ONE DESSERT’S UNEXPECTED DESTINY
On any given morning in the kitchen at Peninsula Grill, you’ll hear a distinct whirring sound coming from the “pastry girls’” corner. It’s not the sound of eggs being whisked or the sound of batter being mixed.
Glance around, and you’ll find the source, tucked away up on a skinny shelf above the ice-cream drawer. There, a tiny printer chirps out ticket after ticket, each one an order for the restaurant’s Ultimate Coconut Cake®.
Orders come in from across the country and around the clock, via the phone and Internet. The pastry team are all pros at crafting the dessert phenomenon. Reporting to their shift at 6 a.m., they make at least a dozen cakes a day, 52 weeks of the year, even more come holiday gift-giving and entertaining time. During the holidays, the FedEx truck is often seen backing slowly out of the Peninsula Grill parking lot with a cargo bay filled with precious cakes.
Truth be told, no one could have predicted the dessert was destined to become a Charleston icon. This special 12-layer cake was certainly never intended to be a thriving mail order business!
LOVE AT FIRST BITE
A Swiss-born baker, Esthi Stefenelli was creating sugar-spun fantasies for guests at the acclaimed Little Palm Island Relais & Châteaux when a change of scenery—and a chance to join the culinary team that opened Peninsula Grill—beckoned. She traded the palm trees of Key West for the cobblestone streets of Charleston, where she perfected a coconut cake recipe in time for Peninsula Grill’s first Valentine’s Day dinner.
In classic Swiss pastry tradition, says Esthi, she added a simple syrup to keep the layers extra moist. Then she adjusted the filling, too, whipping it up to make it extra fluffy. If you don’t do that, Esthi says, it’s not as smooth as it can be, which is essential when you’re trying to cut through so many layers with a fork. She hunted down the perfect vanilla and tried out a few iterations of cream cheese icing as well. It took about four different versions in the end, she says, to come up with the one recipe that was poised to become an overnight sensation.
COUNT THE LAYERS
So what’s the big deal? Let’s start with the height. The recipe calls for two cakes cut into three layers each. That fluffy filling Esthi worked so hard to master punctuates each of the cake layers, and when fully assembled, the show-stopping dessert towers with twelve layers. Freshly toasted coconut is gently pressed into the cream cheese icing adding a subtle and satisfying crunch.
GRANDE DAME DESSERT
Esthi stayed with Peninsula Grill until 2004, when she left to establish her own catering business. By then, the Peninsula Grill Ultimate Coconut Cake® had earned rave reviews from locals as well as members of the media, certifying its status as a Charleston “bucket list” food. Once the national press started raving, demand for whole cakes cake sparked an inadvertent mail-order cottage industry. When the TODAY Show broadcast live-on-location from Charleston, hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford opened the show by eating slices of the Ultimate Coconut Cake®. That high-profile coverage led to brides asking for custom, multi-level versions, a feat that current Executive Pastry Chef Claire Chapman and her team have executed flawlessly.
TASTE IT FOR YOURSELF
Slices of the Ultimate Coconut Cake® are served night-after-night at Peninsula Grill. And here’s a little-known tidbit: Cake slices are available for carry-out from the restaurant. And, of course, whole cakes are shipped across the country via overnight delivery. Ready to try the dessert that bon appetit magazine calls “skyscraper high” and “light as a cloud?”