During my North Carolina childhood, we celebrated Christmas in all the traditional baby-boomer ways.
We pulled cartons of decorations down from the attic and hung red felt stockings. We bought a tree from a lot tended by the YMCA or a men’s civic club, hung a wreath on the front door and attended the annual holiday parade, first in Burlington and later in High Point. We wrote letters to Santa and went to meet him at the Sears-Roebuck department store. I asked Santa to bring me dolls, games and roller skates. While I couldn’t count on having my wish-list fulfilled, I often got lucky.
One Christmas wish always came true, however, and it wasn’t one fulfilled by Santa. This one was for an edible treasure, created by my beloved grandmother and namesake. Her fresh coconut cake was the highlight of the Christmas season for me. While my interest in skates and dolls quickly faded, my affection for this cake continues.
Back then I didn’t think about my family’s food and holiday traditions as Southern, since they were simply What We Always Did. Once I began writing about food and researching traditional recipes a few decades back, I took an interest in regional distinctions and holiday traditions, which made “Coconut at Christmastime” a subject of inquiry for me.
Two dishes stand out in this category: Layer cakes with coconut as a signature ingredient, and ambrosia, an odd dish which shows up as both salad and dessert. Ambrosia has grown over time from a simple three-ingredient dish to a holiday-parade float of a recipe featuring coconut, mandarin orange sections, mini-marshmallows, maraschino cherries, pecans, non-dairy topping and more.
Coconut has been a specialty ingredient in American kitchens since the colonial era. A recipe for Cocoa Nut Puffs appears in “A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry,” published in South Carolina in 1770. Less than a century later, Sarah Rutledge includes a similar cookie in her book “The Carolina Housewife,” published in Charleston in 1847. She keeps the rose water flavoring while adding nutmeg and cinnamon. Her recipe calls for shaping the dough into small cones, and icing them after a long slow bake in the oven.
The coconut recipes continue in the 1800s with more cookies, puddings, pound cake, pies and ambrosia. But the first coconut layer cake didn’t appear until 1881 in “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking” — one of the earliest cookbooks by an African American author. The author, Abby Fisher, was an award-winning purveyor of pickles, preserves and jams. Though published on the West Coast, Fisher’s book draws on her early years in the American South.
The coconut layer cake we recognize today as the Southern Christmas staple first appeared in “The Blue Grass Cookbook,” by Minnie Fox and John Fox, Jr., which was published in Kentucky in 1904 and credits a number of the recipes contributed by African Americans cooks. This rich layer cake is filled and frosted with a marshmallow-like boiled icing and showered all over with freshly grated coconut.
Within the next 25 years, coconut-centric layer cakes, like that Mississippi staple Lane Cake, became wildly popular, as did ambrosia as part of Christmas feasting. My own grandmother’s coconut cake is part of this blossoming enthusiasm for coconut. She was born in 1894 and learned to bake during that time frame.
I have long presumed that coconuts figured in Christmas cooking on a seasonal basis. They are perishable, and shipping them from the Caribbean to the Southern ports of Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville would have made much more sense starting in November and early December. This is because the weather is cool enough by then to make spoilage unlikely.
This is true for oysters, another Christmas season treat on Southern tables. Oyster stew on Christmas Eve is a strong tradition in many households, including that of my maternal grandparents.
But coconuts are much less fragile than oysters and were clearly being enjoyed without a particular Christmas connection. Oranges do come into season around the holidays, so ambrosia has a logical holidays link, especially back when we didn’t have so many ways and temptations to eat out of season as we do now.
My theory nowadays is that the grand dame coconut cake — the one of the many layers and fluffy curly snowflake-like beauty — born to reign on a cut-glass cake stand, grew from technical innovations. What was still an innovation as the year 1900 approached was not coconut, but baking powder and baking soda.
These two revolutionary chemical leavenings made for simpler, speedier baking. These leavenings debuted shortly after the Civil War ended. They became a standard kitchen ingredient over the next few decades.
Around the same time, home cooks began moving from the unpredictability of hearth and fireplace cooking to the relative convenience and control of cast iron stoves.
