Writer Jennifer Justus shares memories and the recipe for her mother's Coconut Jo Cake.
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Marcie Culpepper
Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Justus

Jennifer's mother, Marcie Culpepper, playing the ukulele as a student at the University of Georgia. Circa 1965

When my brother and I were young, our mom would host clothes-folding parties. She'd holler up to us—sometimes in song—about the warm laundry just out of the dryer. And then we'd thunder downstairs to help her fold.

But the clothes-folding "parties" were oddly similar to the dishwasher "awards"—when she'd give one of us the honor of putting away the silverware.

"Wait, is this fun?" we started to wonder.

Though it took my brother and me a few years to sniff out that we were being conned, we helped her anyway, of course. She'd won our admiration for pulling it off with sheer force of optimism. Even until we left home, she would bellow out a Sesame Street tune as we worked: "We'll do it together . . . That'll be great!" In a mix of embarrassment and pride at her uninhibited kitchen cabaret, we couldn't help but oblige.

I attribute mom's can-do attitude to her upbringing in a small town in North Georgia. She knew how (and taught us by example) to make a big deal out of the simple things and to find joy in tasks that weren't always fun. And she knew how to do it with food too.

Mom worked hard outside the kitchen, which meant we had simple meals at home. But even with our canned beans, cornbread, and Spam dinners, I thought we were eating like kings. Mom made "gourmet" cheese sandwiches with a slice of American cheese, yellow mustard, and a dramatic flourish of black pepper. Sharing a sleeve of Ritz crackers and a Coke was our version of high tea. A watermelon from a roadside stand warranted a family event that turned us into armchair food critics judging the sweetness of each melon compared to the previous one. But the pinnacle—the treat for birthdays and holidays—was a basic pound cake called Coconut Jo.

Mom made Coconut Jo with fanfare, announcing its arrival hours or even days before we'd catch its sweet aroma. A dense cake laced with coconut extract that deepened in flavor as it sat on the counter, Coconut Jo had been served to my mom when she was age 10 by my great-aunt Ruth. Mom and I both grew up with that cake.

But it wasn't until college, when I missed Coconut Jo, that I understood how simple it is. Mom dictated the recipe over the phone—just flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and flavoring. I expected it to at least be somewhat difficult. Nope.

Curious that it lacked even one fleck of actual coconut, I asked my friend Anne Byrn, author of American Cake, about its possible history. She figured the recipe came from the cost cutting and time-saving days of the Depression and World War II, which made sense for my family, too, despite the difference in time period. Though it was simple, we marveled at Coconut Jo's crunchy texture on top and spongy middle that squishes easily into moist bites. It's slipped into a cold oven that hasn't preheated, which probably began as another way to save money while also contributing to its comforting and delightful texture. When I threw a potluck wedding last year, Mom brought Coconut Jo to the celebration. (Of course she did.)

While the food writer in me kind of wishes I could tell you about something more sophisticated—a layer cake with fat curls of toasted coconut, maybe—that would just be the Instagramable version of my no-filter life. Plus, I am happy to have learned from Mom that it doesn't take a fancier cake to make someone feel special, comforted, and loved.

If the scent of Coconut Jo was one of the earliest memories I associate with Mom, here's another. Once, when I'd had a bad experience with a babysitter, my mom had to scramble to find a new one, despite not having the extra money or time to do so. I remember sitting on her lap as she held me close and pondered the quandary. I can still hear the creak of the old wooden rocking chair while tears were falling quietly down her face. Maybe she thought I didn't know she was crying, but I could feel it. This was the first time I knew we were in this thing together. She would do anything to keep me feeling safe and comforted—whether by cake or by caretaker.

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After that long night, we had to get up before the sun rose and drive farther into the country to meet a babysitter that my mom could trust. It was by no means ideal. But by dawn, she was making the best of it and had erased any traces of inconvenience. The morning sun flickered through the trees like nature's strobe light as we passed cattle grazing in pastures. It must have reminded her of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," the opening number of the musical Oklahoma! Because then Mom did what she always does. She just threw back her head and sang.

Coconut Jo Cake

Serves 10 to 12 (serving size: 1 slice)
Active 15 min. | Total 1 hour, 40 min.
This basic pound cake has a spongy, moist center with a bottom that's cookie-like by bringing together gooey and crisp textures. Good quality coconut extract gives it a slightly different spin than the more common vanilla.

1 cup (8 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
6 large eggs
2 cups (about 8 1/2 oz.) cake flour
1 Tbsp. coconut extract (such as Flavorganics)

1. Beat butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until creamy, about 7 minutes. Gradually add sugar, and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until yellow disappears after each addition.
2. Add flour to butter mixture in approximately half-cup batches, beating until combined after each addition. Add coconut extract, and beat until smooth.
3. Pour batter into a lightly greased (with cooking spray) and floured 10-inch Bundt pan, and place in a cold oven. Set oven temperature to 300°F. Bake until golden on top and browning at edges, about 1 hour and 20 minutes.
4. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack 10 minutes; remove from pan to wire rack and cool completely, about 1 hour.