I stumbled on a gem of a coconut cake recipe right out of the gate. I'm forever indebted to Charlotte Druckman for writing about this cake for the Wall Street Journal in a column aptly called "The Obsession." I send her pictures each time I make it as a reminder of the rewards that good food writing can yield. To be forever associated with such sweet pleasure makes her one very lucky lady in my books.
I make this cake when I want adoration. It's some wonderful to usher it into an event—oohs and aahs trailing and a few brazen sweet tooths following in its wake. It’s a reminder to all that no matter the quality of the savoury offerings that precede it, room must be saved for dessert.
I call it the Cash Family Coconut Cake because the recipe comes from Johnny Cash's granddaughter, Carrie Crowell. For a Northern girl like myself, the cake's connection to Memphis and this legendary music family add to its magic. Carrie Crowell admits that her cake is not as "Southern" as her great grandmothers—a fitting tribute to the Cash family's matriarch. I certainly can't imagine a coconut cake that is as gorgeous or delicious.
In the South, coconut cake falls into one of two camps, defined first by the type of cake, white or yellow, and then by the icing, whipped meringue or cream cheese. Generally speaking, white coconut cake has a whipped meringue frosting, giving it a pristine white appearance, while yellow cake has a cream cheese icing. The amount of fat is the tipping point, and the divisive ingredients are butter and the number of egg yolks used. I'm convinced that one of the reasons I like Carrie Crowell's cake so much is that, between the cake and the icing, the recipe calls for a pound of unsalted butter.
Although the Cash Family Coconut Cake uses coconut out of a package, originally the cakes would have contained fresh coconut meat. The nuts came into Southern ports from the Caribbean, were highly prized and considered a luxury reserved for special occasions. It's no surprise that in the South, coconut cake has traditionally been associated with Christmas. It is a cake in need of an occasion. Its decadence and snowy white appearance fit perfectly into a winter holiday feast.
Despite my success with Carrie Crowell's recipe, I'm still not a purist because I've never made the cake with fresh coconut meat. The labour involved in extracting it and the odds of suffering an injury during the process put me off. If I could find a source of fresh grated coconut, I would gladly try it.
Even though the North Carolina Folklife Institute has deemed it a heritage recipe, coconut cake is a relative newcomer to Southern culinary culture. The first recipes date to the late 1800's, and were made possible by the invention of modern ovens and the leavening agent baking powder.
Many restaurants in the southern US pride themselves on their coconut cake. So famous is the one at the Penisula Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, it has its own fact sheet on the restaurant's website that includes accolades from celebrated tastemakers. The New York Times calls it "a little slice of heaven." It's fitting that the Peninsula Grill's version stands 12 layers high. The size of a slice "violates Miss Piggy's rule to 'never eat anything bigger than your head.'" This cake is definitely in the fat camp—the butter to cream cheese ratio in the icing is equal. A whole cake can be ordered for delivery anywhere in the U.S. for $100. If the price is too steep, or you're in need of a baking project that spans a couple of days, a quick search of Google yields many recipes from luxury magazines to Martha Stewart.
I put eating a slice of the Peninsula Grill's cake high on my to-do list on a recent trip to Charleston. I wanted to measure the Cash family recipe against it. The cake is so popular that you don't have to drop several hundred dollars for dinner in the restaurant to enjoy it, you can buy a slice to go for $12.
I treated myself to a slice in advance of an outing to Sweatman's Bar-b-que, a 90-minute drive north of Charleston. When I sampled the cake four hours later, I knew from the very first bite that the Cash Family Coconut Cake was a damn fine recipe—a boost to both my confidence and pleasure. That doesn't diminish the cake produced by the Peninsula Grill in any way, nor did it prevent me from finishing it. The Peninsula Grill's version is more elegant, less homey, than Carrie Crowell's.
I've made modest changes to Carrie Crowell's recipe that I think improve it. The cake has a very moderate amount of leavening but to prevent its top from doming while baking, I lower the oven temperature to 300 F and bake the cake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. I've never had to trim the top (this is an excellent cake-baking tip in general).
Crowell's cakes are soaked in a mixture of sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk (I cut the quantity in half and find it sufficient). This step adds to the finished cakes moistness, amplifying its coconut flavour, but the basic cake is still moist without it.
I prefer to sprinkle the shredded coconut over the icing rather than mix it in. To my mind it gives the finished cake a more traditional and spectacular appearance. But don't expect the cake to cut into perfect slices; the crushed pineapple in the batter means it will crumble slightly and have a homey, rustic textue. I've never tried to spread the crushed pineapple between the layers as Crowell suggests, but that modification could produce a more perfect slice.
The cake is excellent made a day or two in advance—its flavour improves with time. I like to store it at room temperature but if you do refrigerate it, make sure to remove the cake from the fridge well before serving. All that butter is best eaten at room temperature.
Finally, it bears noting that Carrie Crowell's cake, stripped of the coconut and pineapple additions, is a very fine plain cake that has a dense texture reminiscent of pound cake.
The cake is big enough to feed a small crowd of 20 or more but the first time I made it was just for James and me. We quickly came to the conclusion that being left alone with such a fabulous cake was dangerous and made haste to disperse it to appreciative friends.
Following Southern tradition, I only make the Cash Family Coconut Cake at Christmas and decorate it with seasonal trim. Over the course of a few days I'll enjoy two or three slices, and when it's done, I suffer the small pangs of withdrawal. But I'm not tempted to bake the cake more often because a good measure of its specialness lies in the anticipation.
The Cash Family Coconut Cake is as full of Southern charm as it is butter. It's a cake that has the values of good food carefully prepared and the importance of family traditions baked right into it. At heart, it's a perfect fit for a holiday feast—a sweet slice of Southern warmth sure to chase any Northern chill away.
Heartfelt thanks for the love, support, and encouragement you shared with me in 2013. I wish you a peaceful and delicious holiday season.
 "Coconut Cake Revival." Good Eats. Food Network. 9 July 2007. Television.
 Kathleen Purvis. "It's not a Southern holiday without coconut cake." The Charlotte Observer.com, Tuesday March 26, 2013.