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A slice of ambrosia (and that's just the filling)

A slice of ambrosia  (and that's just the filling)

NYT Syndicate
I've long been a fan of shaggy white coconut layer cakes, filled and frosted with ultra-sweet meringue. But it was only recently that I encountered their more flamboyant cousin, the ambrosia cake.
It's got the white cake layers, billowing frosting and shredded coconut of the classic, crossed with the juicy citrus of ambrosia, the salad or dessert of oranges or mandarins, pineapple, strawberries and coconut embedded in whipped topping or sour cream. Sometimes a few marshmallows are thrown in for good measure.
I didn't grow up eating ambrosia. I didn't even meet it in the flesh until college, when the cafeteria served it at the salad bar.
One of my friends spooned up a hefty portion, explaining that it reminded her of her granny. It also came with a warning:"If your granny didn't make it, it might not be your thing."
My granny didn't make it, and it isn't my thing. But those same elements combined in a cake? That I can appreciate.
Because there are so many ambrosia variations ” almost as many as there are grannies ” there are many versions of ambrosia cake.
Some go all out in the fruit department, using oranges or mandarins, pineapple and bananas. Some add the likes of pecans, maraschino cherries and miniature marshmallows. All have some kind of white frosting and a liberal coating of shredded coconut.
In my version, I opt for fewer elements and use them in several ways. I skip pineapple and bananas and stick with citrus, choosing seedless clementines over mandarins and oranges. Some are juiced and stirred into a tangy curd to slather between the layers. I cut others into sections to add a fresh burst of fruit. If you miss the pineapple and bananas, feel free to add some to the filling.
Similarly, the coconut appears in the cake itself, and again in a shredded form in the filling and as a garnish.
You can use either sweetened or unsweetened shredded coconut. Sweetened is the more traditional choice.
I don't love it as a salad garnish, but on a cake, it's ambrosial.
Ambrosia Cake
Yield: 12 servings
Total time: 3 hours

For the cake:
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 teaspoon coconut extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened
1/4 cup virgin coconut oil, melted and cooled (or use more butter)
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature, whites and yolks separated
1 1/4 teaspoons finely grated clementine zest (from about 2 clementines)
For the filling:
1/3 cup fresh clementine juice (from about 4 clementines), plus 2 1/2 teaspoons finely grated clementine zest
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
4 large eggs
4 large egg yolks (reserve whites for frosting)
7 tablespoons/88 grams sugar
Pinch kosher salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cubed
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the frosting:
4 large egg whites
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch kosher salt
For decorating and assembling:
8 to 10 seedless clementines
1 1/2 to 3 cups shredded sweetened or unsweetened coconut, to taste
Strawberries, sliced (optional)

1. Bake the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the middle. Butter two 9-inch cake pans and line with parchment paper on the bottom.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, coconut milk, and both extracts.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter, coconut oil and sugar together until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, then beat in zest. Beat in half the flour mixture, followed by half the milk mixture. Repeat, beating just until combined and scraping down bowl as necessary.
4. In a separate bowl, use an electric beater to whisk egg whites just until stiff peaks form. Fold into cake batter.
5. Divide batter between pans. Bake until lightly golden and toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then unmold cakes and cool completely on rack. (Cakes can be made up to 2 days ahead; once cool, wrap in plastic and refrigerate.)
6. Meanwhile, make the filling: Bring clementine juice and lemon juice to a boil over medium heat in a medium saucepan. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, yolks, sugar and salt. Whisking constantly, slowly pour hot juice into eggs, then return mixture to saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; whisk in butter and vanilla. Push through a strainer set over a medium bowl, and stir in clementine zest. Cover with plastic wrap directly on surface of curd and refrigerate until cold. (Curd can be made up to 5 days ahead.) Or to speed up cooling, set bowl of curd in a larger bowl filled with ice water and stir curd until very cold, 7 to 10 minutes. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
7. Prepare clementines for decorating the cake: Cut the top and bottom off a clementine and set it cut-side down on a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to cut away peel and pith, following the curve of the fruit from top to bottom. Working over a bowl to catch the juices, carefully cut out each segment from the membrane; it should fall into the bowl as you cut. Lay segments out on paper towels to dry slightly while you cut remaining fruit.
8. Use a large knife to trim tops of cakes to level them, and cut both cakes in half horizontally to make layers.
9. Place a cake layer on a serving dish and spread a third of the curd over it, leaving a 1-inch border around the edge. Layer a third of the clementine segments on top of curd, spacing them evenly so cake will be balanced. Top with another layer, spread another third of curd over it, and layer with 1/2 cup shredded coconut. Top with cake layer, repeat curd and clementines, saving some clementines for top of cake. Place the remaining cake layer on top, and chill while making frosting.
10. Make the frosting: Bring a medium pot with 1 inch of water to boil. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and salt. Set bowl over simmering water and whisk constantly until eggs reach 160 degrees, or the sugar has melted. Remove from heat, and beat on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form, about 5 minutes.
11. Immediately spread frosting on cake and press coconut shreds into tops and sides. Top with clementine wedges and strawberries if using; serve within an hour or two. (Or, keep refrigerated for up to 8 hours and wait until just before serving to top with fresh fruit.)