Piece of Cake.

Ever since Emerson was born I have felt my own insistence to get her to Roanoke to meet her, my, extended family. And then one night recently, my new friend, Stephanie, and I were talking and getting to know one another over some food and wine and words and I discovered she grew up in Roanoke. She spoke of writing a Roanoke food roundup sort of thing. And, like that, my brain went all Rube Goldberg. It was perfect. Emerson and I would drive to Roanoke for a beautiful Fall weekend; mother and daughter, on our first - just us - trip together. We would visit our whole family, everyone would ooh and ahh over her and I would meet up with Stephanie for wine and food and ten cent words about said wine and food. Like I said, perfect.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well first off, let it be said that Emerson is not exactly that quiet, docile, easy baby. I seem to keep forgetting how many times seemingly simple, banal undertakings must be aborted because of my cherubic, smiling beauty turned frowny-Stay-Puft-Marshmallow-Man-faced daughter's protests. How so many people look at me sympathetically while offering up their advice: 'try some cereal with applesauce,' or 'mine did that until eight months and then, poof, it was over' or 'I would stand over the sink with the water running while mine was strapped to my chest to calm her down' or 'rub some brandy on her gums and then pour the rest for yourself.'


Okay. So I would definitely need help to pull this weekend off. Fortunately my mom readily signed on. Wait, this would be even perfect-er: three generations of women, on the road, visiting their family. I could already see the movie version, starring Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron and Dakota Fanning (playing the older version of Emerson). There would be laughter and tears in the profusion of colorful fall leaves. And, at some point, there would be a scene with us all reminiscing the adventures of that weekend and laughing – all culminating with us singing to I Hear a Symphony using hairbrushes as microphones.

What could possibly go wrong?

I saw the drive as a great sign for the weekend ahead: smooth and peaceful, mountainous with beautiful fall colors. Emerson slept most of the way to Roanoke, waking up just as we pulled up to Aunt Connie's. After changing Emerson's diaper and feeding her, I settled in and asked Connie if she had any wine. A cute, individual-sized box (pre-portioned to be the equivalent of no more than three modest glasses of wine) of merlot appeared before me.

*Two arenas in which I am definitely not a snob: coffee and wine. Bring on the box.

After that glass of wine, it was time to get in touch with Stephanie and figure out the dinner plan. I mean, once I got Emerson to sleep, around right before I left, it seemed perfectly reasonable that I could run out and meet up with Stephanie for a nice meal at a sweet little spot I liked the last time I visited. Mom and Connie could catch up and look after the sleeping baby. Piece of cake.

So I headed out to meet Stephanie – kind of already grasping that this seemed better on paper... In the car I immediately realized how unfamiliar I was navigating Roanoke; my destination was a good thirty minutes away. Damn. I was late. And once I arrived, though we had a reservation, there was a wait. The restaurant was slammed. After almost another thirty minutes we were seated at the bar and I ordered a glass of lovely bordeaux, I get the text from Connie, “Sorry but we can't calm her down.

I put the phone on silent, face down on the bar and took a slug of the wine. And then I can see it - though it probably wasn't the most brilliant plan of plans, and yes, we both wanted to see each other (how fun to have dinner in a whole different city together!) - this was perhaps one of those 'best laid plans' kind of situations.

Then another text from Connie, “Hold on! She's asleep.” The sweet relief washed over me just as our foie gras appetizer appeared. Then Stephanie announced her stomach didn't feel so good. 


At least I got to house that foie gras...

Another thirty minute drive back. Back to Connie's finish off my little box of merlot while I did the math: thirty minutes there, thirty minute wait, thirty minute 'dinner', thirty minutes back. Best laid plans indeed.

And then cutting through the quiet, Emerson woke up crying. My desperate, sleep starved heart ached as I knew then we would both be up through most of the night. 

The next day rolled in and was impressively, vividly difficult. Both Emerson and I were utterly exhausted after our sleepless night, but this was our one full day in town and we had people to see. Things to do. Like go visit my mom's long lost cousin, Kelsey. They hadn't seen one another in decades and decades. So much to catch up on! So much family history to talk about! Emerson wasn't having any part of cousin catch-up. Time to leave. 

While driving away I realized I hadn't eaten a thing and was beginning to shake with hunger. It started to rain. Emerson had settled down in the car, seemed as though she was finally getting some sleep, so I wanted to go to a spot, Wildflour, where I had lunched on a previous visit. Memories of a nice, fresh salad, sandwich, and a coconut cake that I never could get out of my head sounded dreamy. Turns out this was also one of Stephanie's favorite places in town. Turns out she was going to be there at about the same time. Perfect? (I was becoming dubious) We parked and got snoozy Emerson all loaded up in the stroller – in the rain – when, of course (because my daughter has comedic timing), she began to cry. Volume increasing. Nonononono. I couldn't have Stephanie see me, us, like this. Hell, I couldn't foist this upon the peaceful, little cafe.

We got back in the car and drove off, my fingers white knuckled around the steering wheel.

I drove around, lost, looking for food, crying (both Emerson and me), delirious with hunger (both Emerson and me) and sleep deprived (both Emerson and me). We pulled into a shopping mall where, surprise!, there was another outpost of Wildflour. Mom ran into the restaurant, cut in front of the line to order “Anything! Now! Fast! And a slice of coconut cake! My daughter is in the car in the parking lot with a crying baby and hasn't eaten all day!” Somehow, for her, they parted the line like the Red Sea.

