Monday, April 21, 2008

Read 'em and weep

I read a lot of cookbooks. Many of them claiming to be comprehensive, at least regarding one topic or another. They use words in their titles which lead one to believe they have written down all the keys to everything food or entertaining. Words and phrases like, "Everything", "the Way", "Bible", and "All you will ever need to know." And I read them because I hope to get one step closer to something exactingly delicious. I like to be exacting more than almost anything else.

How to Cook Everything, is one of those books. In fact, it has two of the monumental catch-all's on the cover, "How to Cook," and "Everything." If you are going to do that, you had better not come up short, I say. I have had this book for a few years and I use it when I know what the contents of the fridge amount to in terms of finished products: Scallions, eggs, and flour equals scallion pancakes. Or crepes. But, the crepes were worthless and the scallion pancakes a little heavy even for bricks. Add to these issues the fact that there is not one finished product photo in the 900 plus pages. Ugh, forget it.

But, there came a moment yesterday when a coconut cake had to appear because the pantry equalled coconut cake as did the dream I had about cake the night before. The envelope upon which the precious yellow cake recipe was penciled was at home in New York. I thought of it as an excuse to step away from my old recipe and find something new. I figured I would let the boldly comprehensive volume take a swing at it. I was already tired you see, we've been gardening and teething like mad around here and both are exhausting. And it was a Sunday during which I had already suffered two devastating culinary letdowns; the shameful biscuit paperweights and the deplorable sweet potato bread doorstops. The sweet tea was the high point of the day and it was not even hot enough outside to truly appreciate it.

I read the Golden Cake recipe in How to... and I was not convinced I was going to redeem my day. I felt myself frown. The recipe was a proportional take-down of nearly all the yellow scratch cake recipes you will ever read. I was suspicious it was another one of those "minor twist" variations food writers make in order to call a recipe their own. If that is the case with this cake, I don't care. Though I will have to make it again with regular all-purpose flour to make sure I love it as much in that scenario too.

There was a telling and fantastic difference on my end as well. White Lily flour is readily available here, which it is not at home. What a difference a finely ground flour made. The cake is so noticeably more light, airy, and the crumb so much more fine. It is far better than cake flour which I think makes a cake far too fragile and annoyingly girly and prissy (though I cannot explain how I arrived at that conclusion). I like a cake to exhibit a bit of bite. Chomp-worthiness, basically. And this one did.

I will not know until next time if it was the finer flour, the markedly increased baking powder, the coconut, or this combination of the three which made the best golden cake yet. But, my, it was delicious with Cafe du Monde coffee.

Coconut Lime Cake
10 servings
Adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

Make a buttercream icing to top this cake. This is my favorite vanilla icing recipe. If you want to dial up the flavor, you can use coconut milk to make the icing instead of whole milk. It changes the consistency but it is delicious.

10 tablespoons butter at room temperature, additional for greasing pans
2 cups White Lily flour (not self-rising), additional for dusting cake pans
1/ 1/4 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated zest of one lime
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk
1 recipe vanilla buttercream icing
1 cup toasted dried sweetened coconut

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease 2 9-inch cake pans liberally with butter and dust with flour, covering all surface area and shaking out any excess.

In a large bowl, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until light and completely combined. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl down periodically. Add the vanilla and lime zest and beat a few turns just until combined, do not over-mix.

Sift together the dry ingredients: Flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to the mixture in three additions, alternating with two additions of the milk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients and scraping the bowl down occasionally. Mix just until smooth and completely combined.

Divide the batter into the the cake pans and bake for 25 minutes or until the center of the cake springs back completely to your touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Turn the pans out on to cooling racks and allow to cool completely before icing.

Make the top of the layers even and level with a serrated knife if you care to. Invert the first layer (so the top side is against the plate) on to the cake plate and ice the top of the layer. Place the second layer face down if you like a flat cake top, or face up if you like it to have a rounded old-fashioned appearance. Place all but 1/2 cup of the remaining icing in the center of the cake and using an offset spatula, smooth the icing from the center out to the edge and down the sides. Use the remaining icing to fill in or fix any issues with the icing. Serve.

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