This July, I celebrated one of those milestone birthdays that inspire some women to get a tattoo or join a gym or attempt to drown their sorrow (and shock) at the ruthless passage of time in a complicated slurry of tears and tequila.
But not me. I was actually kind of looking forward to turning 40. Being 40 gives you street cred. You've lived some, learned some, and have earned the right to say obscurely ominous things like, "Listen, I'm 40 years old . . . I do not have time to waste on this foolishness," and people take you seriously. So, I was happy to greet 40, and even more so when my daughter announced that she was making a birthday cake for me this year ~ any kind I wanted. What kind did I want? Coconut, of course. Too hot for chocolate, so coconut, definitely.And then just a couple of nights before my birthday, we were watching a rare hour of TV together and happened to catch a rerun of Alton Brown's show, Good Eats, featuring his somewhat legendary Coconut Cake. You might know the one ~ it's made with real coconut. And Alton's cake looks pretty heavenly. So heavenly that my lovely and ambitious 13-year-old daughter turned to me, positively beaming with enthusiasm, and said, "Mom, that's what I'm making! That coconut cake." I smiled nervously and pointed out that Alton's recipe called for breaking down a couple of real coconuts and making all the components of the cake from scratch ~ extract, coconut milk, coconut cream, flaked coconut. That was a lot of work to achieve in a short time and by herself.
"But that's what you would prefer, Mom," she said, throwing her arms around me. "And you'll help me, right?"
So the day before Coconut Cake Day, we drove to the store and bought two coconuts we felt were good candidates according to the criteria Alton had passed along. We drove back home, tied on our aprons, and got to work.
Five hours later, we were done. Done breaking down the coconuts, at least. The actual cake would have to wait until the following day. But the two coconuts had yielded approximately 2 quarts of shredded coconut meat, 1/2 cup of coconut milk, and 1/2 cup of coconut cream. We prepared some extract but since it would have to steep for at least a week, we'd use store-bought extract in the cake.
The following day (my birthday ~ yay, 40!), we broke out our freshly processed coconut and set about the business of baking a cake. Alton's recipe was predictably reliable, producing a moist, dense, lovely cake with a tight crumb that held up beautifully when we sliced each cake into two layers, for a total of four. The 7-Minute Frosting was as light and silky as a coconut-cream cloud.Ultimately, my daughter did most of the baking and frosting on her own, while I made a batch of ice cream (dark chocolate with bittersweet stracciatella) to go with the cake. When all was said and done, this was quite possibly the best coconut cake, and one of my all-time favorite birthday cakes, ever. How good was it? Worth every minute in the kitchen (and on the back porch). And be sure to squirrel away the leftovers ~ a night in the fridge renders this cake positively transcendent.
Now, just in case you haven't seen the Good Eats episode, and visions of machete scars on your kitchen counters are keeping you from attempting to work with fresh coconuts on your own, let me assure you that they're not hard at all to work with. In fact, it's surprising simple to get the coconuts out of their shell; it just takes a bit of time. You can't rush this process, so make sure you have plenty of free time when you start your coconut-butchering operation. If necessary, you can break down your coconuts in advance and freeze the meat, cream, and milk in separate air-tight containers.Processing a Fresh Coconut
~ with many thanks to Alton Brown
- Select a coconut that feels heavy and looks fresh and not at all mangy. Shake it ~ you should hear liquid sloshing around inside. The eyes should be dark and solid, not leaking.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Set a folded dishtowel in a medium stainless steel mixing bowl. Set coconut, eyes up, on the dishtowel. Using a cordless drill with a medium-bore drill bit (we used a 1/4-inch bit), hold the coconut steady on the towel and carefully drill straight down through at least two of the eyes (we did all three for good measure). If you don't have a drill, you can hammer, then remove, a clean 6" round wire nail down through the eyes instead. (This may sound as if I'm pretty hard-core in the DIY department, but I just rummaged in my husband's toolbox for the biggest nail I could find, then asked him what it was called. My daughter figured out how to change the drill bit.)
- Quickly turn the coconut over a small bowl or glass measuring cup; the water should run out pretty quickly through the holes you made. (If your coconut is only dribbling, you probably didn't go far enough through the shell.) When the liquid stops running out of the coconut, place the coconut on a baking sheet and put it in a preheated 375-degree oven. Store the coconut water in the fridge for up to one week (freeze for longer storage).
- Bake the coconut for about 15 minutes, then pull it out of the oven and set the baking sheet on a cooling rack. Within a couple of minutes, you'll hear some vigorous cracking ~ and that's great news because that's the sound of your coconut shelling itself. When the coconut is cool enough to handle, take a look at it. If you are lucky enough to have enough deep cracks, you may be able to pry the shell off with your bare hands. If you're like us, you'll need to take it to the back porch, lay it on a towel, and use a flathead screwdriver or that round wire nail as a wedge and a rubber mallet as a force multiplier to encourage the cracks to split a bit more. (Rubber mallet? One of my favorite items in the kitchen ~ unbelievably useful ~ also pillaged from my husband's toolbox.)
- Carefully pry off the thick shell, leaving the brown coconut bare.
You'll see the holes you drilled.
- Now, using a sturdy vegetable peeler or a paring knife, peel off this outer layer of brown skin. Careful ~ once you start peeling, the coconut will become oily and a bit slippery.
- Rinse off your coconut and break it into 3-inch chunks. Using the shredding disk in your food processor or a box grater, grate the coconut meat. Use the shredded coconut toasted or plain. Refrigerate for up to one week; freeze for longer storage.