Why don’t we toast coconut? I mean, everybody knows macaroons are way more aromatic than raw coconut.
It’s not as if we never toast coconut in this country; even good old Fanny Farmer mentions the process. But most American cookbooks don’t, and apart from macaroons, we mostly see toasted coconut as an accompaniment for Indonesian curries.
But I say coconut should be toasted. Toasting improves nuts; it makes them crunchier and more aromatic, with all the delicious browned flavors that result from what chemists called the Maillard reaction.
Think about it. Toasted almond: irresistible. Raw almond: sort of resistible. I rest my case. Even walnuts are better toasted, though I understand you shouldn’t toast macadamias, because they’re so rich with oils they might actually catch fire.
Chocolate ‘cries out’ for roasted accompaniment
These deep philosophical ideas came to me when I decided I wanted to make a chocolate coconut cake. It sounded great. The more I thought about it, though, the clearer it became that I was going to have to toast the coconut first. Raw coconut is all very well with vanilla, but chocolate is a roasted flavor and cries out to be with its kind.
So I made a chocolate cake with a toasted coconut frosting, and it was my best-received cake ever: a plush white frosting furred over with fragrant golden bits of coconut, enclosing a rich blast of chocolate.
So far, all I’ve been doing with toasted coconut is making variations on established dishes such as chocolate cake and banana pudding. But I have the feeling I’ve just gotten started down this road. Dimly, I see the possibilities: Toasted coconut sprinkled on salad. Toasted coconut doing strange things to braised chicken or grilled pork chops. Or hey, to peanut butter. Toasted coconut ice cream!
And now I’m wondering, can you toast Brazil nuts?
Toasted Coconut Chocolate Cake
For the toasted coconut:
- Spread a package of sweetened shredded or flaked coconut as evenly as possible on a baking tray; thinner areas will brown faster and may burn if not watched. Bake at 350 F until the coconut is an even golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes, removing the tray and stirring the contents at 5 and 10 minutes and then every minute or two afterward until done. Flaked coconut, because it mounds higher, will brown unevenly on top, so it has to be turned over with a spatula at the same time that it is stirred.
- Shredded and flaked coconut are roughly interchangeable, but shredded is chewier and tends to be sweeter, and flaked is crunchier and a little buttery. So shredded is preferable when mixed into something, while flaked is particularly good when sprinkled on top of something.
- If you’re using freshly grated coconut, allow at least 20 minutes for toasting. You may want to toss it with a little sugar after toasting.
For the cake:
1. Turn on the oven to 350 F.
2. With the 2 tablespoons of butter, generously grease the bottoms and sides of two 9-inch cake pans. (If possible, line the buttered bottoms with circles of parchment paper first then grease the parchment paper also.) Drop the 2 tablespoons flour into one pan and shake it around until the bottoms and sides are dusted with flour, then transfer the remainder to the other pan and flour it. When both pans are floured, turn them upside down and tap them over a sink to get rid of the excess..
3. Put the cocoa in a small mixing bowl and stir in the boiling water until pretty well dissolved. When cool, add the vanilla.
4. Place the butter in a mixing bowl and beat until pale yellow and slightly inflated. Add the sugar and beat until smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after each addition.
5. Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Add ⅓ of the flour mixture to the mixing bowl and beat until smooth, then ½ of the cocoa mixture. Continue, alternating two more additions of flour with one of cocoa liquid, beating just until the flour is incorporated.
6. Immediately transfer the batter into the cake pans, smooth the tops as evenly as possible and bake about 30 to 35 minutes until the tops of the layers are firm to the touch and they are starting to pull away from the sides of the pans.
7. Remove the cake pans and place on racks to cool for 15 minutes. Place a large plate or another rack on top of each of the pans, overturn it onto the plate, remove the pan from the cake layer (and the parchment paper too, if you used it), then repeat the process to turn the layer back right side up on the rack. Repeat with the other layer. Allow to cool at least 30 minutes more.
For the frosting:
1. Put 2½ to 3 inches of water in the bottom of a double boiler and bring to a simmer.
2. Meanwhile, mix the sugar, corn syrup, water, egg whites, salt and cream of tartar in the top of the double boiler. Using an electric mixer, beat at low speed until foamy and pale yellow, one minute.
3. When the water is simmering, place the top of the double boiler over it and beat the contents at high speed until the mixture is thick and tripled in volume, with the beaters leaving a wake of sculptured-looking folds. This can take anything from 7 to 14 minutes. Continue to beat a minute or two longer until the surface just starts to lose its shine.
4. Immediately remove the top of the double boiler from the bottom, add the vanilla and beat the frosting one minute more.
5. Frost the top of one cake layer with ⅓ of the frosting and sprinkle about 1 cup coconut on top of the frosting. Place the other layer on top and frost the top and sides with the remainder of the frosting, then sprinkle and pat as much of the coconut onto the cake as you can get to stick.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.