My Family Recipe

A Billowy Coconut Cake Made of 1,000 Kisses

Behold the schaum torte.

July 23, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.

Call it what you will, but remember this: A pavlova is just a kiss.

The simple pairing of egg whites and sugar is known by many names. Schaum torte, kiss torte, kisses, or pavlova are all baked meringues, made lofty by beating egg whites into thick, shiny peaks. While perfectly agreeable on their own, meringue and coconut make fine dance partners.

Growing up in a family of dessert lovers, three distinctive personalities orchestrated the kitchen: My paternal grandmother, always in sensible lace-up shoes, was a traditionalist, relying on well-worn cookbooks and hand-written recipe cards. My mother, preferring high heels, dotted the blue formica countertop with recipes plucked from magazines and newspapers. Jessie, our beloved housekeeper, sported comfortable slip-ons and kept recipes in her head. Their recipe exchange took place against a backdrop of geranium strewn wallpaper and checkerboard linoleum.

Inside a cavernous knotty pine cabinet, a plastic lazy Susan organized our family's baking essentials. My tendency to spin the turntable with gusto often propelled the red-capped bottle of vanilla extract into a bag of Baker’s coconut. With each spin of the lazy Susan, a whiff of sweet coconut taunted, conjuring meringue kisses, seven-minute icing, or one of my father’s favorite custard pies.

We utilized egg yolks and egg whites in equal excess allowing plenty of room for airy sponge cakes and ethereal meringues. My grandmother’s Settlement Cookbook featured an entire section devoted to "Kisses." The Schaum Torte recipe was duly noted with her Book-of-the-Month-Club bookmark.

Kisses were considered after-school cookies, while the schaum torte was more of a birthday showstopper. With the Sunbeam mixer set at the dizzying speed of three, egg whites morphed into meringue with ease, glossy and blindingly white, fragrant with vanilla. Occasionally, Jessie would add a handful of sweetened, flaked coconut to the meringue. Selecting a well-worn, slightly warped cookie sheet from a slender cabinet, she lined it with waxed paper before placing generous spoonfuls of meringue in rows of three by four. Strands of coconut poking through the egg whites baked up toasty, mimicking the top of a coconut meringue pie. Jessie knew that the addition of coconut helped compensate for the fact that the Kisses were served unadorned, alongside a cold glass of milk and plenty of homework.

The schaum torte was what we called a kiss torte, a barely golden meringue cradling a marshmallow-y interior. Baked in a cavernous springform pan that had once belonged to my grandmother’s mother, the torte required one hour with the oven on and two hours with the oven off. Earlier versions featured a ring of kisses circling the finished dessert, hence the name. Jessie, always practical, thought fussing with the kisses was overkill and eliminated them. When cooled, the over-sized meringue was coaxed from its pan, carefully split in half, generously filled with strawberries, bananas, and whipped cream. The top was repositioned and lavishly blanketed in more cream. The chewy, crackly meringue smothered in cream and fruit was essentially the same thing as a pavlova, a word we only associated with ballet and not part of our baking vernacular.

Time has a way of changing things, coaxing food memories into reinvented classics.

My version of the kiss torte is low-slung and spiked with desiccated coconut and cardamom. The crunch and warm spice help temper meringue’s notoriously cloying sweetness. Coconut custard and ripe strawberries elevate this simple meringue from a member of the ensemble to prima-ballerina status. Don’t forget the whipped cream.

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1 Comment

warrenm July 23, 2019
Photographically delicious and on a sweet tooth scale of 10 plus.