Chasing a Coconut Cake

February 13th, 2011  |  38 Comments

Hundreds of you have now downloaded the macaron primer, and I thank you! The response has been nothing short of awesome. A few of you even dove right in and made some, and have reported that you’ve achieved the “impossible”. You slam-dunked that macaron!

The fact that you visit this blog and have enough faith to try out the recipes means everything to me. We’re becoming quite the baking circle, and I love hearing your thoughts and feedback. It makes baking and blogging so much more fun. I’m honored that you’re baking with me.

If you still haven’t downloaded the macaron primer, make your way over to this post. It’s totally free!

Speaking of you guys, a few months ago, a reader named Jackie sent me an email looking for coconut cake. Here is a clip in her own words:

“I was looking at your coconut cookie recipe, and a coconut cake recipe popped in my head. I’m looking for a recipe that has a lot of coconut flavor.”

Hmmm. A coconutty coconut cake. Shouldn’t be so hard, right? Off I went, hunting for coconut cake recipes. I saw many different approaches to it. Some were mere butter cakes with plain frosting and grated coconut sprinkled on top. A ghost of a coconut cake, if you ask me, not worthy of the title.

Some were dense, like pound cakes, while others were light, like angel food cakes. Some had cream cheese frosting, while others were coated with meringue. Inexplicably, I spied versions with coconut flavors in either just the cake part or just the frosting part. That’s like half a handshake! It doesn’t make sense.

Why go subtle on coconut flavor? When have you ever thought, “My word, this is good, but wouldn’t it be better if I could hardly taste the coconut?”

I wanted balls-to-the-wall coconut. Clock-me-on-the-head coconut. Dropped-in-a-piña-colada coconut. This meant some form of coconut had to appear in every nook and cranny of the cake.

When I spotted Alton Brown’s version, I slammed a triumphant fist on the table. It looked just right. There was coconut extract, coconut milk, and coconut cream in the cake batter. It was a coconut steam bath. And it’s that little bitty teaspoon of extract that would lend a powerhouse of flavor. Extracts do wonders to perfume a cake through and through.

Only….only…he made all those things from scratch. The extract came from fresh coconut (that he cracked open, grated and soaked in liquor for days), and so did the coconut milk and cream. Ol’ Alton hoped you’d pre-plan this a week in advance, and then had a whole Sunday to spare.

I’m all for fresh everything, but I’ve got drywall to put up. My life cannot revolve around one cake. And then there are those rare times when a lot of effort is not worth the return. No doubt, his labored cake is to die for, but I wondered if it would still be very, very good with supermarket substitutions.

I cut a few corners, where I thought I could.

And it was good. Very, very good — luscious and tall and generous, both in size and in deep coconut flavor. I served it up for my dad’s birthday dinner. All plates were cleaned, and I heard no complaining.

For tropical good measure, I filled it with passion fruit curd. To me, other than fine chocolate, nothing tastes quite as luxurious as passion fruit. It’s such an exotic flavor. I used my favorite lemon curd recipe to make it, but substituted passion fruit puree for the lemon juice. This is a good brand, and I used it often in my restaurants. If you can’t get passion fruit puree, heck, use lime juice, and fill the cake with lime curd.

But if you think I am veering too far off the path of total coconut immersion, then forget all the curd business. Double the frosting recipe and fill the whole cake with that.

A long, serrated knife makes splitting the cake layers much easier.

Coconut Cake with Passion Fruit Filling

adapted, mostly, from Alton Brown’s recipe on foodtv.com
makes one 9″ cake

If you can, try to find canned coconut milk or cream with no added crap. No preservatives, no chemicals. As far as extract, I’ve never seen a pure coconut version. They’re all a strange mix, presumably because real coconut would not make a strong enough extract, though some have a more natural flavor than others. I like this one well enough.

Also, toasted coconut adds yet another dimension of coconut flavor, so I used some shards for sprinkling on top. You can sprinkle with plain, untoasted coconut as well, for a white-on-white effect.

