(Hat tip to my friend Joann Condino, whose beautiful hand wood blocked linen tea towel serves as the backdrop for this photo.)
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Good recipes have a way of returning to us, even if they have been lost for awhile. Take this one for toasted coconut bread from a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. circa 1982.
It’s not what I was looking for when I opened my mom’s old recipe file. What I was looking for was the recipe for her Italian Easter Bread, la treccia di Pasqua, a sweet braided loaf studded with raisins and scented with vanilla and a hint of anise.
But one thing leads to another. What I found was a time capsule, or maybe more like an archaeological dig: layers of recipe cards, brittle yellowed newspaper clippings, and folded up pages from the New York Times Sunday Magazine from the days when Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey collaborated on a weekly food column. I had rummaged through this collection, which my mom kept in a utilitarian gray square metal box, many times, but not in years.
There was a recipe for Scottish shortbread that I myself had clipped from the Times when I was a teenager; and no fewer than three recipes for Shaker lemon pie ~ I don’t think my mom ever made any of them, though she was a master at lemon meringue pie, which she made often for dinner parties using Betty Crocker as her starting point.
I found other, more valuable recipes, those written by Mom, who is now too frail to cook, often with notes and revisions scribbled hastily in the margin. Some of these recipes have been published in my books. Still, each handwritten card is a gift and a memory. Most poignant, perhaps, was the one for bigné, written on a whispery sheet of airmail stationary by my Zia Adriana, my mom’s sister and my godmother, who passed away in 1976. But those are recipes and stories for another day. (Like I said, one thing leads to another.)
I did not find the recipe for Easter bread. But I’m happy I found this recipe ~ which, incidentally, I had searched for in vain six or seven years ago (I wanted to make it for my kids).
In the 1980s, when my sister and I were both students at Skidmore College, our parents would take us out to dinner when they came to visit. One of our favorite spots was a restaurant outside of Saratoga called the Caunterbury Inn. It was very much of its time, a sprawling barn converted to a restaurant, with rafters, hanging plants and indoor trees, and ~ the main attraction ~ an indoor pond. The other main attraction ~ more than the surf & turf menu ~ was the mini loaf of warm toasted coconut bread that showed up on every table. The restaurant gave out copies of the recipe, printed on sturdy paper, to any guest who asked (who didn’t?).
What a sweet moment to find the original recipe card in my mom’s collection, and to think back on those days. I don’t know if the time will ever be right again for hanging plants and rafters in restaurants (the Caunterbury has since been converted to a restaurant and hotel complex called Longfellows), but it is time to bring back this cozy quick bread. I know one day Mom’s Easter bread recipe will turn up, too, but in the mean time, a loaf of this toasted coconut bread will grace my table on Easter. Maybe yours, too.
This throwback to the 1980s deserves a comeback. It's easy to make and has a tender crumb and toasty coconut flavor. Back in the day this probably would have been made with sweetened coconut but I prefer unsweetened, which is easy to find now. If you like, substitute melted coconut oil for the vegetable oil. The cake will be slightly less tender, but the warm coconut flavor will be more pronounced. This recipe is from the (now departed) Caunterbury Inn.
- 1 cup shredded coconut
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil (I use sunflower) or melted coconut oil
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- 1 cup milk (I use whole)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Spread the coconut flakes on a small rimmed baking sheet. Bake for about 5 minutes, until the coconut just starts to brown. Be careful to check a minute or two before the timer dings, as coconut can quickly go from underdone to burnt. Remove from the oven, toss to distribute the residual heat, and set aside to cool.
Grease a 9x5x3 rectangular loaf pan or 2 to 3 mini pans (I used one 3 x 5 3/4 and one 6 1/2 x 3 1/2).
Measure the flour, baking powder, salt, and cooled coconut into a large bowl and whisk to combine.
Beat the egg in a separate bowl, and whisk in the milk, oil, sugar, and vanilla until well combined.
Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry and mix until just combined. Don't overmix. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan(s). Bake the single loaf for about 1 hour and the mini loaves for about 30 minutes, until they are risen and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve warm with plenty of butter.