Sunday, September 15, 2013

Coconut Cake

If I am ever looking for inspiration to write about food, I need only read a few pages of Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. Her stories are peppered so subtly with bits of backstory and setting that the reader isn't forced to digest a hunk of exposition before getting to the good stuff. And in setting a scene, Hamilton picks out details that you wouldn't think to care about, but that come together in the kind of simply crafted sentences that you dance through with little effort.

You can imagine my delight, then, upon reaching the back feature of my May 2013 issue of Bon Appetit and seeing her byline at the head of a seven-page story on home cooks of the South. Food is the engine that powers her weeklong road trip through kitchens across five southern states, but her details paint the people who cook and where they cook as much as what they're cooking.

On Day Two of the trip, Hamilton met Laurie Osteen's coconut cake in Savannah, Georgia. She introduces it to us as "glistening white" and "practically levitating under its glass dome on the counter." Later she relays the anecdote that the cake may or may not have killed the diabetic local priest. I had already set my sights on this cake; having Gabrielle Hamilton conclude that it is "worth the peril" merely cemented my decision.

I was a little surprised (and, I'll admit, pleased) to find that Mrs. Osteen's coconut cake starts with a box of yellow cake mix. When I think of home cooks, I think of from-scratch recipes on wrinkled, smudged, and splattered index cards. Shortcuts carry a stigma; they seem aesthetically incorrect and compromising in quality. But Hamilton's story sings a different tune. She praises all the incomplete scribblings, last-minute substitutions, and time-saving expedients of the unpolished home cook. These people base their creations on what tastes delicious, or what they've been eating since childhood, or what they have on hand that day, and they don't take themselves so seriously that they can't rip open a bag of Duncan Hines along the way - because time is limited, perhaps, or because you actually can't beat the taste of boxed cake.
With the yellow cake, Osteen used the back of the box only as a guide. She upped the egg count, threw in some extra vegetable oil, and replaced the water with whole milk for a richer, moister, softer cake.

I was, however, disappointed when I first learned there was no coconut in the cake itself. Can you really call it a coconut cake? I wondered. Instead, the shredded flakes joined sugar, sour cream, and some milk to form a snowy icing that was to be spread over the warm cake and allowed to seep in for at least four hours. It seemed in keeping with the laid back Southern way, leaving a cake out for hours, the sour cream-based frosting weeping into its soft, warm pores.

I suppressed my uptight instinct to refrigerate the cake and let it sit at room temperature under its glass dome for more than seven hours before I took it to a friend's birthday party. I had a piece that night, and it was delicious. But I ate more of it the next day, and the day after that, too, and nowhere along the way did the cake go in the fridge. And I swear to you, good people, that cake got better with time. 

So now we must revisit the question posed by my doubting and critical past self: Can you really call it a coconut cake?

Yes, responds my present self, enlightened by a broader understanding that gives credence to all home cooks (even the ones who use boxed cake). 

Yes you can. Now lighten up.