For the cake:

Non-stick cooking spray, for the cake pan
3 cups (406 g) cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (6 g) baking powder
1 teaspoon (4 g) salt
1 cup (224 g) coconut milk or coconut cream
2 sticks (224 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 1/4 cups (448 g) sugar
1 teaspoon (5 g) coconut extract
4 large (approximately 135 g) egg whites

1/3 cup coconut water, for brushing cake

For the Frosting:

4 large (approximately 135 g) egg whites
1 1/4 cups (250 g) granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons (30 g) coconut water
1/4 teaspoon (1 g) salt
1 teaspoon (5 g) coconut extract
1/2 teaspoon (3 g) vanilla extract

passion fruit curd, from this post. I substituted passion fruit puree for the lemon juice.

Grated coconut, unsweetened, for garnish


1. Stuff for the cake part:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare two 9″ cake pans:

Spritz each cake pan with a little cooking spray. (Or alternately smear a piece of butter around to grease up the pan.)

carrot_cake_spray_pan

 

We interrupt this program to demo an easy trick to cut a parchment circle for lining your cake pans. Grab a piece of parchment paper that’s bigger than the cake pan. Fold in half…

carrot-cake-paper-in-half

 

…then in half again. You can see where the natural center starts to develop.

carrot-cake-fold-in-half-again

 

Being mindful of the center, fold this piece in half again. Here is the imaginary line where the fold happens.

carrot-cake-paper-line

 

You end up with a pointy cone shape.

carrot-cake-paper-folded

 

Now hold it over your cake pan and align the center point of the parchment with the center of the cake pan. I just eyeball this. Cut away extra parchment along the red line, just inside the edge of the cake pan. I like to avoid cutting my thumb, too.

carrot-cake-cut-parchment

 

Unfurl the paper. It should fit. If not refold, and trim off a bit more. Spray the top of the parchment paper lightly, too. Repeat the lining process for the second cake pan. (Look at these crazy prices. $4.29 for a can of PAM? Seriously.)

carrot_cake_sprayed_pan

 

Now it’s time to cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed.

 

We want to beat some air into the batter, which gives the cake a light crumb. After 5 minutes, it becomes fluffy and paler than it was when it started.

 

Dribble in the coconut extract and give it another stir of the paddle for a few seconds, just to mix it in.

 

As always, I like to scrape down the bowl for more even mixing.

 

The rest of the dry stuff goes into a bowl. This includes flour, baking powder and salt.

 

Stir ‘em up. This close-up makes me want to go skiing.

 

Stop the machine, and pour in half the dry goods. Mix on low speed until it just starts to get incorporated, about 15 seconds.

 

Pour in half the coconut milk, and mix that in until it just barely incorporates.

 

Then do it again. First the rest of the dry…

 

…then the rest of the coconut milk.

 

I scrape down that bowl again. See the bit of dry stuff that hid at the bottom? Now’s a good time to fold that in.

 

Now we’ll whip the egg whites to fold in. This is based on a sponge cake technique and it’s a good trick to lighten the texture of cakes. (Tip: If you have a cake recipe that’s a little dense, and you want to lighten it up, instead of adding the whole eggs as written in the recipe, make the batter with just the yolks and leave the whites to the side. At the very end, whip up the whites and fold them in. The cake will rise just a little more in the oven, resulting in an airier crumb.)

Here are the whites. I use the old-fashioned whisk to whip. (Mostly because I’m too lazy to wash out the Kitchenaid bowl.)

 

Here it is at soft peak.

 

Since the batter is so stiff right now, I’ll fold in just a third of the whites to start. This will help loosen the batter, so the rest of the whites can be folded in easier.

Whoops, forgot a pic of the first bit added in. No matter.

I’ll go ahead and add in the rest of the whites, then fold.

 

Here’s the finished batter. It’s looser, like a hooker in Vegas.

 

Divide it up as evenly as you can between the prepared pans.

 

and bake in the preheated oven for about 35-40 minutes.

 

Stick a cake tester or a toothpick into the center of the cake. If you still have wet batter sticking to your tester, give it 5 more minutes. CHECK BOTH CAKES, because they will likely bake at different speeds. These things depend on your oven’s hot pockets, the type of cake pan used, the variation in how much batter each pan received, and just the everyday whims of the universe. My tester is clean.

