The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, was born exactly 100 years before me, on June 13, 1865. I had been considering baking something Irish-themed for my birthday, since Yeats and I also share an Irish heritage as well as a birthday — a 145th birthday present for W.B., and a 45th one for me.
I just can’t bring myself to do it. First of all, despite my very Irish name, I’m not all that Irish. My grandfather was an Irishman, but I never knew him, and my father never had a relationship with him. My grandmother, Victoria, divorced him before my father was born and moved to New York and worked as a model. She left my father behind to be raised in a rowhouse in Southwest Philadelphia by her Lithuanian immigrant mother, my Great-Grandmother Wosinko.
And my mother’s family pretty much all came over from England in the 17th Century, fought in the Revolutionary War, moved to Florida in the mid-19th Century, and I was born and raised in the same general location that the last seven generations of my mom’s family have lived and died for 150 years. Except for my mom’s paternal great-grandmother, who was Cherokee, I’m pretty much solid English Protestant stock on that side of the family.
My great-great-great-grandfather, Eber Goddard, was a patriot in the American Revolution. Eber’s son, Asa Goddard, left his home in Lancaster, Massachusetts after Eber’s death in 1835 and headed down to Florida, which was just being pioneered at the time. He stopped in New Orleans on the way, married a girl from Kentucky named Mary Edrington, and took his new wife to Manatee County, Florida (which at that time included my hometown of Sarasota).
I’ve always thought that Florida must have sucked something awful back then. It’s no great shakes now. It’s humid and unbearably hot and is populated by bugs the size of Volkswagons, alligators, black widow spiders, poisonous land and water snakes, man-eating sharks, cranky retirees, and rednecks. But back then, though, there was no air conditioning, outlet malls, DisneyWorld, SPF 70, or bug repellent.
Despite the hardships of the Florida wilderness, Mary and Asa persevered. One of their sons and my great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Edrington Goddard, fought in the 7th Manatee Infantry in the Confederacy. He is buried in an old cemetery up the street from a huge outlet mall, which makes it convenient for me to pay my respects and purchase a new Coach handbag in one trip.
So, despite the fact that I have a very Irish name, I am not really Irish. I am a quarter Irish by blood, but I was not raised with any Irish tradition or heritage at all (unless you count being raised Catholic, but that was the Lithuanian influence). No Irish dancing. No Irish songs. No corned beef and cabbage. I was raised on good Florida Cracker food — cornbread, chicken-fried steak and gravy, smoked mullet, grits and tomato gravy, stone crabs, swamp cabbage, and sweet tea.
But on my birthday, my Southern Baptist-raised mother insisted on making me birthday cakes with shamrocks and green frosting. One year, I had an Irish “Colleen” Barbie birthday cake in a green dress with shamrocks. Another year, my birthday cake was topped with a ceramic music box shaped like an Irish girl in a green dress decorated with (you guessed it) shamrocks, that rotated and played “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
I’m 45 today, and I am old enough to declare that there will be no Irish crap on my birthday. There will be no stupid songs about girls named Colleen who don’t wear shoes, or shamrocks made out of green buttercream. It’s bad enough that the entire country thinks it’s okay to to consume massive quantities of cheap, green beer and fake an Irish brogue once a year in March, I’m not doing it again in June. That’s my birthday present to me.
So, I’m sorry W.B. Yeats. I know you loved Ireland, and Irish folktales and heritage, and I suppose it would be nice to honor our shared birthday and heritage with some culinary tribute to Ireland, but I’m not doing it. (And, in the interest of full disclosure, I never really liked Yeats’ poetry. I’ve always found Yeats to be trite and insipid — but that’s another diatribe.)
Instead, I’m baking something that is true to my tradition for my birthday — the cake that was on our family table at my grandparents’ house for every holiday of my entire life. My cousins had it on their birthday every year because my aunts did not marry an Irish-Lithuanian guy from Southwest Philadelphia, so they got normal birthday cakes baked by my grandmother. It is written on the same recipe card that I used when I copied it from my mother’s recipe book 15 years ago, and my mom copied it from her mother and my grandmother, Ollie Mae. Ollie Mae called it “Grandma Goddard’s Coconut Cake.”
Ollie Mae’s Grandma Goddard was Benjamin’s widow, Melissa. As a Confederate widow, Melissa received a $5 per month Confederate widow’s pension from the state of Florida, which Ollie Mae told me helped her family through the Great Depression. “We were lucky to have a little more than our neighbors because of it,” she told me once. In addition to the pension, Melissa also received a bag of flour and a bag of sugar every Christmas, most likely for holiday baking. I have no doubt that this coconut cake was one of the things she baked with her Confederate widow sugar and Confederate widow flour.
