As we honor motherhood, maternal bonds and the influences of mother’s in our communities on May the 8th, I would like to share with you, this homage of my grandmother and the childhood memories I have of her Midwestern kitchen.
I can recall summers trips to a small farming community outside of Greenfield, Illinois with my grandparents. George Strait playing on the radio as we drove across the bridge in to Alton, Illinois, corn for miles.
I close my eyes and can see and smell her house. The summer heat blazing through the white lace sheers of her open windows. The smell of chicken frying as I sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by plates upon plates of green onions and sliced tomatoes. Coconut cake baking in the oven. That was the smell of my childhood.
When the summer heat of the kitchen got to be too much, I would go outside and collect eggs from the hen house. Gently gathering them, all the while being terrified of the roosters that would chase me. I would sit and stare at the deteriorating barn, and wonder about what scary things were inside of it. I never worked up the courage to go near it.
One of my jobs at my grandmothers was to sit at the kitchen table and talk with her as she and my great grandmother cooked Sunday dinner. I would learn later on in life that those kitchen table conversations helped to shape the way I would think about food and family.
The way you hold the paring knife when you peel potatoes or the proper way to flour and fry chicken. And, while it’s still good after an hour, the coconut filling was even better the next day. Out of all of the things my grandmother did on a daily basis, my grandfather, Papa as we called him, was in charge of the pan gravy. I found out later in life, that she never learned how to make gravy so out of all of the things I subconsciously chose to remember as a child, his pan gravy was one of the most important things I would take away from the table.
As the traditions of my grandmother and great grandmother continue to live today in the memories of my children and my grandchildren, I want to share with you one of the recipes we always made on Mother’s day, my grandmother’s coconut cake.
Grandma's Coconut Cake:
Shortening and flour for pans
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon powdered milk
1/2 cup water
2/3 cup liquid milk (2 percent or whole)
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons powdered milk
1/2 cup water (for dissolving milk powder)
2 pounds frozen shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened --- recipe tested with unsweetened), divided
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
To make the yellow cake layers: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare cake pans by lightly greasing with shortening, then dusting with flour. I use two, round cake pans.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside. In a small bowl or measuring cup, stir the powdered milk into the water and mix until dissolved. Combine the liquid milk with the powdered milk/water mixture and set aside.
In a mixing bowl with a hand mixer, cream together the shortening and the sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Add about half the flour mixture, beating until just incorporated, and then half the milk mixture, again beating until just incorporated. Repeat this step, adding the remaining flour with the remaining liquid, and beat until just smooth (about 1 minute). Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowls once or twice during the mixing.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans and bake for about 20 to 30 minutes. The cooking time will vary depending on how many cake pans you use and how full they are. The cake is done when it springs back when lightly pressed near the center with your finger. Allow the cake to cool for a few minutes in the pan, and then turn out onto cooling racks to cool completely.
To make the icing: In a mixing bowl, using an electric mixer, combine the vegetable shortening, vanilla and salt and cream together until incorporated. Slowly add the confectioners’ sugar until it forms a very thick consistency. Dissolve the powdered milk in the water and gradually add, just 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time, until the icing is a nice, spreadable consistency.
To assemble the cake: To make the filling, in a large bowl, thaw the frozen coconut and set aside. Take 1 1/2 cups of the coconut and place in a smaller bowl. Combine the water and sugar and pour over the smaller bowl of coconut. This should be very moist but not soupy.
Place one layer of the yellow cake on a cake plate and spread with icing. Spoon the moistened coconut over that. Place the next layer on top and spread with icing, spooning the moistened coconut over it. Continue this process until all your layers are filled; however, don’t put the moist filling on the very top of the last layer, as it will be iced. Next, cover the entire cake with the icing. Make sure to use a thick coating of icing to eliminate any of the cake showing through. Take handfuls of the dry, thawed coconut and press the flakes into the icing. You may want to put a tray underneath to catch any coconut that falls as you do this. Continue pressing dry, flaky coconut all over the cake until it is completely covered. Chill for about 1 hour to set (it helps the coconut to stay), and then serve. Enjoy!