Tuesday, May 26, 2009

An Experiment in Coconut Cake

Growing up, I did most of my baking according to three-step directions on the back of boxes of Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker mixes. My parents, while both avid cooks, were never bakers. So when the time came to bring cupcakes into class for our birthdays, my brother and I would turn to the mixes that always hung around our cupboards. Funfetti was, unsurprisingly, an elementary school staple in the Parnes household; my brother and I, like most children, were unable to deny the temptations of sprinkles within the cake batter.

I'm slightly hesitant to admit this (though admittedly, only slightly), it was not so far out of the norm for me to eat sprinkles by the spoonful, straight out of the tub. Why I found (ok, find) these little bits of wax and artificial colorings to be so delicious I will never know, since they don't really taste like much more than the sum of their parts after all, which is, of course, to say that they taste like wax. Few cupcakes, however, (particularly of the boxed-mix variety) have been made the worse for wear by the fanciful addition of sprinkles to the party. Sure a few sprinkles crowning a twist of frosting is all well and good, but theres just something to be said for sprinkles that are actually integrated into the cupcakes themselves - like colorful stars against an otherwise pale vanilla cupcake sky, without actually altering the predictably nostalgic taste of the cupcake itself.

But really, I digress. I did have a point, after all. The backs of these cake mix boxes all contain variations on the same basic step-by-step procedure to create foolproof cakes; add eggs, oil and water, mix and bake. Where these mixes allow you a bit of creative license, however, is in your chosen baking vessel. This same mix could be a 9-inch layer cake, or 18-24 cupcakes, or a sheet cake, or two smaller square cakes, all dependent upon what you chose to bake it in. My take-away from this, which has stuck with me years later, was that any cake batter can be made into cupcakes, and any cupcake batter into cake. While this adage may be true on a more general level, it is, apparently, not without its exceptions. I learned not to cast broad baking strokes the hard, (very) dense way.

It was my mother's birthday a week ago. As we all know, all proper celebrations require cake. My mother is not a fan of chocolate cakes (in fact, we're not a big chocolate-cake family, or a cake family at all - if I didn't sporadically bring cake with me on my visits to my parent's house it's unlikely that they'd ever eat it). I turned instead to a coconut cake recipe, which seemed befitting the recent wave of nice weather we'd been experiencing.

This was not your typical coconut cake, as it called for reduced coconut milk, which I found pretty intriguing. In fact, was not a cake recipe at all. It was a recipe for coconut cupcakes, which looked so-adorable-I-could-pinch-them on the glossy pages of Bon Appetit. But cupcakes just would not do. Cupcakes don't feel as celebratory as cake does. Perhaps it's the fact that, when dealing with cupcakes, you don't all share in slices of the same larger whole, which feels slightly less communal to me. When eating cake, we have to pause, and wait for the pieces to be actually cut, providing a moment in which to share in a joyous, cake-worthy event. Cupcakes can just be grabbed, willy-nilly, without any regard to why they were baked in the first place.

The recipe was for 18 cupcakes, so I decided to make it into a cake, for the aforementioned celebratory reasons. In the same vein, I went the layer-cake route, since we all know that layer cakes are far more celebratory than non-layer cakes. Somewhere along the way, though, something went wrong. The cake had great flavor, the coconut made its subtle presence known against the comforting warmth of the butter. This cake will definitely not knock you over the head with its coconutiness, but it is perceptibly hanging around in the mix, more utility man than power slugger; more Joey Fatone than JT.

Something was amiss, however, and my cupcake conversion was not successful. The cake was far too dense, to the extent that I felt legitimate resistance as I tried to cut through it. And despite my mother's insistence that the cake had good flavor, we all knew it was a failure. While the prior desserts I've delivered had been well-received, this was undeniably sub-par. But my family loves me, and ate it anyway (with minimal criticism). In spite of the fact that it was dense, the cake was still fat and sugar, and the flavors were still there. But I learned a valuable lesson, one that I will take with me as I continue along my path to baking enlightenment.

