give the meat a little bit of a bath just to remove any bits of the husk that may remain. And then consider grating. A box grater is certainly the traditional way to go, but man, does that take a long time. Small, rasp-style graters are certainly no better. They take even longer. Then, thereís the food processor, my particular choice for this. Just use your grating disk and whale away on it.

Some of the earliest coconut cakes were called ďwhite mountainĒ cakes.

The Kitchen

    As you can see, in the end we got a nice tidy yield out of two coconuts. Now, tightly seal, meaning air-tight, you can store this in your refrigerator for up to a week. Or you could freeze it down ...  [AB hears knocking at his door] Egads! Who could that be? [answers the door only to find a coconut with a note attached] Whatís this? A note from the Cake Lady! She wants a meeting!

A Dark Alley

[graffiti says, "Cake Lady Rules"]

CAKE LADY: You got my message, I see.
AB: You know, a lot of people say that you died or went into retirement.
CL: Retirement? Hah, Mr. Brown! I got pushed out of the market by Cakes Mart. So you and the other Cake Ladies and I went underground. When society finally crumbles, weíll be ready to step in and begin a new age where labor and texture are king!
AB: Well, that, that, that sounds swell. But you know, if we bring coconut cake back now, maybe we could save THIS civilization.
CL: Impossible. Besides even if I believed that, why would I trust you with my secret?
AB: Look, Iím not trying to steal your recipes, okay? I just ... I need a little guidance.
CL: Then look to the coconut.
AB: Look to the coconut? Look, Iíve already shredded about a thousand pounds of coconut.
CL: Silly little man! You think thatís all there is to it? To make a true coconut cake, you must extract the essence of the pod. Infuse it life into the cake. You milk it for all itís worth!
AB: [to himself] Heh! Milk it? Like youíre milking this dialog? Heh heh. [to CL] Cake Lady, tell me something.
CL: [she's vanished]
AB: Cake Lady?

    How do you like that? Milk it. Whatís milking? Wait a minute.

Whole Foods Market, Atlanta, GA

    Coconut milk is simply shredded coconut thatís been steeped with an equal amount of liquid, usually water, and then strained to remove the solids. Looks a lot like milk, hence the name. Now, coconut cream, which is a whole lot harder to find, is made the same way, but with two to four times as much coconut. Now hereís the dangerous thing. Donít confuse ďcoconut creamĒ with ďcream of coconutĒ, which is a much much thicker, sweetened syrup commonly used in making piŮa coladas and the like. Not the same thing.
    Now, our recipe calls for the milk and the cream. And even if I could get it all in a can, I donít know if thatís the way the Cake Lady would want it. Nope, I think sheíd have wanted us to do it the hard way.

The Kitchen

    Not that the hard way is that hard. For either coconut milk or coconut cream, just add one-half of a cup of boiling milk to a vessel like a jar or a mixing bowl. Ĺ Cup Boiling 2% Milk
    Now, to the milk, we would add two ounces by weight of our shredded coconut. 2 Ounces Freshly Grated
    To the coconut cream, it would be four ounces, by weight. 4 Ounces Freshly Grated
    But wait, thatís not all. We can also make a nice coconut extractóthere are alcohol-soluble flavors in there. So, one-half cup of vodka will go in our third container along with an ounce and a half of the shredded coconut. Ĺ Cup Vodka
1Ĺ Ounces Freshly Grated

    Seal each of the containers tightly and allow the milk and cream to sit for one hour. As for the extract, stash that in your pantry for five to seven days, giving it a shake every couple of days. Then, all you have to do is strain out the solids, label, and store for later use.

    When an hour is up, take both the milk mixture and the cream mixture for a spin in your friendly neighborhood blender. You really want that good and purťed, so let it run for about one minute on high. Then, time to strain. I just have a couple of beakers here, and Iím going to line them with small cotton bags. If you donít have these, you could use clean tea towels or even cheesecloth. Just pour in all the goopówhich is a little sticky, but not too unmanageableóand then squeeze out the milky goodness.
    Let both of these chill down before using. And just like all your other coconut products, youíve got about a week in the refrigerator, more like a month in the freezer.
    By the way, yes, you could just use store-bought coconut cream, and coconut milk, and coconut extract, if thatís the way you want to play it.
    Nothingís worse than dedicating two hours of your life to a layer cake, only to find you canít get the cakes out of the pan. This could be prevented if your practice proper pan prep. My secret: parchment paper, two sheets of it. And this is all you have to do. Fold in half, thusly [width-wise fold] and crease. Fold [down] again, and crease. Fold yet again [down at an angle], and crease. Fold again [down at an angle the same way to make a pointy triangle], and crease. Now grab your favorite pair of shears. Line up the point of the paper with the center of the pan, and snip [to the length of the radius of the pan, unfolded they roughly make a circle ]. Youíll need a little lubrication. For that, we will use no-stick spray. Make sure you get it up on the inside edges. Then the disks go down. Hit them one more time [with no-stick spray].