 

Here they are baked. The top is just barely golden brown. Now I let them cool completely. (If you prefer, you can make these cakes the day before. Once cool, wrap them well in plastic, and refrigerate. When you’re ready to assemble the cake, go straight to splitting the layers. Cold cake is easier to slice.)

 

While the cakes are cooling, we’ll toast the coconut. Spread out a goodly amount on a sheet pan.

 

Toast at 350 degrees F for 2-5 minutes. Since the pieces are so thin, they will toast fast, so keep one eye glued to the oven. When they get some nice color on them, they’re done.

 

When the cakes are cool, and you’re ready to assemble, we are ready to make the frosting. Don’t forget to double the frosting recipe if you are not using any curd filling. Here’s the bit of stuff.

 

In bowl that’s big enough to sit comfortably over a double boiler, pour in the whites and the sugar.

 

Now place it over a pot filled with a couple of inches of boiling water. Start whisking immediately, or the heat will start scrambling the egg whites.

 

Whisk for a couple of minutes. The sugar will dissolve and the mixture will get very warm. If you do the finger test, it should feel like a comfortable warm bath, but not so hot you flinch. You have a lot of room for error here, so no need to get hung up about it. When it’s good and warm, pour it into your stand mixer (or go right at it with a hand mixer).

 

Whip on high speeds. Like a race car driver.

 

In a few minutes, it will whip up thick and gooey, and billowy and meringue-y. This is a swiss meringue.

 

Pour in the salt, coconut extract, vanilla extract, and coconut water, and let that whip in for 15 more seconds. We’re ready to frost.

 

If your cake gets any dome, you can trim it off with a serrated knife. Hold it parallel to the table, and saw gently back and forth. Not only will it give you an even cake, it gives you much needed snacking scraps.

 

Mine only needed a little off the side.

 

Now we’ll split it in half horizontally. I flip the cake upside down because the bottom is completely flat and it’s easier to eyeball the split while I cut. Again, I use a long serrated knife, and carefully run it around the perimeter of the cake until the knife slices all the way through. This chocolate cake post has a more complete demonstration of cake splitting. Do this with both cakes.

 

Grab the cake platter, and line it with pieces of parchment paper. This will protect the plate from the mess we’re about to make.

 

Place a layer on, and lightly brush the top with coconut water. I do mean lightly, just enough to moisten it. Wet cake is blech.

 

Ooooh, how I love this part. I feel like I’m in a commercial. Spread some passion fruit curd (or coconut frosting, whichever you’re using) over the cake layer.

 

Gently press a layer of cake over the curd, brush it with some more coconut water, and spread some frosting over that party.

 

And do it again. Another cake layer. Brush some coconut water. More curd (or frosting).

Whoo, can it get any better!

Then the last layer for the top. I like to save a cake bottom for the top because it’s an even surface.

 

It just keeps gettin’ better. I frost. First I do a very thin “crumb coat” to seal it all up and lock in the crumbs.

 

Here is the thinly coated cake. Looks anemic so far.

 

Clean off your crumby spatula (by licking?) and slather on a nice, fat coat of that frosting!

 

Remove the parchment paper and clean up any smudges on the plate with a damp paper towel. Gimme a slice!

 

If you can wait, garnish the top with toasted coconut.

 

Mine, mine, mine.

It’s coconut heaven over here.

 

Coconut Cake with Passion Fruit Filling

adapted, mostly, from Alton Brown’s recipe on foodtv.com
makes one 9″ cake

If you can, try to find canned coconut milk or cream with no added crap. No preservatives, no chemicals. As far as extract, I’ve never seen a pure coconut version. They’re all a strange mix, presumably because real coconut would not make a strong enough extract, though some have a more natural flavor than others. I like this one well enough.

Also, toasted coconut adds yet another dimension of coconut flavor, so I used some shards for sprinkling on top. You can sprinkle with plain, untoasted coconut as well, for a white-on-white effect.