Coconut-Milk Cupcakes (or cake, at your own risk) with Coconut Frosting
Adapted from Bon App├ętit, April 2009

While this attempt was not a success, I think this recipe can be made truly great with a couple of minor tweaks - and even has the potential to succeed in cake form.

I baked the batter in two separate 9-inch pans. This might have been my first mistake - a better move might have been to bake the cake in one pan and then cut the single cake into two layers with a serrated knife. But the problem with this cake was its heaviness, so I'm not sure that a one-pan-approach is the solution. A better solution is probably to use cake flour, as opposed to all-purpose. I had tried three separate grocery stores in the Union Square area for cake flour, and was wholly unsuccessful in my endeavor. The recipe below is adapted for cake flour (if you use all purpose, you'll only need two cups - but definitely go the cupcake route), since I think that's a big key to making this recipe work.

The most time consuming aspect of the recipe is reducing the coconut milk - don't be afraid to really let it boil. Otherwise, it will take quite a long time for it to sufficiently reduce - just use a larger pot and you'll be fine. I also found the frosting below a bit too sweet for the subtlety of the cake itself, so I'll reduce the amount of sugar used the next time I make these, perhaps by as much as a cup.


2 13- to 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk (preferably organic) [
3 tablespoons unsweetened, shredded coconut (optional; I would refrain from using sweetened, flaked coconut, since the flavor would likely be too strong).


2 1/4 cups cake flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup reduced coconut milk (see above), room temperature


1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar (Note: I found this frosting to border on cloying, and would use close to 1 1/2 cups next time, though I am admittedly not a buttercream person, as I find it far too sweet, so this is a matter of personal taste)
1/3 cup reduced coconut milk (see above), room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut, lightly toasted (for garnish)


Bring coconut milk to boil in large deep saucepan over medium-high heat (coconut milk will boil up high in pan). Reduce heat to medium-low; boil until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, stirring occasionally, 25 to 30 minutes (Note: I found it took a bit longer than that). Towards the end of this time period, add the unsweetened, coconut to the pan; stir to combine. Once sufficiently reduced, remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Transfer to small bowl. Cover; chill (coconut milk will settle slightly as it cools). DO AHEAD Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled.

Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 350°F. Line eighteen 1/3-cup muffin cups with paper liners (or cake pan). Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar; beat on medium-high speed until well blended, about 2 minutes. Add 2 eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition and occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Beat in seeds from vanilla bean and remaining egg. Add half of flour mixture; mix on low speed just until blended. Add 1 cup reduced coconut milk; mix just until blended. Add remaining flour mixture; mix on low speed just until blended. Divide batter among muffin cups.
Bake cupcakes until tops spring back when gently touched and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Transfer cupcakes in pans to rack; cool 10 minutes. Carefully remove cupcakes from pans and cool completely on rack.

Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar, 1/3 cup reduced coconut milk, seeds from vanilla bean, and salt. Beat on medium-low speed until blended, scraping down sides of bowl. Increase to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy.

Using pastry bag fitted with large star tip (NOTE: I used a ziploc bag with the corner snipped off), pipe frosting onto cooled cupcakes. (Alternatively, top each cupcake with 2 tablespoons frosting. Using small offset spatula, swirl frosting over top of cupcakes, leaving 1/2-inch plain border.) Sprinkle with coconut.DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Store in airtight containers; chill. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Seasonal Impropriety: Brisket in May

What I am about to do here is entirely inappropriate, but I have been sitting on this recipe for far too long, and it's just not right anymore. I have to face the facts: there is likely no dish out there that is more wrong for this time of year. And I realize that this may just prevent you from giving this one a try, but I must urge you to reconsider.

I know that bathing suit season is around the corner, and brisket and bathing suits go together like A-Rod and clutch hitting, but New York City has seen nothing but rain for the past three months (that's how long it's been, right? I'm not sure I recall what the sun actually looks like anymore). But something about this year's spring has prevented me from jumping head-first into the comforts of the season; trench coats, puddles, general sogginess, and the omnipresent umbrella have all made it quite hard to leave behind the warmth and familiarity of so many winter comforts.