    The batter begins with a standard creaming procedure. Two sticksóthatís eight ouncesóof butter go into your stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat that on medium speed for one minute or until light and fluffy. And then slowly add 16 ounces, by weight, of sugar. 8 Ounces Unsalted Butter,
    Room Temperature
16 Ounces Sugar
    While that continues creaming, you can combine 14 ounces of cake flour with one and a half teaspoons of baking powder, and one teaspoon of kosher salt. Whisk to combine and set aside. 14ľ Ounces Cake Flour +
1Ĺ tsp. Baking Powder
1 tsp. Kosher Salt

    Now when your butter and sugar looks like that [shows], it is almost ready to go. Iím just going to let that beat for about another 30 seconds.

    Meanwhile, we will combine one-half cup of coconut milk with one-half cup of coconut cream: homemade if at all possible. To that, we will add one teaspoon of our homemade coconut extract. Ĺ Cup Fresh Coconut Milk +
Ĺ Cup Fresh Coconut Cream

1 tsp. Coconut Extract

    Now when it comes time to bring the batter together, we are going to make alternate additions of the dry goods and the milk. Three of each, starting with the dry, and finishing with the milk. Do this slowly, or else, well, youíll throw flour all over the counter.

More than 20 billion coconuts are harvested each year, mostly in the Philippines, India and Indonesia.

The Kitchen

    The classic coconut cake is a sponge cake: meaning that it is leavened mostly with an egg white foam created with four egg whites. Make sure you separate them carefully. Beat them until youíve got stiff peaks. How can you tell? ĎCause they look like that. [turns beater upside down and the peaks don't fall over] No drier, please. Itís perfect. 4 Egg White

    Now, bringing these together is a little bit tricky. We have our batteróthick, stickyóand, of course, the egg white foam which is light and rich. So start by adding just one-third of the foam to the batter and just mix it in however you can get it in there. The point is to lighten the batter enough so we can actually fold in the remaining egg white. Just plunge down a spatula and kind of turn it over on itself.
    If our cake layers are going to bake evenly, it is critical that we evenly distribute the batter between the two vessels. This is almost impossible to do by volume. Luckily, weíve got a scale. Now, depending on how quickly your scale responds, youíre probably going to want to go really really slowly on the last couple of ounces, so you donít overshoot. Now although I think that I have three pounds of batter here, Iím going to base my dosing on one and a half pounds. Iím not sure that itís exactly right, so just look to get the batters as evenly distributed as you can. Donít worry about the final weight.

    Park these guys in the middle of a 350 degree oven. Set your timer for 40 minutes ... Strike that, 20. Halfway through the cooking, youíll want to rotate them, thusly.

350 Degrees

Traditionally in Thailand, a babyís first bite of solid food is the custard-like flesh of a young coconut, fed to it by a Buddhist priest.

    [end of the cooking] Perfect. Temperature is good and they are golden brown and delicious. Now take these out and let them cool in the pans for 10 minutes before turning them out onto cooling racks to cool completely.
    Now, our two cake layers look good. But come on, what self-respecting layer cake would only have two layers? Clearly, we need to split this, and itís a tough job to do freehand. So, Iíve kind of made myself a guide here. Iíve got a half-sheet pan and put a cooling rack in the bottom, turned upside down, to get the cake up to where itís kind of sticking halfway up from the edge.
    Now for splitting, I used to use a bow saw blade from the hardware store, but itís a little on the wobbly side. So Iíve graduated to something a little more adult: serrated cake knife! Hah ha, ha, ha! A thousand and one uses. You can carve up a turkey. You can slice a roast. Or disassemble a loaf of bread. Or perhaps a home invader. Hah hah hah! So Iím just going to lay the knife down so that both ends are on the side. Put a hand on top [of the cake] Ė thumbs away, of course [and] fingers. And gently mow through the cake. And they can break right at the very end, so the last few strokes be particularly delicate. There. And that gives us two nice even cakes.

