I have overheard Marie, on many occasions, ooh and aah over her share of coconut recipes (from cake to cookies to cocktails!) Not being a fan of coconut, I always thought it was funny she could be so excited by all these ideas. But then Marie and I made the Barefoot Contessa’s signature coconut cupcakes 2 years ago for little E’s birthday. The cupcakes are amazing, and I sadly acknowledge that this fact probably relates to the obscene amounts of butter that are called for. My brother-in-law made some pretty terrifying calculations about the amount of butter in each serving, but I’ve fortunately managed to bury that knowledge deep deep into the recesses of my mind. I hope.
Anyway. Another calorific cookbook of mine, the Joanne Chang’s Flour Cookbook, (which, by the way, was the source of the birthday cupcakes for little E’s this year as you may recall), features a coconut cake recipe using, rather than plain old dairy milk, coconut milk in both the frosting and cake. Pretty cool. Perfect for Marie’s visit, right? And who cares if her birthday was already a few weeks past–there’s always an excuse for cake!
The actual cake might have been perfect too, had I been just a bit more knowledgable about coconut milk. My historic lack of interest in all things coconut means that I was not aware that the milk is thick and dense, like condensed milk. When I belatedly noticed that the package of “coconut milk” I bought had in smaller font “beverage” I worried a little, but plowed ahead nonetheless. And by belatedly, I noticed as I was opening the package to pour into the recipe. I was in too deep to stop!
If you are a bit more knowledgable than I about coconut milk, you are at best raising your eyebrows, and at worst, cringing. I should have known better. I did actually know that coconut milk is “fatty”; while this looked like skim milk–and as it’s basically just watered down coconut milk, that’s not too far off. I know that “apple juice drink” is not apple juice, why would “coconut milk beverage” be what I was looking for?
It was a bit of a mixed bag.
The cake did not rise all that much, but otherwise, actually turned out well enough. As I had used a 9″ cake pan rather than the specified 8″ pan, I took that as the explanation for a lackluster loft, and moved on. The cake may have looked a bit sad, but things smelled good. Time to make frosting!
And things went south. The method is similar to the crispy magic icing recipe, where you start out heating a slurry of egg whites and sugar over a double boiler, then transfer to a stand mixer to beat until fluffy and cool, then adding the butter. (Cool is important so you don’t melt the butter!)
Oh, if I only had stopped there. Because it was already a perfect buttercream.
But then I went and dumped in that coconut milk beverage. And things were soupy. So I kept beating–soupy frosting was already unusable, so there was nothing to lose. But it turned into the following mess, which Marie was kind enough to observe that while tasty, looked like “half and half that’s gone bad.” Down the sink it went.
After that I tried seven-minute frosting, which, in our case, took way more than seven minutes, probably because we used pasteurized egg whites. This frosting also resulted in something a bit more on the liquid side than I’d like: I followed Mark Bittman’s recipe to take it to the soft peak stage before removing from heat; next time I’ll follow Epicurious’s recipe and take it to stiff peaks first. Still it worked: lovely, fluffy, like liquid marshmallow!
The cake experience was a bit marred in the end by the one-hour sojourn into frosting mishaps, with sacrificed butter, impatient preschoolers waiting for cake, and an almost-toddler who fussed vociferously when not allowed to operate the hand mixer. But in the end, we had a coconut cake, with frosting, and several lessons learned. And that’s not a bad result.
And finally, children, to summarize the five lessons we’ve learned today:
1. Coconut milk and coconut milk beverage are not the same thing. You may be able to substitute one for the other in baking, but not in frosting.
2. If you use too large a pan, your cake will probably not rise as high, and will bake much faster.
3 Flour recipes must be pretty good if the cake can still turn out despite my gaffes. And I certainly don’t blame Joanne Chang (the author of Flour) for not writing a frosting recipe that withstands the use of coconut milk “beverage.”
4. Pasteurized egg whites are great to use if you are an anxious mom, but they do take much longer to beat into meringue.
5. When making seven-minute icing, take to the stiff peak stage before removing from heat.
6. Don’t trust a one-year-old with a fork near a cake.