With more manageable ovens for baking and a dependable leavening agent to lift flour, butter, sugar and eggs into delicate buttery layers, home bakers had the ability and inspiration to create an American cake tradition, the layer cake. No wonder the puffy, glamorous, luscious and coconut-kissed layer cake became a holiday star throughout the South.
There is no denying that coconut cake still has our attention. Check the magazine covers at the checkout aisle and see how often big, fabulous and fancy layer cakes are featured, and how often coconut is mentioned. I love to see them, and I love to make them. I don’t let the fuss of cracking whole coconuts keep these desserts off my holiday table.
Here’s my secret: frozen or shredded coconut bought at the grocery store works just as well.
How to crack a coconut
Choose a brown, hairy coconut that feels heavy and sounds like it’s full of juice when you shake it. Dark brown coconuts are best, as they are older with drier, firmer meat which grates best. If possible, have someone help you since this task calls for an abundance of hands-on work.
Set out a hammer and a large bowl or a 13-by-9-inch baking pan. If you are right-handed, hold the coconut in your left hand, directly over the bowl or pan, with the three “eyes” toward you, and the peaked top pointed away from you. Imagine a little equator belting the coconut’s circumference. To crack open the coconut, strike it with a bold hammer blow on that invisible equator line. Continue striking single, sharp blows along the equator as you work your way around the coconut, rotating it in your palm after each blow. Continue until a deep sound and a gush of juice into the bowl signal that you have cracked a very tough nut.
Break open the coconut, using lighter blows as needed, letting the 1/2 cup to 1 cup of juice drain out into bowl or pan. With a table knife, carefully pry the thick, white meat away from the thin, hard outer shell by inserting the knife blade between the two and twisting to separate them. Break the coconut meat into smaller chunks, using either the hammer or your hands to continue separating the coconut meat from the shell.
Strain the juice and set it aside to use in a cake batter or icing. Carefully peel away most of the thin, hard brown skin covering the exterior side of the coconut meat. You can use a very sturdy vegetable peeler, a paring knife, a chef’s knife, or a cleaver. Give the peeled coconut pieces a good rinse, and you are ready to shred, slice, chop, grate or grind them as needed.
To grind the coconut with a food processor, cut the peeled coconut meat into 1/2-inch chunks. Fit the food processor with the metal chopping blade and turn the machine on. Drop in the coconut chunks by the handful, and then stop to scrape down the sides. Process until you have a bowl full of coconut, finely chopped to an almost fluffy texture. You could also use a blender, working in batches, stopping often to scrape the chopped meat and chunks away from the blades.
To grate the coconut with a box grater, leave the peeled pieces in large chunks. Grate the pieces of coconut against the large holes or small ones, turning them often to protect your fingers. Gather the bits and end pieces of the coconut as you go, finely chop them by hand and add them to the grated coconut. To use a hand-held rotary grater such as a Mouli grater, cut coconut meat to fit into the chamber and grate it into a medium bowl.
One coconut yields 3 to 4-1/2 cups grated coconut, plus 1/2 to 1 cup clear coconut juice.
This is the cake that made my grandmother famous all over Orange and Durham counties. Fresh coconut is ideal here, and worth every bit of the effort it requires. But use sweetened shredded coconut from the baking aisle or frozen grated coconut from an Asian market, if that helps you get the cake made.
My grandmother usually baked this cake in two 9-inch layers and then split them horizontally to make four thin layers. It is also lovely baked in three 8-inch layers.
Miss Nannie’s Fresh Coconut Cake
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 6 cups granulated white sugar, divided
- 4 eggs
- 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 4 rounded tablespoons, divided
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 cup milk
- 1-1/3 cups fresh coconut juice, or water, or a combination of the two
- 3 cups freshly grated coconut, or sweetened shredded coconut
To make the cake, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans and set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the softened butter with a mixer at medium speed until creamy. Add 2 cups sugar and continue beating, stopping to scrape down the bowl, until the mixture is fluffy and fairly smooth. Add the eggs, one by one, beating each time, until you have a thick, smooth batter.
In a medium bowl, combine 3 cups flour, baking powder and salt, and use a fork to stir and mix them together well.
Add about one third of the flour mixture to the batter and beat with a mixer at low speed just until the flour disappears. Stir the vanilla into the milk, and add about half the milk to the batter, beating just until the batter is smooth. Continue beating as you add another third of the flour mixture to the batter, followed by the rest of the milk, and then the remaining flour mixture, beating each time just until the batter is very thick and smooth.
