My Aunt Judy is one of those cooks. You know the kind: does it by feel, does it well, doesn't crow about it, but would nod if asked: "So, Aunt Judy, do you think you pretty much have the banana pudding market cornered?"
At some point, I don't remember when, she started showing up at our house on my Dad's birthday, December 17, with a layered coconut cake for her big brother. We lived on E. Post Oak Drive in Conway, Arkansas, in one of those early 70s ranch-style houses. The cake always sat on the breakfast bar (just who designed that awful harvest gold-patterned formica, anyway?), with toothpicks providing the tent poles for the plastic wrap swaddling it. It never quite made it to the refrigerator, since there were 4 of us at home, and others would stop by to wish my Dad a happy birthday. But many years later, Dad developed Type II diabetes, and that was the end of the cake delivery.
Recently I was flipping through our family cookbook, looking for something else, and I came across Aunt Judy's recipe. Although there are multiple components, each individual one is pretty easy--as are most of the recipes that come from a time and a place where fussy cooking would have been met with narrowed eyes.
A buttermilk cake, vanilla curd filling, boiled frosting (yeah, it's corn syrup. Repent with extra kale tomorrow!), and coconut. That's it. I tweaked Judy's recipe just a bit, to try to get a little more coconut flavor in, update some ingredients, and add some salt. I also used fresh coconut (which, frankly, was a nightmare, since I couldn't find mature coconuts).
It would be a better cake if Aunt Judy had been here to help mix and stir and tell stories and laugh, and then sing alto next to me as we worked through some songs as the cake baked, but it's pretty good all the same. Yes. I'm nodding.
Coconut Layer Cake
For the cake:
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 c. canola oil
1/2 c. coconut milk
1/2 t. salt
1 t. soda
2 t. baking powder
2 c. flour
1 c. buttermilk
Mix sugar, oil, and coconut milk with a whisk until smooth. Whisk in eggs and beat well (no electric mixer!). Mix dry ingredients and add alternately with buttermilk. Bake in 2 9-in layer pans at 325 until golden and a toothpick tests clean. Cool completely and split layers horizontally.
For the filling:
1/2 c. evaporated milk
1/2 c. coconut milk
1 stick butter, cut into pieces
1 t. vanilla extract or vanilla paste, or 1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
1 c. sugar
1/2 t. salt
3 egg yolks
Combine in a cold saucepan and turn on heat to medium. Stir to combine (be sure to get yolks mixed in well and get them off the bottom of the saucepan). Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until starting to thicken. Cool slightly and spread between first 3 cake layers.
For the frosting:
1 c. white corn syrup
1/4 t. salt
3 egg whites
Beat egg whites until stiff. Boil corn syrup and salt for 1 minute. Pour in steady stream into egg whites, beating constantly, until stiff and glossy.
For the topping:
Coconut, fresh or flaked (toasted either way)
Ice the filled cake with the frosting and sprinkle coconut on top (and sides, if desired).