A New York food writer we know came to Charleston for his first visit to the South a few weeks ago.
His friends did right by him. He got feted with a cocktail party that included multiple shrimp platters and got his hands dirty at a backyard oyster roast. He tried pimento cheese, boiled peanuts and country ham and liked them all.
There was only one thing missing, he confided: No coconut cake.
He came south expecting to find it everywhere but hadn’t found it anywhere.
There were a couple of reasons for that, we told him. In Charleston, the coconut cake market is dominated by the famous 12-layer version at the Peninsula Grill, where a single slice violates Miss Piggy’s rule to never eat anything bigger than your head.
Second, though, his timing was off. He got here between the major holidays. As every Southern baker knows, if you’re going to take the trouble to make a true, homemade coconut cake – crack and grate a coconut, bake the layers, boil and beat the white frosting – you better have a good occasion.
With Easter coming up, it certainly is a good time to consider the coconut cake – as fluffy and imposing as a dowager’s best spring hat.
The cake authority
Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill knows so much about cake that she played a cake historian on the coconut cake episode of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” several years ago. She still cracks up about it.
“It was a hoot,” she says. “Fortunately, I’m a big ham.”
McDermott literally wrote the book on Southern cakes: Her book “Southern Cakes” (Chronicle, 2007) is considered an authority. And it has an entire chapter on coconut cake, with seven recipes, ranging from classic to a dolled-up version with a lemon curd filling.
“I stumbled on the importance of it when I started researching,” she says. “I thought it would go into the antiques and heirlooms (chapter). And the more I looked around, the more I realized this is its own category.”
Like most Southern kids, McDermott’s memories of coconut cake revolve around the ritual of the coconut. The construction project of opening and grating one was the only time she remembers seeing her grandfather in the kitchen.
That always happened at Christmas, because coconut cake originated as many families’ holiday tradition. That connection goes back to the 19th century, when railroads made it possible – but still luxurious – to get oysters, oranges and coconuts in the winter.
“It’s exotic and special,” says McDermott. “The oysters and coconuts and oranges all came from tropical places.”
Some cake history
To understand coconut cake’s role in the South, it helps to know a little cake history. The real heyday of homemade layer cakes started about 1900, after cast-iron stoves and baking powder made baking more reliable.
“Before baking powder, cakes were fruitcake and poundcake,” says McDermott.
In larger cities, particularly in the North, there were immigrant populations with a history of operating bakeries. In the South, people tended to bake at home. So when layer cakes came into vogue in the 20th century, they took off here.
Lane Cake, from Alabama, and Lady Baltimore Cake, with roots in Charleston, both included coconut. It wasn’t long before you also could find coconut sprinkled on a yellow cake frosted with Italian meringue – boiled syrup beaten into whipped egg whites.
The coconut was already around, says McDermott. Coconut goes way back in the South because of port cities like New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah and Wilmington.
“That’s where the fancy stuff would come in,” says McDermott. “That sort of cements it as a Southern tradition.”
Desserts with shredded coconut, including ambrosia, pies and macaroons, turn up in Southern cookbooks as early as the 1700s.
“So we had coconut long before we had coconut cake,” says McDermott.
There was definitely coconut cake at Christmas. But what about coconut cake as an Easter tradition? There’s something so special about the way the white frosting stands out against spring pastels.
McDermott thinks that connection started as late as the 1950s, with women’s magazines and their emphasis on color pictures.
“I have no evidence, but that would make visual sense,” she says. “It goes with bunnies and colored eggs and flowers and poufy folderol.”
McDermott likes to tell the story of an antiques dealer who once told her that a particular cup and saucer “didn’t come together but they go together.”
“To me, coconut cake goes with Easter, but I don’t know if it came with it.”
When you talk about cake history, McDermott says, you can’t get too focused on history and provenance. A lot of things have grown into myths. For instance, German chocolate cake isn’t German. It was made with the German brand of baking chocolate.
What’s important about coconut cake is less about the history and more about how people love it, identify with it and still make it for holidays.
“It is transcendent, it is so wonderful,” she says. “Of course it goes with Easter.”
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