For the cake:

Non-stick cooking spray, for the cake pan
3 cups (406 g) cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (6 g) baking powder
1 teaspoon (4 g) salt
1 cup (224 g) coconut milk or coconut cream (NOT cream of coconut)
2 sticks (224 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 1/4 cups (448 g) sugar
1 teaspoon (5 g) coconut extract
4 large (approximately 135 g) egg whites

1/3 cup coconut water, for brushing cake

For the Frosting:

4 large (approximately 135 g) egg whites
1 1/4 cups (250 g) granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons (30 g) coconut water
1/4 teaspoon (1 g) salt
1 teaspoon (5 g) coconut extract
1/2 teaspoon (3 g) vanilla extract

passion fruit curd, from this post. I substituted passion fruit puree for the lemon juice.

Grated coconut, unsweetened, for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare two 9″ cake pans: Spritz each cake pan with a little cooking spray. (Or alternately smear a piece of butter around to grease up the pan.)

2. Line each with a circle of parchment paper, and spritz lightly again. Set aside.

3. Cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed, until, pale, light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

4. Drizzle in the coconut extract and give it another stir of the paddle for a few seconds, just to mix it in. Scrape down the mixing bowl for better incorporation.

5. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt.

6. Pour half of the dry ingredients into the mixing bowl with the butter/sugar, and incorporate on slow speed. Pour in half the coconut milk (or coconut cream), and stir that in. Then stir in the rest of the dry stuff, and then the rest of the coconut milk.

7. Whip the egg whites to soft peak. Fold 1/3 of the whipped egg whites into the batter. This will help loosen it, and the rest will be easier to fold in. Fold in the rest of the egg whites.

8. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans, and bake for about 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cakes cool completely.

9. Meanwhile, toast the coconut. Spread out unsweetened dry coconut onto a sheet pan and toast at 350 degrees until golden, 3-5 minutes.

10. When you are ready to assemble the cake, make the frosting. In bowl that’s big enough to sit comfortably over a double boiler, pour in the whites and the sugar. Now place it over a pot filled with a couple of inches of boiling water. Start whisking immediately, or the heat will start scrambling the egg whites.

11. Whisk for a couple of minutes. The sugar will dissolve and the mixture will get very warm. Test it by sticking your finger in the bowl. It should feel like a comfortable warm bath, but not so hot you flinch. You have a lot of room for error here, so no need to get hung up about it. When it’s good and warm, pour it into your stand mixer (or go right at it with a hand mixer). Whip on high speed.

12. In a few minutes, it will whip up thick and gooey, and billowy and meringue-y. This is a swiss meringue.

13. Pour in the salt, coconut extract, vanilla extract, and coconut water, and let that whip in for 15 more seconds. We’re ready to frost.

14. If your cake gets any dome, you can trim it off with a serrated knife. Hold it parallel to the table, and saw gently back and forth. Now we’ll split it in half horizontally. I flip the cake upside down because the bottom is completely flat and it’s easier to eyeball the split while I cut. Again, I use a long serrated knife, and carefully run it around the perimeter of the cake until the knife slices all the way through. Do this with both cakes.

15. Grab the cake platter, and line it with pieces of parchment paper. This will protect the plate from the mess we’re about to make. Place a layer of cake on, and lightly brush the top with coconut water.

16. Spread some passion fruit curd (or coconut frosting, whichever you’re using) over the cake layer. Gently press a layer of cake over the curd, brush it with some more coconut water, and spread some frosting over that party. And do it again. Another cake layer. Brush some coconut water. More curd (or frosting). Then the last layer for the top. I like to save a cake bottom for the top because it’s an even surface.

17. Then frost the ouside. rost. First, do a very thin “crumb coat” to seal it all up and lock in the crumbs. Clean off your crumby spatula (by licking?) and slather on a nice, fat coat of that frosting!

18. Top off with coconut garnish and get lost in coconut heaven!






38 Responses to “Chasing a Coconut Cake”

  1. Sara says:

    Wow! I want to make this – I’ve seen the Good Eats episode where Alton Brown makes this cake, and I, too, always thought it sounded way too labor-intensive. I will definitely give this easier version a shot, though. The passion fruit has me intrigued.

  2. Zo says:

    Ooo that does sound pretty amazing. Also a pretty fantastic way to use up egg whites!

  3. Deanna says:

    My mouth is watering!

