Going coconut-ty

'Malayan Dwarf' Coconut

While coconut aficionados don’t rival chocoholics in numbers, they rival them in passion. Visions of lacy concoctions dance in their head year round, and any occasion from wedding to funeral is an apt time to insist on their appropriateness.

So naturally when approached at a party about whether I wanted to try a number of different coconuts, I readily agreed under the guise of culinary research. And the excuse to cook some of my favorite dishes, bringing them into spring with a bang.

No one knows when coconuts first came to the South, but there are early historical reports of them being used on plantations. Over time, they became identified as a favorite Southern ingredient, integrated into pies, cakes and other foods. This was aided by Franklin Baker, a flour miller who received a shipment of them, got a bright idea, and started a company processing them in 1897.

Coconuts aren’t easy to confine, one reason why they are found on so many shores, floating until they find a hospitable place to land and propagate. The progenitors of the five cultivars of the coconut palm in my dining room had floated unto the Florida property of George B. Del Porto, who brought them to Charleston by car.

I had seen whole coconuts before, in distant lands where young men lopped off the tops with machetes, offering the liquid-filled shells to tourists at fruit stands and tiki bars. I just hadn’t expected 20 or 30 taking over the tables, chairs and corners in my house. Getting all the way to grating the coconut seemed completely beyond my skill level. And there were plenty of coconuts to be grated, even after giving them to anyone who seemed the least bit interested.

The web yielded dozens of techniques for removing the husk. It turned out the machete was unnecessary if drinking from the interior is not the goal. The simplest technique is to use a table knife and cut down from the softer end, following a vertical line or two as needed. As one demonstrator said, “easy peasy.” A large knife can be used to give the final cut or two. Fibrous material covers the nut, which has to be cracked to yield its desirable flesh and liquid.

It is all worth it. Fresh coconut is moist and firm, with an inexplicable dewiness not found in store-bought that enhances both savory and sweet foods. The various cultivars yielded very similar results from baseball-size nuts, but clearly a larger nut, such as the ones sold in grocery stores at the holidays, is preferable when one sets down to grating, yielding long flakes rather than short strands.

To extract flesh from a coconut, either put the coconut in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes until it cracks, or take it out on the back steps and pound with a hammer until it cracks. Pry flesh away from the hard shell using something like a nut pick or sturdy knife. Shred in food processor or by hand.

Makes 1 (9-inch) round 3-layer cake

Coconut cake is so popular that Nancie McDermott has five variations in her cake book, “Southern Cakes.” I’ve culled through mine, testing and retesting, and here is my favorite of all time. It takes a little trick each from Kate Almand’s, Elise Griffin’s and Grace Reeves’ cakes, among others that have never been printed.

This light, moist butter cake is tender throughout, aided by the sugar syrup with which it is basted. There are even more icings out there in the Southern universe of cake baking, including the cream cheese one associated with carrot cake. But this is my darling, no matter which frosting. Fresh coconut is best but use what you have; either way you’ll need a total of 5 cups of shredded coconut for this recipe. — Nathalie Dupree

For the cake:

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

2 cups granulated sugar

4 large eggs, separated

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup milk, divided

1/2 cup grated or shredded coconut

For coconut syrup:

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup water

1/2 cup grated or shredded coconut

Meringue Icing (see accompanying recipe)

Directions

Position rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter and flour three 9-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment or waxed paper. Butter and flour the paper.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt onto a piece of waxed paper.

Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces and add to a bowl for use with a stand mixer or an electric mixer, and beat on low speed until soft. Increase the speed and whisk for 1 or 2 minutes, until it looks like lightly whipped cream. Add the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, starting on slow and increasing speed until well whipped, about 7 or 8 minutes. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Stir the vanilla into the milk. Add a third of the flour mixture to the sugar and butter mixture, then half the milk; repeat, ending with the flour and beating only enough to fold in the flour after each addition.

Use a clean mixing bowl to whisk the egg whites, starting on low speed then on medium speed until they break up and are foamy. Increase the speed to high and beat until they are shiny and stand up in peaks, taking care not to overbeat, and scraping the insides of the bowl regularly. Using a metal spoon or spatula, fold a large dollop of the whites into the batter, then gently fold this lightened mixture into the whites only until incorporated. Fold in the coconut.

Divide the batter evenly among the prepared pans. Tap the pans once against the counter to remove any air bubbles and smooth the top of the batter. Bake until pale brown, 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. The internal temperature of the cake should be 190 to 195 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

Move the pans to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Carefully run a knife around the inside edge of the cake pans to loosen the cake. Turn the cakes out onto the rack and peel off the waxed paper.

Meanwhile, or up to a week in advance, make the Coconut Syrup. Heat the sugar and water in a heavy saucepan until the sugar is completely dissolved. Bring to a boil and boil 1 minute. Add the coconut and let steep. Refrigerate covered. When ready to use, reheat slightly and strain to remove the coconut. Using a large spoon or a squeeze bottle, lightly drizzle the tops of the cakes with the syrup. The cakes may be made ahead to this point. Well-wrapped, they will freeze up to 2 months.

