Sweet celebration: creating Leela’s four-layer coconut cake from Karen Spears Zacharias’s MOTHER OF RAIN

Life was anything but a party for Maizee Hurd in Karen Spears Zacharias’s novel, Mother of Rain (Mercer Univ. Press, 2013). From the voices urging her to do unspeakable things, to the loss of her loving husband at Normandy, it seemed as if poor Maizee was doomed to a life of heartache the moment she found her mother lying dead in the garden behind her childhood home. For this reason, it was her son, Rain’s, first birthday cake that I knew I wanted to try to recreate as I worked my way through Maizee’s tragic story. The cake, and the party his community organized to celebrate his young life, unfortunately seemed to symbolize the end of what had been a relatively peaceful time in Maizee’s life.

Her childless Aunt Leela, who was happy to raise Maizee when the girl’s mother passed, baked the special birthday cake for her adopted grandson, shucking a crate of corn and creating one of her four-layer coconut cakes.

Four layers! That Leela-Ma, as Maizee called her, was an ambitious woman. I was especially convinced of this fact when, after two attempts, I had finally baked and constructed something that might have resembled Rain’s birthday cake. Those wishing to follow my recipe may prefer to bake two layers and slice them in half, horizontally, before assembling the cake, rather than stacking four full layers. The recipe may make a monster of a cake, but I have a feeling that the Depression-era homesteader Aunt Leela was able to pull it off without a hitch, even with a summer afternoon sun shining down on the party table set near an orchard at Christian Bend.

Leela’s Four-layer Coconut Cake

Ingredients:

Cake Batter:

1 1/2 c. salted butter, softened

3 c. granulated sugar

6 large eggs

4 tsp. vanilla extract

4 c. cake flour

4 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. pink Himalayan salt, my salt of choice. Table salt is a little saltier, so you may have to cut back the amount.

1 c. sour cream

1/2 c. milk

Coconut Buttercream Frosting:

1 c. salted butter

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

10 cups confectioner’s sugar

10 T milk

2 c. sweetened coconut flakes + several cups for coating the outside of the frosted cake

Method:

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour 4 (9″) cake pans.

Cream the butter with a mixer. Cream in the sugar.

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Add the eggs by whipping them in one at a time.

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Beat until the batter is light and lemon colored.

Whip in the vanilla.

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Combine the dry ingredients.

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Mix together the milk and sour cream.

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Fold the dry and wet ingredients into the butter/sugar/egg mixture, alternating until they are well-combined.

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Divide the batter among the four prepared pans.

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Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of each comes out clean, app. 25 minutes.

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Cool in the pans for 10 minutes.

Run a knife around the edge of each cake to loosen it from the pan and invert onto a cooling rack.

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Cool completely while making the frosting.

To make the frosting, cream the butter. Alternate adding the milk, one tablespoon at a time, and the confectioner’s sugar, one cup at a time, until they work into a smooth buttercream. Stir in the vanilla, and the coconut flakes.

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Frost the layers and then stack them.

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Frost the cake with the remaining buttercream, starting with the sides and moving to the top.

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Press coconut flakes into all the frosted edges to cover the cake.

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Chill and serve.

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