October 4, 2010
Our memories are unreliable.
I’m a nonfiction writer by training and trade, and so I’ve spent some time thinking about the way the filing cabinet of my mind is built; in a rather unorganized fashion, I’m afraid. We humans are storytellers by nature, narrators in perpetual search of an angle. Not just those of us who call ourselves writers, either. Story helps us make sense of our lives, form much-needed meaning, work out issues, and communicate things we couldn’t otherwise. But since we’re telling stories about ourselves, we’re clearly biased. Which means our memories are, too.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make things complicated. Memory leaves us, it changes shape, it butts up against the contradictory memory of another. (Ask any couple to recount an argument, who said what, who did what, and you’ll see what I mean.) Trick is, some memories are so good that we really don’t care if we made them up or not. A glance from across the room, a kind word, a really good night, how happy we were then.
My Southern girlhood dessert memory includes a favorite which I finally managed to recreate: coconut, pineapple, pecans. It’s like an Ambrosia cake without the oranges, a Hummingbird cake without the bananas. Did it actually exist when I was small? Have I had this cake before or did I simply conjure the idea of it in my mind?
The unreliable narrator that is my mind has no idea, but urges you to make these regardless.
CUPCAKES WITH NO NAME
first things first:
2 cups chopped pineapple, preferably fresh
¼ cup sugar (omit if using canned)
a generous spash of dark rum
Combine in a nonreactive bowl & let hang out while you make the batter.
1 cup sugar (dial back to ¾ cup if using sweetened coconut)
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 T vanilla
1 ½ cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup milk
1 cup toasted pecans, chopped (plus more for garnish)
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut (plus more for garnish)
pan: muffin tins well-greased or filled with paper liners
Beat the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until pale and smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition, then the vanilla.
In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then add in three batches, alternating with the milk:
Stir in the pineapple and all its rummy juices, pecans, and coconut. Yes, the batter will look a little thin but FRET NOT! All this means is that moist cake is in your future.
Fill the muffin tins about three-quarters of the way full, then bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean and the tops of the cupcakes are golden brown.
After 10-15 minutes, remove the cupcakes from muffin pans to cool completely on racks. Frost with butter cream and garnish with extra chopped pecans & coconut.
for the butter cream:
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup water
6 egg whites
4 sticks (1 lb) unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into cubes
1 ½ T rum (optional)
Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over high heat until it dissolves. Boil the mixture until it reaches soft ball stage on a candy thermometer.
While the sugar’s boiling, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. With the mixer running at medium-high, gradually pour in the hot sugar syrup, taking care not to pour the syrup into the egg whites and not onto the metal (where it will instantly form sugar strings).
Reduce the mixer speed and beat the meringue until it cools to room temperature. Beat in the butter a few tablespoons at a time. Drizzle the rum in very slowly to incorporate. Use immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container.