by Matt Lardie
Your mother’s spaghetti and meatballs. Uncle Joe’s famous chili. Grandma’s pecan pie. Heirloom recipes are memories as much as they are a set of instructions. They can transport us to another time and place. Treasured recipes passed down from generation to generation almost become members of our families; they tell our stories as well as any biography.
The North Carolina Heirloom Recipe Project seeks to gather just such recipes, and through them learn what it means to be a North Carolinian today. We are an incredibly diverse state, comprised of old Southern families and new imports, immigrants, refugees, and (dare I say?) Yankees. North Carolina cuisine has come to encompass flavors from across the globe, from Southern-styled tapas in Durham to Mexican-influenced seafood in Wilmington. No matter where where we may have come from, we have brought our recipes, and stories, to North Carolina, and in the process created a vibrant culinary backdrop that is garnering national and international attention.
I invite you to join me as I travel the state to cook with notable and noteworthy North Carolinians in their own kitchens. We’ll explore the heirloom recipes that make our state so unique, and in the process learn the stories and tales behind those recipes. I can think of no better venue to host this project than the North Carolina Folklife Institute, for food, and the creation of food, is as much a part of our folk history as music and art.
Check back often for new recipes and stories from across North Carolina, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to revisit some of your family’s heirloom recipes and all the memories and stories they contain within.
Nancie McDermott’s Family Coconut Cake – North Carolina Heritage Recipes Project, #1
Most every year, on Christmas Eve, you could find Nancy and William Suitt in the kitchen of their farmhouse in rural Orange County; William would be shucking oysters for oyster stew while Miss Nannie, as she was known, prepared her famous coconut cake. The other 364 days of the year would be spent running the family dairy (later to become Mapleview Dairy), but on Christmas Eve the focus was on the coconut cake. Nannie baked one for each of her three daughters every year. As those daughters grew and had families of their own, Nannie’s grandchildren would gather in the farmhouse over holidays and summer vacations to enjoy her homecooked treats; biscuits prepared on the fly in a giant wooden flour bowl, eggs scrambled right in the skillet so that there were both white and yellow bits in the fluffy finished product, and of course cakes, cookies, and pies.
One of those grandchildren was Chapel Hill resident Nancie McDermott, author of numerous cookbooks including Real Thai and Southern Pies. When Nancie set out to write her most recent cookbook, Southern Cakes, she knew the one recipe that absolutely had to be in the book; Miss Nannie’s Coconut Cake. It was very different from most other coconut cakes; real shredded coconut was used instead of the bagged, sweetened stuff, and the icing was more of a boiled sugar than a fluffy meringue. In fact, Nancie had never encountered a coconut cake the likes of her grandmother’s outside of the Piedmont region. “We actually have this recipe written out because my older sister had the brilliance to sit down with her and write down what she said about this cake,” Nancie recounts. “I’ve never seen this style of coconut cake anywhere else, and she very well could have gotten it from a newspaper clipping, but it became the cake she was known for locally.”
One of the things that made the coconut cake so special was the coconut itself. Like the Christmas Eve oysters, coconuts only came around once a year for the holidays, and the time and effort it took to crack, drain, peel, and shred them elevated the coconut cake from weekend treat to “oh gosh, what I did do to deserve this!?” status. Coconut cakes almost became an event in themselves.
Miss Nannie’s coconut cake is no exception. It takes some time, but like all good things, is well worth the effort. Nancie still uses fresh coconuts (now available almost year-round), and in the process of preparing the cake the memories come flooding back. “I remember her baking, and literally slinging flour,” Nancie recalls. “She didn’t measure anything. So many great Southern cooks cooked by feel.”
Luckily Nancie has been able to translate her grandmother’s “cook by feel” technique into a working recipe for the coconut cake. She had to figure out what exactly her grandmother meant when said the icing should “boil a while”, and deciphered “yellow cake” to mean a basic 1-2-3-4 cake. Armed with the notes her sister had taken while talking to Miss Nannie and a little creative culinary sleuthing, Nancie came up with the recipe that eventually made it into her Southern Cakes cookbook. What was once a treasured family treat can now be recreated, and of course shared, by home cooks across North Carolina and beyond. Miss Nannie’s legacy grows each time her cake is made.
Miss Nannie’s Coconut Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup milk
Miss Nannie’s Fresh Coconut Icing
3 cups sugar
3 rounded tablespoons flour or cornstarch
1 cup fresh coconut juice, or water, or a combination of the two
About 3 cups freshly grated coconut, or sweetened shredded coconut
To make the cake, heat the oven to 350 F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans and set aside.
In a large bowl, beat the softened butter with a mixer at medium speed until creamy. Add the sugar and continue beating, stopping to scrape down the bowl, until the mixture is fluffy and fairly smooth. Add the eggs, one by one, beating each time, until you have a thick, smooth batter.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and use a fork to stir and mix them together well.
Add about one third of the flour mixture to the batter and beat with a mixer at low speed just until the flour disappears. Stir the vanilla into the milk, and add about half the milk to the batter, beating just until the batter is smooth. Continue beating as you add another third of the flour mixture to the batter, followed by the rest of the milk, and then the remaining flour mixture, beating each time just until the batter is very thick and smooth.
Quickly scrape the batter into the prepared cake pans, dividing it evenly, and place them in the oven. Bake at 350 F for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cakes are golden, spring back lightly when touched in the center, and begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove from the oven and cool the cakes in the pans on wire racks or folded kitchen towels for 10 minutes. Then turn out the cakes onto wire racks or plates. Turn the layers top side up to cool completely. Just before icing the cake, carefully slice each layer in half, cutting horizontally, to make 4 thin layers.
To make the icing, combine the sugar and flour in a heavy medium saucepan, and stir with a fork to mix them together well. Stir in the coconut milk, and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until the mixture comes to a gentle boil. Continue to stir often as the sugar dissolves and the mixture turns syrupy. Cook for about 4 minutes at a gentle boil, and then stir in about 2 1/4 cups of the freshly grated coconut. Cook about 2 minutes more, stirring gently as the icing thickens. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
To ice the cake, place one half-layer top side down on a cake stand or serving plate, and spread about one fourth of the icing over the cake. Repeat with the remaining 3 half-layers, four half-layer top side up. Spread the icing to the edges and let it cascade gently down the sides. Sprinkle the remaining 3/4 cup of coconut over the top of the cake, and pat gently to help it adhere to the icing.
The cake will be visible through the translucent icing, looking as though it were in a little ice palace. Let the cake stand at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours, or as long as overnight. Cover the cake well and store it in the refrigerator if you will not be serving it within a few hours. Simply let the cake return to room temperature for 1 or 2 hours, to release the strong chill. This cake mellows and tastes even better the second day.
Matt Lardie says: I’m Matt. I love food. I love to grow it, cook it, eat it, learn about it, write about it, and talk about it. I believe that there are few things more important in life than what we put into our bodies. I believe food should be healthy for body, mind, and planet.
Matt, we get it! Matthew Lardie loves food! Check out his GreenEatsBlog.