Yesterday before church I made a coconut cake. I haven’t made this cake for a long time—five or six years. But as my thoughts are full of summer (I am trying to plan some fun but close-to-home adventures for the warm months) I made it as a way of embracing summer.
Which is probably a strange thing to say about a cake. But this one? This one is July in a bundt pan. "What does it taste like?" Kaleb asked me while he watched me chopping the pecans. "It tastes like summer," I told him. He was already looking at me with doubt, as anything with nuts in it is highly questionable to him, but that answer sent him, shaking his head, right out of the kitchen.
But it does—taste like summer. For nearly all of my growing-up years, from the time I was six and deemed old enough to go until the summer I was 19 and dating Kendell, we went to Lake Powell with a group of my parents’ friends. Getting up early to water ski on the glass-smooth water, meandering through the serpentine canyons in our battered yellow boat, eating lunch in the overhanging bowl of a sandstone cliff. Cliff jumping, or exploring sandy hillsides, or making the trek to Rainbow Bridge (in the years when you could walk a trail right up to it or could swim underneath it): didn’t matter what we did, it was just being there, in that place, a wellspring in the desert.
It is one of my most favorite places on the earth.
Food played an enormous part of these trips. Everyone took a turn preparing dinner for the entire group, and as each of the mothers had a slightly-competitive streak, the meals tended to run towards the gourmet. Which means we had plenty of delicious meals eaten from paper plates with a sandy beach as a table.
But nothing tasted as good as the coconut cake. It’s a dense cake, richly textured, with flavor that rolls across your tongue in waves. But kept tightly covered and slightly warm in the desert heat, it grew more moist and tender as the days passed, the flavor more concentrated and intoxicating.
Until it was gone.
Now when I eat it I get a little bit lonesome. I wish the cake had just the slightest grit of sand (that fine red sandstone sand of the southwest). I take a bite and I am there, eating dessert in the desert with my toes in water that seems to barely hold on to even being water, it’s so close to evaporating. My summer friends around me, my sisters teasing, my dad striding around the sandstone in cowboy boots and his swimming trunks. There—but only almost. And I know I could go back. Jake, in fact, is going there this summer with his scout troop. But I can’t really go back. The boat was sold a decade ago. My friends are grown. My dad is gone. (Lake Powell wouldn’t be Lake Powell without him.) Only the cake would be the same. So I eat a slice, and I remember, and it doesn’t have any sandy grit but I do swallow its buttery richness around a salty lump in my throat.
2 cups sugar
1 cup oil
2 1/2 tsp coconut flavoring
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
3 cups flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup coconut
1 cup finely chopped pecans
1 batch sugar syrup
Chop the pecans. Heat oven to 325. Prepare a bundt pan by buttering it thoroughly and then coating it lightly with sugar. Beat eggs until thick and frothy, about 4 minutes; slowly add sugar and beat until it dissolves. Add oil and coconut flavoring. In a separate bowl, mix flour, salt, and baking powder. Add to the mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, starting and ending with the flour. Stir in the pecans and the coconut. Bake for 1 hour 10 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
About 10 minutes before the cake is done, make the sugar syrup:
Dissolve 1 cup sugar in ½ cup water. Add 2 tablespoons of butter and bring to a boil; boil gently for five minutes. Remove from heat, then add 2 teaspoons of coconut flavoring. Pour slowly over the hot cake when it comes out of the oven, allowing it to seep into cracks and down the sides of the cake. Leave in pan for 3-4 hours to allow the syrup to be absorbed.