Stirring the Pot: Playing Favorites

When Ruthie Cohen's children go to visit, they always send a list of requested dishes — sometimes including something new, such as a coconut layer cake. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

When Ruthie Cohen’s children go to visit, they always send a list of requested dishes — sometimes including something new, such as a coconut layer cake. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

In the immortal words of the Pillsbury Doughboy, “Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven.” A creed to live by, indeed.

Before every visit from my children, there is “The Rider.” Dutifully emailed by Arianna, the oldest, it contains all the dishes they want me to prepare for their stay. Truth to tell, it’s our usual get-together fare, but every now and then, something new makes an appearance — a coconut layer cake, gingerbread muffins. I joyfully comply. 

My focus sharpens. My concentration deepens. First, I plot out menus and prepare the grocery list. Then, I head to the supermarket and fill a cart: ripe tomatoes and sultry greens, deep red beets, sweet potatoes the color of clementines and garnets, plump chickens, silky salmon, solid blocks of cream cheese, mounds of flaky coconut, creamy yogurt, and blueberries ready to burst. Like a potter with a mound of clay on a wheel, I envision the completed piece. In my mind, I pair fresh-cut herbs from the modest planters on my porch with exotic spices in my cupboard, mixing and matching. A generous shake of bahārāt on the chicken? Sure! Spicy oregano and purple basil on the tomato salad? Why not?!

I am in the zone and totally, unabashedly happy. 

The sensory overload, which is so much a part of life, dissolves. Finally, the din is silenced. In the quiet, I lift my baton (or, more likely, my tongs) and orchestrate. This food will nourish my children. Preparing it for them nourishes my soul. Anticipating their happiness makes me happy. 


Luckily, it is not just my children who benefit from this culinary concerto. When friends come to dinner, I consider the tone I want to set — which flavor notes will be bold, and which are better muted. When we gather at the table amid the clatter of cutlery, the sharing of stories, and the occasional spills, life is good.

And then there’s the finale. Dessert. “Cooking is a necessity,” says my friend Toren. “Baking is love.”

Coconut Layer Cake

2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, melted
2 eggs
1 cup milk (coconut or almond milk works, too)
2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray two 8- or 9-inch round cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment paper, cutting circles to fit the bases. (Parchment paper comes precut in circles, too.) Place flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl and beat on low to blend. Add the rest of the ingredients and beat for three minutes. Pour into prepared pans and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Cool cakes in the pans for five minutes and then flip them over onto a cooling rack. Remove parchment paper.

When they are completely cool, frost the cakes. (If time allows, wrap in aluminum foil and freeze the cooled cakes for several hours before frosting. This will make it much easier, as no cake crumbs will mingle with the frosting.)

Cream cheese frosting:

1 1/2 cups unsweetened flaked coconut
2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened
2 blocks (8 ounces each) cream cheese, softened
4 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup buttermilk powder (optional, but it stabilizes the frosting and undercuts the sweetness of the powdered sugar; it’s available in the baking section of the supermarket)
2 teaspoons vanilla

The coconut is delicious as is, but, if you prefer, spread the coconut on a lined baking tray and toast for three minutes in a preheated 350°F oven. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

Using a whisk attachment, beat the butter and the cream cheese for five minutes. Add powdered sugar and buttermilk powder (if using) and mix on low. Add vanilla. Turn mixer up to medium/high and continue to beat until frosting is fluffy and light. If the frosting remains stiff, add a few tablespoons of water.

To frost cake:

Place one of the cake disks upside down on a serving dish lined with torn sheets of waxed paper covering the exposed plate, which will collect the bits of errant frosting and fallen coconut. (Inverting the cake disk provides a flat surface to frost.)

Drop a big dollop of frosting in the middle of the upside-down cake. With a wide flat knife (or the back of a spoon) spread the frosting from the center out to the rim. Aim for a uniform thickness.

Place the second cake disk right-side up on top of the first layer. Drop a big dollop of frosting in the middle and frost in the same manner as you did the first layer. Scoop up a small amount of frosting with the knife or the spoon and apply to the sides of the cake in increments, turning the plate until you complete the circumference. Don’t worry if it’s a bit uneven — the coconut hides any imperfections — but make sure the entire cake is covered with frosting.

Take a handful of coconut and stick it to the frosting, covering the side of the cake, turning the plate in the same way you did when frosting it. Finally, shower the remaining coconut on the top of the cake. Remove the waxed paper.

Gingerbread Muffins

This recipe yields 24 muffins. They freeze well. If you prefer, you can make this into a cake by pouring the batter into a sprayed 9-by-13-inch baking dish or two square ones. For added deliciousness, frost with the cream cheese frosting recipe from above!

2 sticks (1 cup) butter
2 cups sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
5 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons ground ginger
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line muffin tins with cupcake liners, 24 in all. Alternatively, prepare cake pans (see Coconut Layer Cake recipe above for directions).

Cream butter and sugars in a mixing bowl (mix until you create a fluffy, light-yellow blend — an electric mixer is helpful). Add eggs and beat well. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and ginger. Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk to the creamed mixture. Beat for two minutes.

Use an ice cream scoop to add batter to the tins, filling them 3/4 of the way. 

Bake muffins for 20 to 25 minutes, cakes for 35 minutes.

Ruthie Cohen
Ruthie Cohen moved from New Jersey to Bloomington in November 2011. Every day she marvels at her good fortune to be living in this gem of a town. When she is not devising recipes in her kitchen and feeding her friends, Ruthie practices and teaches yoga at Ekah and Bloomington Yoga Collective.