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Friday, September 20, 2013

Miss Edna's Coconut Cake

When I attend country church funerals, I can usually count on three things: sweating, singing hymns I know the words to and eating good food. 

Being that these churches are often quite old and not air-conditioned, the temperature depends on how fast you can swish the church bulletin back and forth. You wouldn’t want things getting too comfortable though, or the preacher wouldn’t know when to quit talking.

 It’s not like on Sunday, when he has the parishioners for one whole church hour. A funeral crowd is a captive audience and, like the guest-of-honor up there in the casket, no one’s leaving till the preacher’s done preaching.

I love singing the classic hymns to music that needs no electricity or fancy pipes. All a funeral needs is an old, slightly scratched upright piano and a retired Sunday school teacher with Ben Gay on her arthritic joints playing Amazing Grace. It’s pure, sweet, and a bit simple. It seems appropriate… we didn’t have organs and synthesizers comin’ into this world and we sure don’t need them goin’ out.

Oftentimes, there’s an attached building behind the church. This is where the ladies place the after-the-funeral food. All of the church tables are put end to end and are weighted down with platters of deviled eggs, coca-cola ham, watermelon rind pickles, and homemade banana puddin’.

  It was in one of those buildings, where I first tasted Miss Edna’s coconut cake.

I had noticed the commanding cake at the end of the table and was struck by the height and abundance of flaky coconut. The knife was a mess, all covered down to the handle with icing. I cut a piece and sat down to eat. After swallowing the first bite, I lowered my plastic fork and said, “Oh my.” 

 Several local women were pouring iced tea in the kitchen, so I casually approached them and inquired about the cake, indicating I’d love to have the recipe. Knowing some recipes are prized family secrets, I tried to appear quite innocent and appreciative.

 “Oh, you must mean Miss Edna’s cake!” the preacher’s wife said“, She brings that to every funeral. You just missed her though.”

 There was no rolling of eyes at my audacity or snorting at my ignorance. I took that as a good indication the recipe just might be available. 

I thought about the cake a good deal over the next week and finally decided to call Miss Edna. I tracked her down and she seemed quite happy to send me the recipe. Almost too happy.  

I waited until Christmas to bake the cake. Following the instructions to the letter, I poured the creamy batter into the pans but something didn’t look right. The batter seemed a bit scant. I was beginning to feel uneasy and remembered Miss Edna’s glee at sharing the recipe. 

Undaunted, I baked the cake and applied the filling and icing. It was quite pretty and didn’t taste bad either. However, it definitely wasn’t Miss Edna’s famous coconut cake.

That was many, many years ago. I had forgotten about the cake until the recent passing of an elderly loved one, when I found myself back in that old country church. So much time had passed, I doubted there was any chance of seeing Miss Edna or one of her cakes, but I couldn’t help wondering during the service as I swished the church bulletin back and forth.

 When the service ended, I quickly made my way to the back building and couldn’t believe my eyes when there, down at the end of the table, was a tall, grand coconut cake! 

This time, there was no hesitancy, no call for discretion. I headed straight for the kitchen.

 “Excuse me, is that Miss Edna’s coconut cake over there?”

 The lady pouring the tea smiled and said, "It sure is, honey.”

 I stationed myself next to the cake and mentally willed some rude child to start the filling of the plates before all the guests were present. I didn’t have to wait long. My own son, bless his heart, began heaping massive amounts of food on a plate. 

Soon, others followed and in less than five minutes I was closing my mouth over a fork and shutting my eyes in ecstasy…oh, yes, that was it and this time I would get the real recipe! 
Unfortunately, when I went to find Miss Edna, I was told she had just left!

I received a phone call the next day from some local ladies who had attended the funeral and eaten the coconut cake. Was it true I had acquired the actual recipe years ago? 

Oh, dear. I realized I couldn’t rightfully share the recipe I knew to be …how should I say, incomplete. If I shared the recipe I had, the Baptist church ladies would think I had pulled the leave-out-one-ingredient trick on them!

 I didn’t want to speak ill of Miss Edna, so I was all the more determined to get the real recipe.

I waited two days, and then called Miss Edna. I could sense the hesitancy in her voice, as she wasn’t sure she remembered me from years ago (or was that guilt I was hearing?) 

I poured out compliments and exclamations of her absolute celebrity status in regards to this cake. We discussed the recipe and I spent at least 25 minutes going over every detail….questioning the pan size, oven temperature, flour type, milk-fat percentage, coconut brand. I finally felt I was ready to try baking the cake again. 

“So, Miss Edna,” I asked, “do you think that’s it? We’ve got all the ingredients right, the time, the pan size, the temperature?”

“Weeeell…” she paused, “I rightly believe so”.

Then I could’ve sworn I heard a giggle.

“Actually, you know what I do?” she began. “I set out my eggs, six for the batter and three for the whites in the icing and I just go ahead and add those extra three egg yolks into the cake batter.” 

There was that giggle again. I distinctly heard excitement in her voice as she continued, “And then do you know what else I do?”

From there the whole recipe changed.

Daddy always told me wise, old cooks leave out ingredients so nobody can fully duplicate their original recipes and yet here I sat, probably the only person in the entire universe to witness the actual admission of the omission.

 Elderly cooks all over the south probably paused just then. They furrowed their brows and uneasily twisted their checkered aprons. For just a moment, there was something amiss in the sisterhood of cooks…they could feel it. Somebody had told.

I must admit I felt honored and just a little bit guilty. I got out a new piece of paper and rewrote the entire recipe…including all the little extra things she forgot to include the first go-around.

So that coconut cake recipe isn’t just a cake recipe. It’s a bit of a confession, a true willingness to share and a tiny glimpse into the secret society of elderly southern cooks.

I was feeling quite triumphant when we finished the conversation, but I must admit, I had to wonder… as she placed her phone in the cradle did she laugh out loud and say, “Heh, heh…that’ll keep her busy for awhile!”?

Miss Edna’s Famous Coconut Cake
1 cup Crisco                                     3 cups White Lily self rising flour
2 cups sugar                                    1 ½ cups milk (2 % or whole)
6 eggs plus 3 extra yolks                 1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350. Grease with Crisco and flour three 9-inch pans.   Cream Crisco and sugar till blended well and add eggs one at a time.  Add vanilla, then flour and milk starting with flour, then adding some milk, then some more flour, milk then ending with flour.  Mix a little more.  Bake about 20 minutes for the 9-inch pan.  (Edna uses an electric oven)
As soon as the pans go in the oven, start on your filling.
3 cups of sugar
2 cups of milk
7 oz. Baker’s angel flake coconut (buy the 14 oz. bag as the other 7 oz will be used over the icing)
In a heavy pan, cook sugar and milk over medium heat.  Let come to a boil.  Add coconut and bring to second boil and boil for 2 minutes.  Remove from heat.  When cake layers come out of oven, let sit for a minute or two then remove from the pans.  Poke holes with fork and slowly ladle filling over all three layers.  Let layers cool before covering with the never fail icing.

Never fail icing:
3 egg whites                                     1 teaspoon water
¾ cups sugar                                      ½ teaspoon vanilla
¾ cups light corn syrup
Put ingredients in double boiler over boiling water and beat with mixer for 7 minutes. Take off heat and let cool. Ice sides and top of cake after assembling layers. Cover outside of cake with another 7 oz. of coconut.

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