Coconut Cake Roll with Salted Coconut Chips
When I was a child, my family would go to my paternal grandparents’ humble farmhouse outside Grenada, Mississippi, every Christmas Eve for a celebration with my father’s three siblings and their families. We would eat snacks early in the evening (cocktail weenies in a sauce made from grape jelly and mustard were my grandfather’s favorite), move on to a traditional dinner with turkey and ham as the centerpieces, and then open presents by the fire, where each kid would at some point become momentarily hypnotized by the brilliant hues the flames took on as we tossed in the colorful wrapping paper. Almost as exciting as the exchange of presents, though—and far more pervasive in my memory—was the annual gift of my grandmother’s coconut cake.
She’d present it with great aplomb somewhere during the flurry of gift-opening. It was always a three-tiered affair, which she would have stashed away in the extra fridge in the storage room behind the kitchen, so that no one could steal a sneak peek. It was glorious—a towering stack covered in pristine white coconut flakes, with layers so delicate that each slice would fall apart before the serrated knife got through it. Didn’t matter; we all adored it. Her secret to the tender, moist layers was the “poke cake” method: When the cake layers came out of the oven, she poked holes all over them and then spread sweetened condensed milk over the top to soak in. The effect was decadent, rich, and absolutely irresistible.
Now that I’m grown up, Christmas gatherings are smaller, nine-person affairs that include my own family of four, my parents, and my brother, his wife, and their son. Towering layer cakes are just a bit too much for our small group, so I’ve created a more manageable homage to my grandmother’s coconut cake. It’s a coconut cake roll, which to me is just as special and oooh- and ahhh-inspiring as the layer cake upon which it’s based.
I’m pretty sure my grandmother’s cake included some coconut extract, but my version uses coconut products with no artificial flavors. Mine is also a poke cake, but with sweetened condensed coconut milk (a game-changing ingredient) adding richness to a simple sheet cake with a whiff of nutty essence from coconut water. The frosting includes a combination of butter and coconut cream, and lightly salted toasted coconut chips are pressed in for a gorgeous finish and equally beautiful taste.
It took me several tries to nail the texture and flavor that I remember from my childhood, but when I made this final version, I knew I had it right. One bite brought back a flurry of Christmas Eve memories—the letter board my brother got one year, my fancy fur hat and patent leather hat box, and Grandmama, every bit as stately as her cake and beaming with pride at what she’d made.