It's been a gloomy, foggy, schpritzey kind of spring, with the odd 90-degree days thrown in for good measure. Two weeks ago I wore my winter coat on Monday, scarf and all, and by Sunday I was laying out in Central Park in a bikini. One week, two diametrically opposed seasons, and zero plane trips to tropical locales in the dead of winter. So please don't blame me for being seasonally confused. I'm well aware that summer is fast-approaching (to which my borderline disgusting consumption of frozen dairy goods over the last month can attest), but there's just something in the air (uh, probably constant 98% humidity, and not the warm, pleasant summer night kind) that's been preventing me from breaking out the sandals for good.

I admit that brisket is a traditionally cold-weather cut of meat, as many tougher, more inexpensive cuts are, since they require long, slow preparations to render them supple and tender. And yes, this recipe was made for Passover, but this meal is really, and truly, undeniably fantastic. And deliciousness knows no bounds!

So hear my case - brisket need not be relegated to wintertime. Yes, the fact that it requires a long cooking time and tends to be paired with deep, hearty, warming flavors may suggest that it's best enjoyed in chillier times, but this needn't be the case. Free brisket from the chains of seasonality - slice it, sandwich it between two pieces of crusty bread, throw it in a basket with a nice, fresh salad and some fruit and lo and behold - a picnic! What's more summery than a picnic? Not much, not much at all.

This recipe gives a great deal of flexibility in its preparation, since it can be finished a couple of days after it's been started, which is great news for those of us who find ourselves flitting to and fro on a whim whenever a summer breeze decides to pass through.

Beef Brisket with Merlot and Prunes
from Bon Appetit April 2008, recipe here

1 4-to 4 1/2-pound flat-cut (first-cut) beef brisket, trimmed of most fat
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (preferably fire-roasted)
1 cup Merlot or other dry red wine
2 pounds onions, sliced
4 medium carrots, peeled, thinly sliced
16 garlic cloves, peeled
1 1/2 cups pitted large prunes (about 8 ounces)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon prune juice
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 325°F.

Pat brisket dry (this is necessary to get great browning - make sure the meat really is dry) and season all over with salt and pepper. Heat oil in heavy extra-large skillet over high heat.

Add brisket and cook until deep brown, about 7 minutes per side. Transfer brisket, fat side up, to large roasting pan. Add tomatoes with juice and wine to skillet. Remove from heat, scrape up any browned bits, and pour mixture over brisket.

Scatter onions, carrots, and garlic around brisket. Add prunes and thyme; drizzle with 1/2 cup prune juice and 3 tablespoons vinegar. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Place the roasting pan over 2 burners and bring the liquid to a boil. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and place in the preheated oven.

Braise brisket until tender, about 3 hours 15 minutes. Uncover and cool 1 hour at room temperature.

The brisket can be made up to third point 2 days ahead; just cover the pan with foil and throw it in the fridge. To resume, bring the liquid just to a simmer over two burner and continue on.

Remove the brisket from roasting pan, scraping it of juices. Place on work surface;cut across grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Spoon off fat from top of pan juices. Place 1 cup vegetables (no prunes) and 1 cup braising liquid from pan into processor and puree. Return puree to pan. Add remaining 1 tablespoon prune juice and 1 teaspoon vinegar to pan. Heat sauce; season with salt and pepper.

Overlap brisket slices in 13x9x2- inch glass baking dish. Pour sauce over brisket, separating slices to allow some sauce to flow between. DO AHEAD:Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; chill.

Rewarm brisket, covered, in 350°F oven for 30 minutes. Sprinkle brisket with parsley; serve.

Note - you can use a slender metal pin or a thin, sharp knife to check whether the brisket is tender. Insert the pin into the thickest part of the brisket; if it meets no resistance, the brisket is done.