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Setting the Tone

By September 3, 2021No Comments

ring of coconut cake

My mother has a small, black and white photo taken on her 11th birthday. It’s a summer scene of her twin sisters and best friends wearing white shorts and blouses, standing on the shore of the Bedford Basin. My mom decided to recreate this party, 15 years ago, when she turned 60 – the same guest list, lunch served, loot bags, and a walk, perhaps, along the water. My sisters and I hosted the party. We sent out invitations, set the table, tied balloons to a chair, and served lunch. My son Charlie was just a baby at the time. I remember him sleeping in a cradle we set up off the kitchen. Somehow he slept through the conversations, the laughter, the smell of puréed fresh peas and grilled scallops, and the sound of women singing Happy Birthday as we served a glossy white cake coated in shredded coconut. The tone was happy and nostalgic, set by the birthday girl.

A few days ago my sister Sally turned 50. She also set the tone of her party. Gather at the Cameron cottage. Croissants over coffee. A swim. Quiet time. A simple dinner, followed by her favourite cake – Ring of Coconut. The cake is a family classic, made by my grandmother, my aunt Susan, and my mother on most birthdays. It’s a chocolate bundt cake baked with a filling of cream cheese, chocolate chips and coconut in the middle – a surprise gift of sophisticated flavour that Sally has always loved. Our younger sister Lee hated cream cheese, hated that middle, but was served the cake regardless. ‘Cut around it’ was the attitude around here, and besides, Sally would always eat whatever she left behind. The tone was relaxing and sun-kissed, set completely by the birthday girl.

I brought our portable record player to the cottage this summer. There are two knobs beside the turntable – one to turn it on/off, and one to control the tone. I put on a record as I made the cake – Simon and Garfunkel, from my mother-in-law’s old collection. I pulled the screen door across and let the salty breeze blow through the kitchen. Kids came through, I killed a few house flies with our ancient floppy fly swatter, and when the record ended, I slid the cake into the oven, set the timer, and went down to the beach. The tone was gentle and breezy, with a touch of melancholy; summer is ending, school starts soon. A Bridge Over Troubled Water lingered, but tonight, there would be cake.


Ring of Coconut Chocolate Fudge Cake 
– Aunt Susan’s version

For the Cake:

2 cups white sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

¾ cups cocoa
1 cup hot water

3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1 /2 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk

For the Cake Filling:

¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 8oz package of chocolate chips
1 egg
½ cup shredded coconut
1 8oz package of cream cheese

For the Glaze (optional):

1 cup icing sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa
2 teaspoons vanilla
A little hot water (or coffee)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a bundt pan with butter and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla.

In another small bowl, combine cocoa and hot water and whisk until smooth. Combine with egg mixture.

In a third bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add wet ingredients, along with buttermilk, and stir just until combined.

Combine filling ingredients in a bowl.

Pour most of the cake batter into the greased bundt pan, then drop filling by the spoonful into the centre of the batter. Top with remaining batter and bake cake in the centre of the oven for 50-60 minutes. Cake is ready when you can smell it, and a tester inserted is coated in a few moist crumbs. Cool for 15 minutes, run a knife around the edge of the cake, then invert on a cooling rack.

To make the glaze, sift icing sugar with cocoa. Add vanilla, a splash of hot water (or coffee) and whisk until smooth. Drizzle glaze over cooled cake and serve. Sometimes I add a sprinkle of shredded coconut too.