I don’t have a picture of Melissa Goddard, but my grandmother described her to me as a small woman who wore Victorian boots and dresses. She told me stories of Melissa unlacing her Victorian boots and hiking up her long skirts and petticoats to wade into the Gulf with her grandchildren when they went swimming on hot days. Ollie Mae also told me that she smoked a pipe. That’s all I know about her, except that she passed down this cake for five generations. I’m sure that Melissa made this coconut cake for Ollie Mae on her childhood birthdays, Ollie Mae made it for my mother and my aunts and uncles, and I’m making it today. For both me, and for my joyful, red-headed grandmother, Ollie Mae.
I don’t mind sharing a birthday with a great Irish poet, but I’m more honored to share a birthday month with Ollie Mae. June 27th would have been her 81st birthday, if she was still with us (which I truly wish she was). A great lady, a great cook, and an amazing mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. I miss her every day.
Grandma Goddard’s Coconut Cake is not beautiful. It will never be on the cover of a food magazine. It will never be the signature dessert of a celebrity pastry chef. It is an old-fashioned, soft cake, and as such it will break apart when you layer it, and you will curse as you patch it together with frosting. The layers will slide off center when you spread the frosting between them. It tastes best, though, when it is lopsided, with pieces of crumbs in the icing, served on a chipped dinner plate, with a side of Winn Dixie “Chek” brand Neopolitan ice cream and a chaser of sweet tea.
Grandma Goddard’s Coconut Cake
Ollie Mae used fresh coconut that she grated on an old knuckle grater for this cake. My mother buys that nasty, sweetened coconut that is used for American macaroons and is sold in plastic bags at the supermarket. Do not use that stuff.
I use fresh coconut, but after grating it the old-fashioned way like my grandmother a few times, I broke down and bought a grating disk for my Cuisinart. It’s totally worth it. Of course, getting the coconut out of the shell is still a challenge (the fresher the coconut, the harder it is), as is getting the brown skin off of the white coconut. I use a sharp paring knife to pry the meat from the shell, and to trim the dark skin from the meat.
To get the “milk” out of the coconut, I hammer a large, philips head screwdriver (wash it first) into the coconut “eyes” and leave the coconut to drain into a Pryex measuring cup. Once it has drained, I put the coconuts into an old pillow case, take it to my front porch, and bang the coconuts against the concrete until they break open. After that, I pry the coconut shell from the meat, and trim away the brown skin. (Yes, it’s labor intensive, but the best things in life usually are.) I have purchased frozen, shredded coconut in my local Indian grocery store to make Indian recipes, and it’s very good and would make an acceptable substitute for fresh coconut (better than that processed, sweetened crap my mother uses anyway), and I could hardly blame you if that’s the route you want to take. Pick up a can of coconut milk at the same time to use for the liquid if you do.
I think that in Melissa Goddard’s day, the coconuts were larger (and wild in Florida, I am sure), and probably had a lot more liquid in them. I typically buy two coconuts now when I make this cake, because modern coconuts at grocery stores are tiny and generally older so much of the coconut milk has dried up. And also, I tend to end up with rotten ones because grocery stores keep them too long, so I like to have a back-up. My grandmother supplemented the coconut milk with regular milk if she did not have enough to measure 1 cup. I use a can of Thai coconut milk as a supplement or substitute.
The tradition in my family is to fill the cake simply with sweetened, whipped cream. But I often just double the frosting recipe and also use it to fill the layers. But I have also gotten creative through the years and have used lemon curd and key lime curd as a filling. Both are good.
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup coconut milk (drained from coconut)
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoons salt
2 egg whites
¼ cup superfine sugar
¾ cup white Karo syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
shredded coconut meat from 1 large or 2 small coconuts
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 9-inch cake pans. (I put a parchment round in the bottom of each as well.)
2. Cream together butter and sugar in a large bowl.
3. Beat together egg yolks (not whites) with vanilla. Beat into creamed butter and sugar.
4. Mix together flour and baking powder.
5. Alternate adding coconut milk and dry ingredients to butter/sugar/egg mixture just until incorporated and ending with dry ingredients.
6. Beat the 4 egg whites until stiff. Gently fold into batter until just incorporated. Do not overfold and deflate egg whites.
7. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into cake comes out with just a few crumbs on it.
1. Beat egg whites and salt into soft peaks.
2. Add sugar and beat until smooth and looks “glazy.”
3. Add Karo slowly and beat until stiff.
4. Add vanilla.
You can fill the cake with whipped cream and frost with the above frosting, which is what the original recipe directs, or you can fill and frost the cake with this frosting. Or you can fill the cake with lemon curd or lime curd, which I do occasionally with great success.
Press the fresh, grated coconut into the sides and onto the top of the cake. Ollie Mae sometimes put one maraschino cherry into the center of the cake as a decoration.