Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Food and Oral History: Cassava Cake - Why is My Coconut Hairy?

     I was tasked to host a Merienda at my house and the mission for each attendee was to attempt a Filipino recipe that means something to them, a comfort food that ignites a memory.  The actual Merienda event deserves a chapter of its own, as does my experience making the Cassava Cake for the event.  I dedicate this entry the Cassava chapter.

     I chose to make the Cassava Cake for the event because I remember eating it at several Filipino parties and I recalled shreds of coconut in one recipe that made me want more.  I wanted to duplicate the taste and texture.  I have not eaten anything close to it since.  My mother or grandmother were not really known for their Cassava Cake because they did not make it very often.  Grandma was known for her rice cake and my cousin was already making that for the party.  The Cassava Cake was to serve as an alternate dessert to the rice cake.  In the end, my decision was solely based on the fact that the recipe seemed to have only a few ingredients.  So, how hard could it be?

     My husband, bless his heart, was tasked with buying my ingredients.  I failed to tell him that cassava and coconut were available frozen.  He is into fresh ingredients and organic cooking, so he thought it would be a great idea to buy a fresh tarot root (the cassava) and a fresh, young coconut.  When I saw the ingredients he had brought home, I felt a little perplexed, but quickly turned the emotion to ambition.  I have a mechanical grater after all and can conquer shredding anything with that modern beast.  Who would know it was not shredded by hand?  It certainly would not taste any different.

     I went on to tackle the brownish tarot root.  The tarot root had a white flesh that seemed tough.  It is as if a ginger and a potato got married.  I peeled the light bark skin from the root and proceeded to toss the remains into the mechanical food shredder.  I noticed the organic output had shreds that seemed tender and some that seemed a little tough.  This concerned me for a moment. The shreds also seemed a bit large for a cake.  So, I ran it through the shredder again hoping to mask any tough bits.  One ingredient was now crossed off the list as being prepped.  I was feeling invincible at that moment.

    Now, the coconut my husband bought looked like the outer brown shell had been removed already.  So, this made me think that this was going to be as easy to prep as the cassava.  I proceeded to chop off chunks of the white, tough nut.  (Yes, I had to look that up.  A coconut is a nut known as the fibrous drupe).  It is as if the coconut became harder and harder as I chopped away.  I shrugged off the anomaly and tossed the chunks into the mechanical shredder.  The machine shredded the bits with no problem, but there were these fibrous bits that came out of it.  This made the shredded bits look hairy.  I thought to myself, "Why is my coconut hairy?" My daughter and I even tried to taste a piece.  It tasted like eating a chunk of wood with needles. My daughter immediately spat out the remains.  This did not look or taste like the idealogical, soft yummy flesh of what I recalled a coconut was supposed to look like.  It was time for an intervention.
The fresh young coconut

I called my husband first.  "Dear, what kind of coconut did you buy me?" I asked.

He replied, "I bought you  a fresh, young, coconut - that is what the label says."
I asked, "Do you know how to get to the coconut inside?"

Andre said, "I thought it was already exposed because it was white."  At this point in the conversation I concluded that he was as clueless as I was.

I called my mother next.  I told her the recipe I was using was from the internet.  After laughing, she said I was working a lot harder than I needed to and that all I really needed was to obtain the frozen versions of the cassava and coconut.  She said I should have used her recipe.  My father and mother tried asking me over the phone what coconut I was looking at exactly.  My dad was in the background saying, "chop at the eyes."  I exclaimed to him that I had no idea what that meant because I saw no "eyes" on my coconut.

     I finally resorted to taking a mobile picture of the coconut and sending it to my dad.  In the end, my father advised that I needed to chop the thing open with a bolo (Filipino machete - dad keeps one under his mattress).  "But dad, I do not own a bolo," I professed also feeling a bit shorted of this staple in my house somehow.

My father said, "I will bring mine tomorrow."

My mother concluded the call, "We need to teach you how to properly open a coconut."

     After the call, I was not sure if they were disappointed in me or I should be disappointed in them for somehow missing the teaching of the important coconut lesson.  It is not as if I was born knowing how to chop open a coconut.  My mom and dad had not done their duty as Filipino parents and apparently forgot to teach me how to open a coconut with a machete!  In the end, the thought amused me and I gave up baking the simple cassava cake for the evening.

     The next day, I went to the store and bought two frozen bags of fresh coconut for $1.50 a bag.  I proceeded to bake the cassava, knowing my father would be late bringing his machete to the party.  The fresh cassava turned out to be a real nice twist to the cake.   I found out later, the hard bits were part of the center I was supposed to cut out of the fresh cassava - another learning I was supposed to be born knowing as a Filipina. Luckily, the double shredding helped soften the cassava enough so it baked soft into the mixture. I was not lambasted too much for not using my mom's recipe, but I learned my lessons.  Always ask mom first. Secondly, you have to start somewhere with these family recipes and screwing it up is part of the fun.  Lastly, coconuts are not supposed to be hairy.

My first Cassava Cake

The Cassava Cake recipe I used, somewhat:

  • Cake

  • lbs grated cassava

  • 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk (Reserve 1/3 cup for Topping)

  • 1 (12 ounce) can evaporated milk

  • 1 (14 ounce) can coconut milk (Reserve 1/3 cup for Topping)

  • 1 (13 ounce) can coconut cream (Reserve 1/3 cup for Topping)

  • 2/3 cup sugar

  • eggs, plus

  • egg whites

  • cup grated coconut

  • Topping

    • egg yolks

    Prep Time: 1 hr
    Total Time: 2 hrs
    1 Preheat oven to 325° f.
    2 In large mixing bowl combine cake ingredients.
    3 Mix well.
    4 Pour equally into two large greased rectangular pans.
    5 Bake until top is no longer liquid (approximately 30 minutes).
    6 Mix topping ingredients well and spread evenly on the two cakes.
    7 Bake an additional 20 to 30 minutes.
    8 Cool cakes completely.
    9 Slice each cake into 24 equal squares.

    Everyone liked the online recipe.  I threw in a little cheese in a couple of batches.  Since I have a tiny toaster oven, some of the batter was baked in muffin pans.  I burnt some of them, but some guests liked the burnt ones, they even scoped those out for the caramel chewiness.  So, you can not really go too wrong here.

    My mom's recipe I should have used:

    Cassava Cake (Mom's)
    2 frozen packages Grated Cassava 
    1 6oz pkg. Shredded young Coconut (Buko) 
    1 can Coconut Milk
    1 can Condensed Milk

    Preheat oven to 350.
    Mix all the ingredients.
    Pour into a rectangular pan.
    Bake for 30 minutes.
    You will know when it is ready when the top starts browning in spots here and there.


    1. Too cute Chris, for the Easter edition blog, you can ask the question - why is my balut so slimy? =)

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