Quickly scrape the batter into the prepared cake pans, dividing it evenly, and place them in the oven. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cakes are golden, spring back lightly when touched in the center, and begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove from the oven and cool the cakes in the pans on wire racks or folded kitchen towels for 10 minutes. Then turn out the cakes onto wire racks or plates. Turn the layers top side up to cool completely. Just before icing the cake, carefully slice each layer in half, cutting horizontally, to make 4 thin layers.
To make the icing, combine 4 cups sugar and 4 rounded tablespoons flour in a heavy medium saucepan, and stir with a fork to mix them together well. Stir in the coconut milk, and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until the mixture comes to a gentle boil. Continue to stir often as the sugar dissolves and the mixture turns syrupy. Cook for about 4 minutes at a gentle boil, and then stir in about 2 ¼ cups of the freshly grated coconut. Cook about 2 minutes more, stirring gently as the icing thickens. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
To ice the cake, place one half-layer top side down on a cake stand or serving plate, and spread about one fourth of the icing over the cake. Repeat with the remaining 3 half-layers, four half-layer top side up. Spread the icing to the edges and let it cascade gently down the sides. Sprinkle the remaining ¾ cup of coconut over the top of the cake, and pat gently to help it adhere to the icing.
The cake will be visible through the translucent icing, looking as though it were in a little ice palace. Let the cake stand at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours, or as long as overnight. Cover the cake well and store it in the refrigerator if you will not be serving it within a few hours. Simply let the cake return to room temperature for 1 or 2 hours, to release the strong chill. This cake mellows and tastes even better the second day.
Makes one 9-inch layer cake.
Most recipes suggest holding the prepared ambrosia, covered and chilled, for at least two hours before serving. You could serve it immediately, or hold it for several hours. It will be at its best the day it is made.
- About 3 pounds oranges, such as navel oranges; 6 to 8 large oranges
- About 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- About 2 cups finely grated fresh coconut or frozen grated coconut, thawed or shredded sweetened coconut (if using sweetened coconut, use about half the sugar)
Peel the oranges, using a sharp knife. Slice off the top and bottom of each orange, exposing the juicy core. Place oranges on cutting board and slice down the sides, paring away all the white pith and exposing the juicy orange pulp.
Work in sections, paring at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock, working evenly around the fruit. Then pare away the sections at 2, 5, 7, and 10 o’clock. Finally, trim any remaining strips of white pith. Turn the fruit bottom side up and remove any remaining white pith around the bottom half. Reserve the juice, and squeeze juice from any portions of peel which have considerable pulp attached.
Slice the peeled oranges crosswise into thin rounds, turning the orange as you work to avoid pressing out juice. Use a very sharp, serrated knife if possible. Remove any seeds as you work, along with any pith from the center of the fruit. OR divide the orange into sections. Hold the orange in one hand, and use a sharp knife to slice the pulp away from the thin soft casing holding the juicy fruit. Push gently to free the juicy section of pulp and place it in the bowl. Work around the fruit until all the juicy fruit is in the bowl. Squeeze the remaining casing to capture its juice. Continue with all the oranges.
To prepare the ambrosia, choose a serving bowl with a 1-quart capacity (four cups). Cut glass bowls are the traditional favorite, and any glass bowl shows off the golden hue of the dish wonderfully. Place a layer of orange slices or orange sections in the bottom of the bowl, covering it completely. Sprinkle generously with a portion of the coconut, and then scatter 3 to 4 tablespoons of sugar over the coconut. Continue layering the oranges, coconut, and sugar, making two more layers and ending with coconut on top. Drizzle reserved orange juice over the top of the fruit; it should disappear into the bowl. It should not be too juicy.
Cover and chill for 2 hours, or until close to serving time. If possible, remove from the refrigerator 15 to 20 minutes to reduce the chill.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Nancie McDermott is a Chapel Hill-based cookbook author. Her books include: “Southern Cakes,” (Chronicle Books, 2007) “Southern Pies,” (Chronicle Books, 2010) and “Southern Soups & Stews,” (Chronicle Books, 2015.) Reach her at nanciemcdermott.com.