Before Rite-Aid was Rite-Aid, it was called Thrifty’s and well-known for its remarkably inexpensive and good ice cream. During the hot summers, my siblings and I would go to Thrifty’s and each get 1 or 2 scoop cones for about 25 cents a scoop. It wasn’t Baskin and Robbins/31 Flavors but it was what we could afford. And, the selection was rather decent; my favorite Thrifty's flavor was mocha almond fudge. My mother never went with us as she was too busy working, but she’d put in an order for a half gallon of coconut pineapple ice cream, her favorite. We'd serve her some nightly, after dinner, after we'd all had our fresh fruit course (a Vietnamese dining tradition).
We didn’t know American ice cream from Italian gelato to sorbet but we knew that Thrifty’s was fabulous. Ice cream in Vietnam is a pricey affair and the texture is light, similar to that of Thrifty’s, so the drugstore ice cream treats were extra familiar. Nowadays, my mom, who’s turning 76 this year (I think), doesn’t eat tons of ice cream because of health concerns. But last week, as I was making up the strawberry and cream cake, I thought of coming up with something special for my mom. I looked to my friend Nancie McDermott’s terrific book, Southern Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2007) which has a number of coconut layer cake recipes from the American south, where such cakes are king. Nancie’s work and sensibilities (she’s an expert on Thai cooking, having been a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand) informed and inspired this coconut and pineapple cake recipe. Thanks, Nancie!
Mom’s birthday is in July and I’ll likely gift her this spectacular pineapple and coconut cake, coincidentally accented by spices used in beef pho noodle soup. Don’t worry, this isn’t a pho cake. It’s a lovely rich cake that you’ll swoon over.
Coconut and Pineapple Cake
If you don’t want to make this frosting, use the whipped cream frosting in the strawberry and cream cake recipe. For the dried shredded coconut, look for Bob’s Red Mill brand, which comes is 1/4-inch-wide ribbons. Health food stores are a good bet; look in the bulk section. Or, go for softer texture by using freshly grated or thawed frozen coconut and add a savory sweet touch; see the Note below for details. If you can’t decide, cover half of the cake with nutty toasted coconut and the other half with plush untoasted coconut.
Makes 1 cake, enough to serve 8 to 12
2 (9-inch) round layers Coconut Cake
Spiced pineapple filling:
1 (20 ounce) can crushed pineapple in natural juice, do not drain
10 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 pinches of salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3-inch stick of cinnamon or cassia bark
3 whole star anise (24 robust points)
5 whole cloves
2 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup pineapple juice
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 cups dried shredded coconut, wide shreds preferred, toasted (see Note below)
1. If you’ve made the coconut butter cake layers in advance and refrigerated or frozen them, return them to room temperature.
2. For the spiced pineapple filling, combine all the ingredients in a saucepan, stirring until the flour is no longer visible. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, lower the heat to simmer gently for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until thick and fragrant. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally to prevent a film from forming. Expect the cooled mixture to have thickened a bit more. Pick out and discard the spices. Use right away or transfer to a plastic container and refrigerate for up to 5 days return to room temperature before using. Makes about 2 cups.
3. To make the frosting, use a double boiler or medium saucepan. Regardless of pan, fill it with 3 inches of water and bring to a gentle simmer. Put the egg whites, sugar, pineapple juice, and corn syrup into the top part of the double boiler or a bowl; if you’re using a bowl, make sure it sits snug atop the water. With a hand-held mixer, beat the mixture on medium speed for 1 minute, until foamy.
Put atop the simmering water, increase the speed to medium high or high, and continue beating for a good 7 minutes. Aim for a glossy white, thick frosting with soft peaks. Expect the frosting to triple in volume by the time you’re done. When satisfied, remove from the heat and beat for 2 minutes to further aerate, slightly cool and stiffen. The frosting can sit for a couple hours at room temperature but it’s best to assemble and frost the cake soon after the frosting is made. Now, you are ready to frost the cake.
4. To assemble the cake, place one cake layer, top side down, on a cake stand or platter, with strips of wax paper or parchment paper underneath to form a collar that will keep the stand or platter dirty clean. (For guidance, see the strawberry and cream cake recipe for a photo.)
Spread a good 1/4-inch layer of the spiced pineapple filling on top, getting it close to rim but not quite; you should use up about 3/4 of the pineapple filling. Position the other cake layer, top side up, on the filling. If you like, spread the remaining pineapple filling on top; or, save the pineapple filling for another use, such as spreading on sugar cookies.
6. Liberally cover the top and sides of the cake with the frosting, using an offset spatula to smooth things out. You don’t have to be perfect, just even, since the coconut will mask imperfections. Sprinkle and gently press the toasted coconut on the frosting. The cake may sit at room temperature for 2 hours before serving. Or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days; let the cake sit out for about 1 hour to remove the chill before serving.
How to toast dried coconut: Preheat the oven to 35oF and put the coconut on a baking sheet. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 4 minutes, stirring frequently, until the majority of the coconut shreds have been tinged light brown. If you use a toaster oven, use 350F and watch it carefully; the coconut will be toasted after 2 to 3 minutes only.
When using fresh or thawed shredded coconut, toss it with 2 or 3 pinches of salt and 4 teaspoons of sugar for a savory sweet finish. You can use dried coconut in this application if you soak it for a few minutes in warm water to rehydrate, then squeeze it dry before tossing.