Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Birthday Cake

I've been stalling on this one because this recipe is just so dang long to write out! But we're leaving town in less than a week and I can't put this off til we get back. That would be wrong.

I BAKED recently. It's not something that happens all that often around here because I'm busy making baby food and cleaning up Lake Luciana, ie the dining area floor, after every meal. That takes time, people. But Sky's mom had a birthday not too long ago and she came up to LA to celebrate at our house and I thought the least I could do was make the lady a birthday cake! It was so satisfying to make a birthday cake. It totally justified the cake stand and dome I impulse-bought a month or so ago from Bountiful during their 50% off sale (which seems to still be going on and I do suggest a trip). It was delicious, pretty, and I have a tub of buttercream frosting in the freezer so my work is half done for next time.

When Sky told me his mom likes old-fashioned desserts, I decided on coconut cake. It's one of those things I've never made, always want to order, and rarely, if ever, eat. I have a copy of the New Best Recipe book by Cook's Illustrated and it's one of my go-tos for classic recipes. The recipes are really good, and there are explanations of how they arrived at them which is educational if you want to read. Also equipment and technique tips. I recommend. This one has coconut flavor in the cake, in the frosting, and then coconut is pressed all over it. YUM.

I'll say before I start that this cake is supposed to be 4 layers. Now, I am no professional baker, but I've done my share and I followed the recipe EXACTLY and have good pans and a great oven. My rounds didn't rise enough to make 4 layers remotely do-able. So mine was 2 layers, and totally delicious. I made the cake the night before and frosted the morning of the bday. Both the cake and the frosting use a lot of egg whites so this is a perfect excuse to make ice cream with the leftover yolks. I will also give the disclaimer that the cream of coconut used in both the cake and the frosting is anything but organic. I think there might be some, um, artificial things in it, and the cake is full of gluten and sugar. And it is f-ing delicious and a crowd pleaser. Not for my baby, however. Yet.

said cake stand and dome housing subject of post

Coconut Layer Cake
 from New Best Recipe

for the cake:

2 1/4 c cake flour, sifted, and extra for dusting pans
1 large egg plus 5 egg whites
3/4 c cream of coconut *
1/4 c water
1 t coconut extract
1 t vanilla extract
1 c sugar
1 T baking powder
3/4 t salt
12 T (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool, cut into 12 pieces

2 c packed shredded sweetened coconut

for the buttercream:

4 large egg whites
1 c sugar
pinch salt
1 lb (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool, each piece cut into 6 pieces
1/4 c cream of coconut
1 t coconut extract
1 t vanilla extract

To bake cake:

1. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position; preheat to 325. Grease and dust with flour 2 9-in cake pans.

2. Beat whole egg and egg whites to combine in large liquid measuring cup . Add cream of coconut, water, coconut and vanilla extracts; beat with fork til combined.

3. Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of mixer and beat on lowest speed to combine--30 sec or so. With mixer still running at lowest speed, add butter, 1 piece at a time, til mixture like coarse meal and there are no large butter pieces: 2-2 1/2 minutes

4. With mixer still running, add 1 cup egg mixture to flour and butter mixture. Increase speed to med-high and beat til light and fluffy--45 sec or so. Add remaining liquid in steady slow-ish speed. Stop mixer, scrape batter down sides of bowl, then beat at med-high speed to combine (batter will be thick).

5. Divide batter between pans and level with rubber spatula. Bake til cakes are deep golden brown, have pulled away from sides of pans, and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 30-40 minutes. (Rotate pans from front to back after 20 minutes). Do not turn off oven.

6. Cool cakes in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes, then loosen from sides with paring knife, invert onto racks and reinvert so tops face up. Cool to room temp.

7. To toast coconut: while cakes are cooling, spread shredded coconut on rimmed baking sheet, toast in oven til shreds are a mix of golden brown and white, 15-20 min, stirring a couple of times.

For the frosting:

1. Combine egg whites, sugar, and salt in mixing bowl; set bowl over a saucepan containing 1 1/2 in of barely simmering water. Whisk constantly til mixture is opaque and warm to the touch and registers 120 degrees on instant read thermometer (which I do not own and was fine without), about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

2. Beat whites at high speed in mixer til barely warm (80-ish degrees if you have thermometer), glossy and sticky, about 7 minutes, Reduce speed to med-high and beat in butter, 1 piece at a time. Beat in cream of coconut and coconut and vanilla extracts. Stop mixer, scrape down sides of bowl, then beat again at med-high speed til well combined, about 1 minute.

