At the risk of turning this blog into the discount bin that appears at Walgreen’s after every major holiday (you know, the one filled with suddenly irrelevant candy canes, heart-shaped boxes, and Cadbury’s eggs) I am going to write about a dessert that I think transcends Easter Sunday: bunny cake. As I reminisced in my recent post on egg raviolo, bunny cake was an annual tradition in our household and one that pretty well summed up my expectation for the day. It was a black-and-white relationship that might be most accurately described in the fashion of SAT verbal analogies, such as “daylight : sun :: Easter : bunny cake.”
However, I celebrated my love for bunnies year-round, a fact that can be corroborated by anyone who knew me during the awkward years of my youth. This was not a freakish obsession so much as a genuine affinity for the gentle, furry creature that seemed pretty much solid with a daily schedule of eating grass, worrying, avoiding confrontation, worrying, stretching out in the sun and contemplating something minute (and therefore, inversely transcendent), and worrying. Besides, they’re damn cute.
In sixth grade my long-standing wish for a rabbit of my own was finally granted by my loving parents, and thus a fiery little grey and white lop-ear entered our lives. Having not yet reached the pinnacle of my craft as a writer, I decided to call her Thumper. She turned out to have more original spirit than her name belied. While she enjoyed a large hutch in the back room of our house, what she constantly craved was affection and freedom, both of which she received though never in quantity enough.
She frequently broke my young heart by sticking her little rabbit nose as far as she could push it between the wire bars of her hutch as I strode off to basketball practice, or downtown to meet a friend. Angrily ignored, she would rip her water bottle from its hinges and flip her wood-shaving filled litter box until its contents had been effectively strewn – both within and well outside of the hutch. But I made a good effort to let her out of her hutch on a daily basis, and at these times she was rambunctious and kind. Causing the the family coon cat to retire to the basement during her oustings, Thumper would, indeed, thump and wildly tear around the house, and at some point return to me for a little ear scratching. She expressed her gratitude by licking my hand with her pencil eraser-sized tongue.
It’s fair to say we all admired Thumper’s style, and in a way the bunny cake was a tribute to her belonging in our small family of three. While I was not raised with religion, I can appreciate ritual, remembrance, and re-attuning to the virtues and people in our lives that are most true. Cooking, in many ways, does the same.
Easter or not, here’s how to make the cake
Bunny cake, as I recalled it, was more of a preparation than a recipe, and involved constructing two round cakes into the shape of a bunny head with two ears and a bow tie. This enigma was then robed with my mother’s “fluffy white frosting,” dressed up with shredded coconut in three colors, and finally bedazzled with jellybean eyes, nose, and mouth.
I remember clearly that this was something of a chore. For my adolescent-level motor skills, affixing unruly coconut flakes to tacky frosting was a little like being asked to ascend the dangling rope in gym class: It looked simple enough to watch someone else do it, but from word “go” it proved to be entirely out of my ballpark of current ability. Thankfully, this time I had age and experience on my side.
While bunny cakes of the past were a simple one-two punch of canola oil, egg, and a Betty Crocker box cake, I decided to complicate matters by making a coconut cake from scratch (inspired by the coconut cupcakes at Petsi Pies in Somerville, Mass). While my recipe recommended hand-shredding a fresh coconut, Justin provided a sound voice of reason, and thus I returned from the grocery store with the bagged kind. I then followed a helpful recommendation from The Fanny Farmer Baking Book about how to reverse the death-rattle of packaged coconut: simply wash the coconut in a strainer to remove the sugar, squeeze as much of the water out as possible, and dry on a baking sheet in a warm oven. While I won’t try to make a case that this version is better than a freshly shredded heap of coconut, it took a fraction of the time, and I didn’t bloody my knuckles doing it.