You know those moments in life where, even then you know you will absolutely look back and laugh? You have to. You know that you are presently in a memory, a story? Well, when you're spending a Saturday afternoon sitting in a running car, in a mall parking lot in Roanoke, Virginia, in the rain, with your left breast out, nursing your inconsolable baby, cramming a cold grilled cheese sandwich and coconut cake into your mouth with your free hand that your Mommy went and practically killed for to get you...

And then Emerson slept on the way back to Connie's.

Connie, as it turned out, had already made the executive decision to cancel dinner plans with the rest of the family. She recognized that I was cracking and Emerson was not having any part of family functions (functionality?). Instead, there was a very brief family visit during which I received sympathetic glances as I passed her around... And then they were gone.

That night, Emerson went right into a sound sleep. Connie, Mom and I ate microwaved Marie Callender's chicken piccata, watched The Hunger Games and gabbed about guys and life and girl stuff. And how thoughtful that Connie picked me up some wine; pinot grigio in my own little box. Emerson and I both slept all the way through to the smell of coffee brewing the next morning. Mom made us all breakfast and we were on our way back to Richmond. And, of course, Emerson slept all the way home. Actually, so did I. Thanks, Mom, for driving.

So, maybe Emerson wasn't quite ready for her journey. Or maybe I wasn't. Or maybe babies are babies – they cry - and no one expects any different. Maybe I was the only one feeling exasperated and defeated (apparently only when it's your own does your baby's cry make you feel as though you're trapped in a room with an alarm blaring and no way to turn it off).

It all makes one hell of a story. One that could, perhaps, be directed by Lawrence Kasdan, or Chris Columbus. Or, if we want to take it in another direction, Martin Scorsese ala After Hours... I'm still thinking Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron and Dakota Fanning. Connie would be played by Jane Fonda and Stephanie would be played by either Ellen Page or Natalie Portman. 

There would still be laughter and tears amongst all those colorful fall leaves. And at some point there would be a scene with us all looking back at that time in the mall parking lot with my boobs out and laughing. I'd buy a ticket.

Once we got back, Fred gave me a day off, of sorts, because, of course, me, all I wanted to do was make that coconut cake. And that day – which turned into a week and multiple coconut cakes (also starring Stephanie!) we will save for the sequel.

Until then...

The World's Most Amazing Coconut Cake


For the cake
8 egg whites
1/2 cup whole milk
¼ cup sour cream
1 Tablespoon coconut cream
1 1/2 Tablespoon coconut essence
4 1/2 cups cake flour
3 1/2 cups sugar
6 3/4 teaspoons  baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups unsalted butter, room temperature
1 ½ cups unsweetened coconut milk

For the frosting
1½ cups granulated sugar

6 egg whites

1½ cups unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup sour cream

⅔ cup coconut milk

For the Garnish
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut, lightly toasted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour three 8-inch (or 9-inch) cake pans, line with parchment paper.

Put the egg whites in a bowl and lightly whisk. Add the milk, sour cream, coconut cream and coconut essence and mix thoroughly. Set aside.

Using a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and coconut milk and combine on low speed until moistened. Up the speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl periodically. Add the egg white mixture in 3 portions, scraping down the sides of the bowl and mixing just enough to blend each time.

Pour equal amounts of batter in each of the prepared pans. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool cakes in their pans for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto cooling racks to cool completely.

Whisk together the sugar and egg whites in a small, heatproof bowl. Place the bowl on top of a saucepan with about an inch of simmering water (do not let the bottom of the bowl touch the water). Heat the mixture, whisking occasionally, for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture is hot to the touch and the sugar is dissolved.

Remove the bowl from heat and transfer mixture into the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture becomes a light, white meringue and is cool to the touch. Reduce the speed to low and add the butter a couple of pieces at a time. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the butter is thoroughly incorporated and the frosting is smooth and glossy. The frosting may initially look curdled after adding the butter, continue beating until smooth and creamy.

Add vanilla, salt, sour cream and coconut milk and whip for another few minutes on medium speed, or until the coconut milk is thoroughly incorporated and the frosting is smooth. Again, the buttercream may look thin and separated, continue mixing until it reaches a satin like texture.

Note: Use the frosting within 30 minutes, or transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 1 day, then beat with a mixer until smooth before using. You can also store the frosting in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, then bring to room temperature and beat with a mixer for 6 to 8 minutes until smooth.

To assemble
Remove the cooled cakes from their pans and level the tops, if necessary. Place one cake layer on a cake stand and top with 1 cup (or so) of the frosting, using a spatula to spread it evenly to the edges.

Place the second layer on top, top-side down and top with 1 more cup (or so) of the frosting, using a spatula to spread it evenly to the edges.

Repeat with third cake.

Spoon the remainder of the frosting onto the top of the cake and use a large offset spatula to spread the it on top and over the sides of the cake, covering it with a very thin layer. Press the shredded coconut onto the top and sides of the frosted cake. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Store in the fridge or an airtight container at room temperature and cake will keep for about three days.

Two years ago: Pimiento Cheese Burgers
Three years ago: Cream Biscuits
Five years ago: Lumples

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