If you live in the United States, the last Saturday, Sunday and Monday in May are known as Memorial Day weekend. If you are a member of my family of origin, those same three days are known as Dad’s Birthday Weekend. For as long as I can remember my siblings and I have spent that weekend with our parents celebrating our father. Not even our college graduations got in the way of Dad blowing out candles and receiving his presents. (Since one party involved a trip to Italy, I won’t complain). These days the brood has expanded but the tradition is alive and well.
A few years ago, when I first gave myself the assignment of birthday cake baker and waited for Dad to place his order, I was a little surprised when he asked for coconut cake with lemon curd. Actually, the lemon was typical since he is a big citrus fan but coconut cake? That is so sweet and so, well, down-home and Southern. My father is a dyed in the Shetland wool (Jewish) Yankee.
Despite taking me to see Gone with the Wind when I was nine, no Scarlett O’Hara style bratty behavior was ever tolerated. No whining, no wallowing, no wilting. When we were little it could be raining and 45 degrees and he’d still expect us to be up for a bike ride in the park, wearing just a heavy sweater. We were often the only family sitting on the beach in sweatshirts as the skies threatened to soak us. And the sound of his “rise and shine!” echoes in my ears every time I sleep in. We were expected to be resourceful, brave and curious.
My father walks fast and eats faster. He doesn’t loll and he doesn’t savor. He never talks about food and doesn’t care about restaurants and their chefs. Food is fuel and if it tastes good, great. When summer comes it is the lady of the house who mans their grill because Dad isn’t a big barbeque fan, even though he is a pretty good cook, having learned to fend for himself when he was a bachelor. Yet, if he had it his way, his diet would consist of the kinds of offerings I’d imagine he ate during his college years in New England. Breakfast would be oatmeal or Cream of Wheat or Cheerios, lunch could be a bowl of cream of tomato soup, a ham sandwich on white, two sugar cookies and a pear, and dinner could easily be a piece of wet, white fish. He is the only person I know who is thrilled with a dinner of Dover sole and string beans. And don’t try to give him a hard time. He’ll just let you know he has more important things to think about and say, “This isn’t my last meal. Who cares?”
In a way I envy him. I think about food way too much and I hate Dover sole. And I do wonder if I have too much time on my hands, allowing me to fully consider every meal I plan on eating and making sure every craving is satisfied.
So, when last weekend was upon us I again offered him the choice of any cake he wanted and he again picked coconut cake with lemon curd. I think there is part of me that interprets his choice of cake as an indication that for his birthday he wants to shed his straight backed ways and sink into something soft and sweet and indulgent. Frankly, I was secretly hoping he’d go for something with chocolate since that is the majority crowd pleaser in this crowd. But Dad’s feeling was, “It’s my birthday and if you’re going to ask me what I want I’m going to tell you and this is what I want.”
Okay then. It has taken me a few years to find the recipes I like best for the various components this cake requires. The actual cake is a yellow cake but I’ve swapped out the regular milk and used coconut milk instead. It infuses the whole thing with just enough of a hint of coconut without being overpowering. If you are not a fan of lemon curd the batch of Seven Minute Frosting certainly provides enough to fill between the layers and it would be good if you sprinkled some of the sweetened coconut in there as well.
While I was frosting the cake my audience, aka Niece One, announced her plans to avoid the “lemony part” because it is “yucky and too sour.” Meanwhile, when the cake was cut she devoured every crumb on her plate and proclaimed it “the best cake you ever made!” Winning her over felt even better than cutting my father a second piece. Happy Birthday Dad! Next year in Venice?
Dad's Birthday Weekend Coconut Cake
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Cake, Adapted from Food and Wine, June 2007
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup coconut milk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans and line with parchment paper; butter and dust with flour.
In a bowl, mix the 3 cups of flour, baking powder and salt. In a cup, mix the coconut milk with the vanilla. Set aside.
In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter at medium speed until light and creamy. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy, 4 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl. Beat in the dry ingredients in 3 batches, alternating with the milk mixture and scraping down the bowl.
Scrape the batter into the pans.
Bake in the lower third of the oven for about 35 minutes, until springy. Let cool for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edges and invert onto a rack. Peel off the paper, turn the cakes upright and cool completely.
Ingredients-Lemon Curd Filling
¾ cup strained fresh lemon juice
1 stick unsalted butter
¾ cup granulated sugar
6 egg yolks
Directions-Lemon Curd Filling
Combine lemon juice, butter and sugar in a heavy enamel pan. Bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally.
Whisk the yolks in a bowl and whisk in ½ cup of the hot lemon mixture. Return the remaining lemon mixture to a simmer and whisk the yolk mixture back in to it. Continue whisking for 3-4 minutes, until the lemon curd has thickened, coats the back of a spoon and shows a slight simmer around the edge of the pan.
Do not allow it to boil or it may curdle.
Pour the lemon curd into a heat proof glass or other nonreactive bowl and press plastic wrap against the surface. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours until cold and very thick.
Seven Minute Frosting
From Epicurious, March 2007
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut (about 1/2 of a 7oz bag)
In large metal bowl, whisk together 1/3 cup water, sugar, egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt. Set bowl over pan of barely simmering water and mix with handheld electric mixer at low speed. Gradually increase speed to high, beating until mixture holds stiff peaks, about 5 minutes.
Transfer bowl from pan to folded kitchen towel on counter and continue beating until mixture is cool and billowy, about 2 minutes more.
Beat in vanilla. (Frosting can be made 4 hours ahead and chilled, covered.)
Place several pieces of wax paper strips in sunburst pattern on serving platter or frosting turn table
Place one cake layer on top of wax paper strips
Place one cup of lemon curd filling on top of cake layer. Using a spatula (offset is best) spread curd across cake leaving one inch border of cake to prevent curd from spilling over cake layer.
Place second cake layer on top of first layer. If top layer feels like it is sliding anchor it to bottom layer with wooden skewer cut in half. Remember to remove before serving.
Frost cake with Seven Minute Frosting
then liberally sprinkle top with shredded coconut. Toss coconut along side of cake--it will stick to frosting.
Carefully remove wax paper strips (look how neat your cake plate/turntable is!) Chill for a bit before serving to make slicing easier.
Yield: one 9 inch layer cake (16 slices)