The cake recipe was one I adapted from Fanny Farmer, and the most notable change I made was to substitute coconut oil for vegetable shortening (full recipe appears at the end of this posting). In a recent effort to boost my willowy immune system, I have begun to incorporate coconut oil into my diet, mainly in my weekday morning smoothie. Coconut oil offers a slew of health benefits, and can be substituted for most oils in cooking and baking. Because its consistency is akin to vegetable shortening, I went with a simple 1:1 substitution.
I turned to the pages of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book for the illustrious fluffy white frosting, which has over the years found its way onto so many of my mother’s cakes. While there are many other more complicated ways to achieve what is essentially the same frosting (7-minute frosting, white mountain frosting) the BH&G fluffy white is by far the most strait-forward, and just as good. Not unlike a deconstructed marshmallow in taste and texture, it is prepared by beating a simple syrup of sugar, water, and cream of tartar with egg whites and vanilla. I used a tiny spatula (a magical tool I did not have access to in my earlier years as a floundering cake artist) and had no trouble at all covering the cake.
Washing the coconut provided an unexpected additional benefit – removing the sugar from the shreds made them less sticky, and therefore much easier to deal with. I covered the head and outer ears with plain white coconut, and reserved some to dye blue (bow tie) and pink (inside of the ears). Once properly coconutted, Justin put down his camera to help me give our cake a friendly jellybean face.
He was a good looking cake rabbit, almost too handsome to eat. But eat him, we did. I tossed the extra pink and blue coconut on top of our two hearty slabs (cut from the face, of course), and the festive shreds reminded me of the confetti one finds at across Italy at carnivale time. While I do indeed think this would be a fun cake to celebrate a kid’s birthday or the coming of spring, for me it will always be associated with Easter. While decidedly unreligious, it was a tradition I enjoyed dusting off. My recipe follows after this picture of of my dad and me, holding the bunny cake and Thumper.
Coconut Bunny Cake
(Adapted from recipes in The Fanny Farmer Baking Book & The Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book)
Making the cake
Before you get started, prep your coconut. I found one standard-sized package (5 cups) to be just about right. Using a strainer/colander, wash the sugar from the coconut, squeezing out as much water as possible. Spread onto a cookie sheet and allow the remaining moisture to evaporate in a warm oven set to a low temp.
Once you have removed your coconut, heat the oven to 350 degrees, grease and flour two round cake pans. In a mixing bowl, slowly add 1 1/2 cups sugar to 3/4 cup coconut oil while beating. Continue beating and add 3 egg yolks (reserve the whites for later) and 1/2 t. coconut extract; beat until well blended. Separately, combine 2 1/4 cups cake flour, 2 t. baking powder, 1/2 t. nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. Resume beating the wet ingredients and alternately add, in three stages, the sifted ingredients and 1 cup of milk. When well blended, stir in 1 cup of coconut. Set aside.
In a separate mixing bowl, beat the reserved 3 egg whites until they form stiff, but moist peaks. Fold into the cake batter in three stages. Pour the finished batter into cake pans and bake for about 25 minutes. Once cool, cut one round cake into the two ears and bow tie, and assemble all four pieces into the bunny shape on a cookie sheet.
Making the frosting
To make the frosting, combine 1 cup sugar, 1/3 cup water, and 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Once the mixture turns clear, it is ready. In a mixing bowl combine 2 egg whites and 1 t. vanilla. Begin beating, slowly adding the sugar mixture. Continue beating for about 5-7 minutes, or until stiff peaks form.
Constructing the cake
Frost your bunny cake. Divide the remaining coconut into three portions – about 1 1/2 cups into one bowl, 1/2 cup in another, and the remaining 2 cups can be set aside wherever it is convenient. Mix about 4 to 5 drops of blue food coloring into the bowl of 1 1/2 cups coconut (mix thoroughly to fully distribute the dye). Mix 2 or 3 drops of red food coloring into the bowl of 1/2 cup coconut. Coat the frosted cake with the three colors of coconut so that the blue coconut covers the bow tie, the pink the inside of the ear, and the white everywhere else. Finally, use jelly beans to give your bunny a face.