To assemble cake: If your cakes got tall enough, split each cake into 2 layers (the book has an illustrated guide as to how to do this well). Otherwise, frost top of one layer, place next layer on top and frost whole cake with a thin layer. Put in fridge to set for 10 minutes, then add as much frosting as you want, spreading and leveling with butter knife (or frosting spatula which, again, I do not have). Sprinkle top of cake with toasted coconut, then press coconut into sides of cake with your hands, letting excess fall onto parchment paper or something. Decorate, light, mount, whatevs and cut and serve when you're ready! You will have lots of frosting left over if you only do 2 layers.

*Cream of coconut is found in the liquor section of the grocery store and it is highly processed artificial stuff. But it makes this cake awesome. If anyone wants to come over for pina coladas, I have a bunch left in the fridge.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Stanislavski

Here are a few pics from Taos--we had a gorgeous time, all 4 generations of us. Luciana is now obsessed with dogs (or "dah" as she says whenever we see one) thanks to Sam and Lucy, who she spent lots of floor time with.

The newness of what she does every day continues. Today was stacking the Stacking Cups inside each other. It's been all about Taking Things Out for the last month or more, and now we seem to be shifting to Putting Things In. Her spoon in a cup and now these colored cups inside one another. She'll work at it for over 5 minutes, succeed, immediately pull the cups apart, and spend 5 more minutes trying to do it again. I watched this awesome video on Janet Lansbury's site and I thought of it this morning while Luciana was taking herself on the Stacking Challenge. When she had done it, she didn't want me to applaud or give her a thumbs up, she just wanted to take her work apart and figure it out again. It makes me want to go do work for work's sake because the challenge is so fantastic, not because I'm going to get some reward or someone's approval after.

So of course she's my teacher in a million ways---we always hear that about kids and it's true true true. Before I became a mama, I imagined that being one would make me a better actor because I'd have lots of practice being present. True. And I'd be less attached because I had something more important to me in my life. True. But her communication is reminding me of something so essential to my acting work--and to communicating in life in general---that didn't occur to me. 

Luciana is really vocal and always has been. When she was a tinier baby I knew generally what she was saying: she was uncomfortable, she was happy, she wanted something. And as she gets older, naturally her sounds expand and because she can make more sounds she can get more specific.  Last week Sky remarked that when Luciana makes a sound I know exactly what she wants, down to the specifics of a particular object she wants or a particular way she wants to be held or somewhere she wants to go. It's kind of true. Not always, but often, what she's saying with her voice and body are crystal clear to me. I don't think this is because I'm some kind of mommy psychic. I do pay attention, that's my part, but I've got this theory that the reason I know what Luciana wants is because she knows what she wants, and she is so committed to communicating it that she doesn't need the English language.

So what she's reminding me about my work is that I have to know exactly what I want and how I feel about that if it's going to mean anything to people on stage with me and to the audience. I can't just arbitrarily decide to get mad for no reason--because I think it will be "exciting" to do or to watch. If what I'm doing doesn't ring true or deep for me, it's not going to ring true or deep for the audience, and then what's the point? We don't get sucked into stories because they're ok; we get sucked in because they resonate with us even if that resonance is outlandish humor-- the humor usually comes from someone wanting something really badly. Luciana, through all the things she says without saying them, is a living breathing crawling standing squawking example of clear intention expressed with whole voice and body. Even with no words I get what matters to her; she gets to me at that level below the words, and wonderful artists do the same.  I don't know the next time I'll be auditioning or performing but I hope when I do I don't get lazy, and I bring my pumpkin's wisdom with me. Meanwhile I'm inadvertently memorizing "I am A Bunny" and creating all the voices I can for Boris the Bear, Wesleigh the Elephant, Clare the Cow and their consorts.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Next Week

My friends!

I'm missing you. Luciana and I are heading to Taos tomorrow and I'm unplugging in a big way. Would you promise to visit me here next week? I've been jotting down notes on a post I'm really excited to write. Have a beautiful week; drink in the long days; may you feel enormous amounts of joy just because you can.

xx Melanie

PS: This was Friday at 6pm at our house. Which one of us needs the nap?

photo by the illustrious Sky Meltzer