Mystery Meals: ???
This series is the one I’ve been most excited about starting because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and this gives me the reason. See, I have several old recipe boxes from my grandmother and mother that are filled with a plethora of recipes, some handwritten and some cutout from decades old publications. These lovely boxes have always fascinated me but let’s be honest, in the modern, Pinterest accessible world, I rarely look for a tangible recipe. It’s simply more convenient to sift through my options online but that makes these little time capsules of bizarre culinary curiosities even more appealing. My curiosity has led me to a simple plan. Pick a box and randomly pick a recipe to recreate. Whatever comes out is what I make unless it requires ingredients that aren’t accessible. Who knows, maybe I’ll discover wonderful new uses for cream of mushroom soup and lard. So, here it goes, my first mystery meal of the year…
Right off the bat, the Lord has a sense of humor because as I closed my eyes and pulled out a recipe it was quite literally a mystery, as the title was missing. Judging by the ingredients and process, I assumed this would result in a cake of some sort but of the hundreds of recipes to choose from, of course I get the one that doesn’t even have a name. I will say, I was a little confused because what I thought would be a cake doesn’t include flour but rather crushed up vanilla wafers. I’m also concerned that it calls for a CAN of Angel Flake Coconut. Did flaked coconut come in a can forty years ago? While I can’t date this recipe exactly, it has the beautiful purple hue of a mimeographed document so that should give you an idea of what we’re working with. I assume this is going to be a fantastic cakey concoction to pull out at your next groovy cocktail party but we will see…
HICCUP #1: Apparently, canned flaked coconut is not the same as regular flaked coconut. It seems to be coconut flakes in heavy syrup which sounds absolutely delicious but next to impossible to find in the grocery store, even in the international food section. I tried Amazon as well but apparently people only purchase this by the pallet load so that’s not going to work for me. I’ve done some research and this was obviously a popular ingredient in some funky mid-century recipes but seems to be elusive to all of us in the States so I’ve found some helpful hints to substitute with accessible items.
HICCUP #2: These helpful hints are more like guidelines than an actual recipe. There are two main differences between our version of flaked coconut and the canned stuff. First, is texture. Obviously, floating around in a can of syrup will keep the coconut moist, unlike the dry, slightly hay-like version I have access to currently so I’m going to have to figure out the plumping process. Secondly, while our flaked coconut can come sweetened, it ain’t THIS sweet. The reoccurring suggestion is that you boil the flakes to rehydrate and then create a heavy sugar syrup to continue the boiling process. I won’t hold this against the ease of this recipe… afterall, I’m the dumb dumb trying to recreate a nameless, fifty year old treat.
HICCUP #3: This is less of a hiccup and more of a question on my part… I’m still operating under the assumption that this is making a cake because you are supposed to bake it in a tube pan but there is no flour or true raising agent in this mix and the use of vanilla wafers doesn’t make up for that. The further I read the more perplexed I am by what this will become and if it works could you zhoosh it up with other stuff. Could I use graham crackers? Oreos? Replace the coconut? I’ve got questions!
So, the approach was as simple as you could hope an oddly concocted, vintage recipe could be to make. Cream a stick of butter with two cups of sugar and add 6 eggs… a process that became more difficult than necessary by my lack of proper tools. For reasons beyond my control, I was cooking at my parents’ and they don’t tend to bake as much as I do which I never really considered until this became my only whisk option (see below). I decided to make do with a slotted serving spoon and pretend I was cooking in a prewar kitchen. (God bless my KitchenAid!)
I love retro recipes that use everyday boxed ingredients in an unexpected way and this was no exception. I had to pulverize a pound of vanilla wafers to create the carby bit of the dessert and naturally I did this with an insulated tumbler because a rolling pin was nowhere in sight. As far as dealing with the lack of canned coconut, I decided to choose the easiest method I could figure out by mixing desiccated coconut with sweetened coconut milk. I let it sit and “plump” in the hopes of changing the texture a bit. It seemed to work as well as I could expect and didn’t seem to make any difference in the consistency. Add in frozen coconut and pecans then pour into a tube pan. Surprisingly, this we did have because it came from my grandmother’s kitchen and is definitely as old as this recipe if not older but it worked and added to the authenticity of the retro experience.
Spoiler alert, it did make a cake but if I’m honest I wasn’t really sure what I would get until I pulled it out of the oven. As far as my “no rising agent” fear was concerned, it turned out not to be an issue because it didn’t rise. It went in and came out just as it was which created a very stodgy dessert along the lines of a bread pudding. I think the oddest bit might have been how long it had to cook. The recipe called for an hour and a half at 275 which is low but I figured with everything essentially being cooked it didn’t need much. Just firming up but no, I ended up cranking it up to 300 and cooking it for a grand total of three hours or so with it still being a bit fragile though it firmed up as it cooled.
It should look nicer than the picture suggests but I go impatient with the cooling process and left half the cake in the pan.
So, what did I think? Y’all! This was absolutely delicious and I am sorry I ever doubted the 1970’s housewife that decided to make do with vanilla wafers when she ran out of flour. It tasted like a Samoa sans the chocolate which is just a blessing. I have no doubt that you could make all kinds of creative substitutions with other store cupboard staples which I may do in the future. However, I think if I were to ever make it again I would do it in a brownie pan and finish it with a drizzle of chocolate for a full Samoa experience. Overall, it was well worth the effort and something fun to take to the next party but what should we call it? I’m open to suggestions but for now I’m calling it the Mystery Cake.