Nothing finishes a meal quite so regally as layer cake; for Southerners, at least, it is the epitome of fine entertaining. This towering confection, draped in glossy white frosting and scattered with coconut, was one of my mother’s signature dinner party desserts. You can make the cake layers two days in advance, but make the frosting no more than two or three hours before serving; it doesn’t keep its silky-smooth texture very long.
MAKES ONE 8- OR 9-INCH 3-LAYER CAKE / SERVES 10 TO 12
1 1⁄2 cups canola oil
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 3⁄4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1⁄2 cups milk
2 1⁄4 cups sugar
4 large egg whites
1⁄4 cup light corn syrup
1⁄4 cup water
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 cups sweetened flaked coconut
CAKE | Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease and flour three 8- or 9-inch cake pans. Have all the ingredients at room temperature before you begin.
Place the canola oil in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on high speed; add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla and stir to combine.
Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl and stir to mix.
Add the flour mixture to the oil mixture in thirds, alternating with the milk and beginning and ending with the flour mixture, stopping to scrape down the bowl several times and stirring just until all is incorporated. Do not overmix.
Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans, filling each about halfway, and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cakes are springy to the touch and a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.
Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool in the pans for about 15 minutes. Run a small knife around the edges of the pans before turning the cakes out onto baking racks to cool completely before frosting.
FROSTING | Do not start the frosting until the cakes are completely cooled. Place the sugar, egg whites, corn syrup, water, salt, and cream of tartar in a double boiler set over simmering water over low heat and beat with a handheld electric mixer on low speed for about 1 minute, until the mixture is frothy.
Increase the speed to high and beat for 5 to 7 minutes more, until the mixture becomes glossy, triples in volume, and forms soft peaks.
Remove from the heat, add the vanilla, and continue to beat for about 2 minutes longer, until the mixture becomes thick.
ASSEMBLY | Once the cakes have cooled completely, use a long serrated knife to slice off the rounded top portion of each cake to make a flat, even surface. Discard the trimmings.
Place one layer, cut side down, on a large plate or cake stand. Spread evenly with a quarter of the frosting and sprinkle with about 1 cup of the coconut. Repeat with the second and third layers. Spread the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting and sprinkle with the remaining coconut. Slice and serve.
SARA’S SWAPS Give this tropical cake a piña colada twist by brushing each layer with a mix of equal parts pineapple juice and rum or coconut milk before frosting and sprinkling 1⁄4 cup crushed pineapple along with the coconut between each layer and on top of the cake. For a really delicious pineapple cake, use pineapple in place of the coconut.
Know-how: Making Homemade Baking Powder
In a pinch, you can make your own baking powder with just a few simple pantry items. For every teaspoon of baking powder needed, just mix 1⁄2 teaspoon cream of tartar, 1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda, and 1⁄4 teaspoon cornstarch. Because the baking soda will begin to react upon mixing, plan to use your homemade baking powder right away; it will not keep.