    Before we go all crazy frosting those little fellows over there, we should ask ourselves if thereís anything else we can do to infuse the situation with flavor. The answer? Of course! Weíve got the leftover coconut water which we will apply via a food-grade spritzer. Hah hah hah hah hah hah. Now, while that soaks in, we will face the fros ... [accidentally sprits himself] ... ahem ... [enjoys a spritz his mouth with the coconut water]  ...  frosting. ⅓ Cup Coconut Water
    Bring a quart of water to a boil in a large saucepan then reduce the heat to just bring it down to a simmer. [in a separate bowl larger than the saucepan] Then, we have 12 ounces of good old-fashioned sugar. Three egg whites go into that along with half a teaspoon of cream of tartar. The acid will help to denature the egg whites. A quarter of a teaspoon of salt, one-third of a cup of our coconut water, and that goes onto the steam. [making a double boiler] 12 Ounces Sugar
3 Egg Whites
Ĺ tsp. Cream Of Tartar
ľ tsp. Kosher Salt
⅓ Cup Coconut Water

    We will apply the mixing torque [hand blender], but at a low setting, for one minute. After 60 seconds, boost the speed to high, and keep it there for five minutes.

    Now, time for one, or rather, two last flavor enhancements. A half teaspoon of vanilla extract and one teaspoon of our homemade coconut extract. There. Now, reapply the beating for another 60 seconds. Ĺ tsp. Vanilla Extract
1 tsp. Coconut Extract

    There. Now, wait five minutes. And not only will this be delicious, it will form a nice confectionery glue for our cakes. What do you call it? Well, one minute plus five minutes plus another minute, Seven Minute Frosting. Thatís where it gets its name.

Although coconuts contain saturated fats, their unique architecture means they are more easily used by the body.

The Kitchen

    We begin with one layer, obviously, and I like to put the cut side down. It makes for a more even platform. A little bit of frosting [on the part touching the cake stand] will act as a little bit of glue. And I want to get that as close to center as we can. You donít have to use a rotating turntable, but it sure does make life easier. The parchment comes off. Donít leave that on, ever. You donít want that to happen.
    Now, one of the worst mistakes you can make is to over-lube your layers, so to speak. If you get too much frosting in between each one, they will simply slide off into the floor. I would say [frosting the bottom layer] about half a cup, which is what we have there. And just thin it out, very very thin. You do not want a lot of frosting on this part of the cake. Weíll save that for the sides and the top. You could do this on an old record player too, if you like. Just a little bit of the coconut [on top of the frosting]. Thatíll help kind of reinforce things. And donít worry about keeping it neat right now.
    Another layer [goes on top next]. And this one Iím going to place cut side up. I never want to put two cut sides together because that will help the cake become lumpy, which we donít want. Now this side will always want to take more frosting because of all the pores. This is incredibly sticky stuff. Just enough to cover the crumbs. There. And some more coconut. See, itís a little mounded up in the middle. Thatís okay. It is going to get smashed down by the next layer.
    [skipping layer 3, he adds the fourth layer] And the final layer. And this one, youíre going to have to kind of just use your better judgment [on which side should go up]. I think the top looks okay on this one. Everything [the rest of the frosting] goes right on top. Let it feed over the side, and as it starts to fall, use your spatula to keep it in place. You donít want it too high in the middle. Now push that off to the side, and start shaping the side.
    There. Now, the fun part. Once you get some extra coconut on the topsóthe topóthe only way to get it on the sides, is to fling it, and thatís what the paper [on the table under the cake stand] is for. So just kind of toss it onto the side. This stuff is very sticky, so it should go on okay.
    There, itís finished. Itís perfect. It only took half a day to make! But thatís okay. Our patience will be rewarded. You know, Iíve got half a mind to go down to ...  Excuse me. [picks up the cake] Come here!

The Diner

W: Mr. Brown, ever since we put your cake on the menu, folks have just gone crazy. Well, they donít even mind paying a little extra money. So youíre going to have to go ahead and make three extra a week. [exits]

    Three extra. A week?

OL: Reckon now you know why old timers only made it on special occasions.
AB: Oh, itís, itís okay. Iíll work nights. Itís worth it to revive a legend.
OL: Well, perhaps civilization has a glimmer of hope. [gets up to leave] See you around, silly little man.

    [thinking he recognizes that lady] You don't ...  Never mind. See you next time, on ďGood EatsĒ.

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010