  4. Coconut is one of my favorite flavors! Your blog is fun to read…and has delicious recipes!

    Carmen

  5. And I’m in purgatory over here only being able to drool and dream about this stunning cake without as much as a single nibble ;p. Oh Irina, you tease =D. You know, I don’t know what it is about coconut cake that makes people so forward in requesting it. I used to bring baked goods to work at a big law firm and became friends with an old partner across the hall who was a big foodie and wino. One day he snuck in my office while I was away and taped a photo of a coconut cake to my wall as a joking request. He was actually quite embarrassed about doing that for a while until I brought in a cake from an Epicurious recipe and seemed to enjoy it so much he had no regrets for asking 8). I bet your version would have made him even happier :).

  6. Mrs Ergül says:

    I must make this one day! I have plenty of egg whites that needs using! I will love to top it with toasted coconut flakes if they don’t cost me 7 Singapore dollars for a small packet….

  7. Fred says:

    Lookin’ good! Do you take your own photos?

  8. Nadine says:

    I am a coconut anyting NUT..thank you for posting this recipe.I also heard that Bobby Flay’s version is also very good, he uses coconut creme patissiere to fill it..your blog is my new addiction

  9. PastryPal says:

    Sara — What’s amazing is if you read the reviews of the recipe on foodtv.com, some people do try it. I admit the full version has me curious.

    Zo — I did notice that, too.

    Deanna — That’s the goal :)

    Carmen — Thank you for always reading.

    Xiaolu — Coconut is such a polarizing flavor, some people do go crazy for it. You really went a step above to make that cake!

    Mrs Ergul — Never would have thought coconut was so expensive where you are. Maybe you can leave it off.

    Fred — Thanks! I do indeed take all my own photos. Constantly trying to improve.

    Nadine — Hmm, an interesting variation. It’s funny…I see creme patisserie so rarely in desserts these days. Seems to have gone out of fashion. Sounds like a good use of it. And thank you for stopping by.

  10. Ooh Irina, that cake looks amazing!! I view Alton Brown as a sort of mad scientist, makes amazing stuff, but sometimes it’s just a bit too much :P

  11. Amy says:

    I am not even a big coconut fan, and this left me craving some coconut cake for a few days after I read this post! ;-)

  12. Linda says:

    I did make the Alton Brown coconut cake last year at Easter and although it was fabulous, it was too labor intensive for me to think about making again. Thanks for simplifying the recipe without sacrificing the coconut taste. I am going to try your version this Easter.

  13. Judy says:

    I love layer cakes and this looks like a very exotic but do-able one. I’m not very good at fancy cakes but your step-by-steps make your recipes very accessible.

    I have access to fresh coconut milk, cream and flesh and passionfruit and would like to try this recipe with real coconuts.

    I’m just a bit daunted by the white frosting. Is it like a 7-minute Frosting? Do I need a thermometer for this? I tried making a whipped frosting from Martha Stewart but it just tasted like foamy marshmallows. I’ve been afraid of whipping whites and sugar ever since.

    Thank you so much for the Macaron Primer too, Irina. It’s a beautiful presentation and so very kind of you to share it with your readers.

  14. PastryPal says:

    Hi Judy—Ooh, fresh coconut milk and cream. I’m jealous ;). The frosting is based on a 7-minute frosting, yes, but there’s no need to avoid it. To me it tastes like meringue, which is, I guess quite similar to a whipped marshmallow. You really don’t need a thermometer. It should whip up one way or another. If you happen to go wrong somewhere along the line, you’ve only ruined some sugar and egg whites, and you can always try again. Good luck!

  15. Mrs Ergül says:

    Irina…. I just checked and I probably won’t be able to get any (good/natural) coconut extract in this part of the world…… What do you reckon I do??

  16. PastryPal says:

    Mrs Ergül, you can always order some online, or make your own. Soak 1/2 cup fresh (not dried) grated coconut in 4 oz vodka for a week or two and strain.

  17. Mrs Ergül says:

    It won’t be in time as I’m planning to make the cake for this sat…. oh no…

  18. PastryPal says:

    I don’t know if they sell coconut flavored vodkas where you are, but you can try that in a pinch.