Makes 3-4 cups

Making meringue icing, also called boiled icing, is an art and a skill. Once learned and understood, however, it is valuable to have in one’s repertoire and becomes a snap. The icing tastes immeasurably better on the cake than when licked off a spoon, where it doesn’t have the same personality. This icing is perfect on Coconut Cake. Since the whites are cooked by the sugar syrup, it is safe to leave unrefrigerated.

Ingredients

1 cup granulated sugar

Pinch salt

1/2 cup water

3 large egg whites

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 cups shredded coconut

Directions

Heat the sugar, salt, and water in a heavy saucepan. Cook over low heat until the sugar is dissolved, then increase heat to high. Bring to a boil and boil until the syrup reaches 225 degrees, using a thermometer. This will be a signal to start beating the whites, so the whites and syrup are close in finishing time. Continue cooking while beating egg whites in a separate bowl.

Begin beating the egg whites to soft peaks in a clean, heavy-duty stand mixer bowl. Once again, use a candy thermometer to make sure the syrup is the right temperature to cook the egg whites. When the syrup reaches 240 degrees, add it to the egg whites in a slow stream, beating continually, trying to avoid the beaters. Continue to beat until the egg whites are glossy and in soft peaks and the mixture is cool. Stop beating if the whites begin to look clumpy or rocky and dry. Beat in the vanilla.

Move the prettiest layer to a rack set over waxed paper to catch icing drippings. Ice the cake layer by ladling or spooning a portion of the icing into the middle of the cake. Use a long spatula to spread, starting in the middle and working out to the sides. Wait to ice the sides until the cake is assembled. Keep the drippings in case more icing is needed for the bottom and middle layers. (It can’t be used for the sides, as it will have cake crumbs in it.)

Divide the remaining icing onto the number of layers left to ice, remembering to save some for the sides. Choose the least desirable layer as the bottom layer. Any broken layer should be in the middle. After the bottom layer is determined, move it to a cardboard cake round. If using a cake plate, make spokes with 5x3-inch strips of parchment or waxed paper on the serving plate, extending slightly, to catch the icing from dripping onto the plate. Ice as above, remembering that too much icing on the bottom two layers will cause the cake to slide. Sprinkle 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the coconut on top of the icing, pressing in slightly.

Ice middle layer on a cake rack, then move on top of bottom layer, sprinkle as above with one fourth to one third cup of the coconut. Top with the pretty layer, which is already iced. Spread icing over the sides if there is sufficient remaining. When the entire cake is iced, sprinkle the top and sides generously with the remaining coconut, pressing it lightly into the icing. Some will fall out on the waxed paper. Use that as well, sprinkling it over the cake. Remove the paper.

Slide out the strips of paper and tidy up the plate.

If icing is too stiff to spread smoothly, recheck the recipe to determine if ingredients were measured carefully, and adjust as needed. If it is simply too cold to spread, warm it quickly and carefully over low heat or in the microwave. If the icing is runny, chill slightly first, then try to add some of the thickest ingredient to make it firmer.

Variation: Toast the shredded coconut before using.

Tip: Keep the icing between layers at a minimum so the cake layers don’t slide. Parcel the icing out carefully. Too much will cause the layers to slide; too little will rob the cake of flavor. Select and ice the top layer first to make sure there is enough icing to divide among the remaining layers.

This recipe is one that Susan Rice fixes regularly in her 1830 home on Edisto Island. It’s light and melts in your mouth. It can be put, willy nilly, into an unbaked pie shell, but if time permits, prebake it slightly.

Ingredients

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter

3 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup flaked or grated coconut

1 pie crust, homemade or store bought, as is or slightly prebaked

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Melt the butter. Mix together the eggs, buttermilk, sugar, vanilla and coconut and add to the melted butter. Pour into the unbaked piecrust. Bake for 10 minutes, reduce heat to 300 degrees and bake for 35 minutes or until the middle is set.

Serves 4-6

Once I was in a rush and distracted by the phone, I looked into the freezer and grabbed grated coconut in a plastic bag rather than breadcrumbs. I didn’t discover my mistake until it was incorporated, so I served it and keep serving it. I have used both sweetened and unsweetened coconut in this so use what is available.

Ingredients

8 medium (2 1/2 to 3 pounds) yellow summer squash

6 tablespoons butter, divided

2 onions, chopped

1/3 cup grated or flaked coconut

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme (optional)

1/2 cup freshly grated imported Parmesean cheese

1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Spoon out the pulp, making a boat of each half. Place the boats on a plate in the microwave, in batches if necessary, and microwave a few minutes until tender, or place the boats in boiling water to cover and cook 8 to 10 minutes or until just tender. Meanwhile, chop the pulp roughly. Melt 5 tablespoons of the butter in a saute pan. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the squash pulp and cook briefly. Add the coconut and thyme and cool slightly. Stir in the cheeses, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Drain the boats and stuff with the filling. Place in a buttered ovenproof serving dish. Dot with the remaining tablespoon butter. When ready to serve, heat in a 350 degree oven until the cheese is melted and the squash is heated through, about 15 minutes. The squash can also be reheated in the microwave.