  19. Mrs Ergül says:

    Hmmmm coconut liquor! I have Malibu!!!! Thanks Irina! You are brilliant!

  20. Judy says:

    Irina,

    I wish I could send you some fresh coconuts for baking. They contain a world of flavour and go for a song. They grate them fresh every morning at the markets. Grated coconut is sold by the half or full coconut in volume and works out to be about USD0.60 for a grated whole.

    I haven’t used dessicated coconut since I moved here. The one thing I truly miss cooking with is fresh mushrooms and good cheese which generally cost an arm and a leg. They’re available but certainly not in the price range of coconuts.

    I guess you win some and lose some.

    By the way, congratulations on your Macaron Primer feature in Epicurious. That’s fantastic exposure and I’ll be making some macs from your instructions. I’ll certainly let you know how that goes.

  21. Jen says:

    Irina your cake looks amazing! I’d really like to make it, just one problem though I live at almost 10,000 ft in the Andes and my cakes come out sunken in the middle. Any suggestions? (I’ve tried less sugar, more liquid, and extra egg….I can’t seem to get anything to work)

  22. PastryPal says:

    Hi Jen — I admit I don’t have any experience with high altitude baking. Here’s one article that looks sound in its advice. Here’s another.

  23. [...] (use 10, or halve the recipe and use 5). Next on the list is this swooningly delicious looking coconut cake (use 8, or 4 if not using the meringue icing). Love it when baking makes it imperative that you do [...]

  24. That cake looks amazing. Can’t wait to try it!!

  25. Danielle says:

    This cake is AMAZING and so are you!! Thank you so much for posting this – it was a joy to make and gone in two seconds! I’ll definitely be back for more recipes!!

  26. Ms.Z. says:

    I made this cake this past weekend and it was absolutely amazing. I loved how moist the cake was. I made mango custard since I didn’t have any passion fruit, and it was great. Next time I’ll definitely use lemon curd.
    I baked mine in a small round pan so had enough leftover batter and filling to make 8 muffins. They were even better than the cake!
    I love all your recipes and step-by-step instructions. Thanks so much!

  27. Tina says:

    I noticed the salt as one of the ingredients in the frosting but I don’t see it being used. Am I missing something?

  28. PastryPal says:

    Tina — Great catch! I often forget about salt since it wont ruin a pastry recipe, whether it’s added or not, but it is a subtle flavor enhancer. I fixed it in the post. Thanks!

  29. Tina says:

    The cake is AWSOME btw! Oh, the carrot cake too. I normally don’t eat the frosting, but your frosting recipes rock! Thank you so much.

  30. Phoebe says:

    The pictures are so helpful!! Looks amazing

  31. Esme says:

    Hi! This looks great! I was wondering if the time that the whites spend on the double boiler along with the medium heat is enough to cook the egg whites and extinguish any salmonella bits? I am a 14 year old baker so I have never made swiss meringue before… Thanks for your blog I love it!

    Esme

  32. Kerry says:

    Hi, Your coconut cake looks awesome. How do you think it will hold under fondant ?

  33. Bano says:

    First of all thank you for blog. It makes baking so much easier for me. T

  34. Bano says:

    Thank you so much for the site. The curd has come out beautifully creamy, thick and lemony (i used lemons)after refridgeration, but smells overpoweringly of eggs. When manking i used vanilla scraped out of a pod. Should I not have used that? Can I add extract before I add the curd to the cake? How do I avoid this next time?

  35. D.BAKER says:

    Coconut! My favorite fruit without a doubt. Will definitely try this recipe – for CUPCAKES! :) Since I’m trying this recipe with cupcakes will I NEED to use cake flour or is a.p fine?

  36. sarah says:

    keep it up. really needed as i was let down on a cake i actually paid for. now i feel i have confidence to bake on my own without blowing up the kitchen :)

    love the step by step pictures

  37. Heather says:

    Darn. Tried to make this with AP flour (taking out the 2 tablespoons for each cup) and it was super dense and heavy. Flavor was okay, but not anything to write home about. Maybe when I get a chance to buy some cake flour I’ll try again.

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