Snowy looking coconut cakes are a part of good old fashioned, 20th-century American cooking. The layer cakes seemed to have popped into existence somewhere during the 20's in the south. Soon after, the coconut cake recipes started making their appearance throughout the years around Easter in magazines like Good Housekeeping and McCalls.
So why is this coconut cake making an appearance during the coldest moments of January? Because this is the time of year I bake it. This is the time of year that my best friend has a birthday.
This isn't a cake I just make for anybody. It's a cake that should only be baked for best friends...or best friends of best friends. Don't bake it for your kids, don't bake it for your significant others---it's a cake only worthy of your best friend, and your best friend only.
And I'm willing to bet that your best bud deserves a cake for no reason. Think of the times you've ditched her for a boyfriend. Think of the times you've used her as a therapist without paying compensation. I mean, let's be honest, your friend probably deserves this cake for dealing with the aftermath of every failed relationship you've ever had and every bad decision you have ever made.
For me, this coconut cake is part of a 15-year friendship, and that is as tried and tested as it gets. (The fact that last year, my friend had to hold my hair back after a Stevie Wonder concert, when I puked from drinking gimlets all night, is reason enough to make her this cake.)
This year, my best gal made a different request when it came to her birthday cake. She asked me if I would make said cake not for her this year, but for her other best friend. (Her childhood best friend. A different best friend.) She wanted it to be a surprise.
The beauty of this cake is that it's light, and even if you don't like coconut, you will likely love this layered beauty. The coconut cake in itself is always a surprise to people who go ahead and try it even when they don't like coconut.
The cake component is moist with a just a teeny teeny tiny hint of coconut, it's mostly a vanilla based batter. The filling is made from a coconut milk custard and whipped cream, while the frosting is an easy, vanilla buttercream with also a teeny teeny tiny hint of coconut (optional). To finish the cake, it's covered in toasted coconut, which you could leave off for those that aren't as into it as me.
The cake can also be modified to be super easy for those who like to bake, but don't want to spend the time on a from-scratch cake. The coconut cake component of the recipe can be made with two boxes of yellow cake mixed with vanilla paste and a scant 1/8th teaspoon of coconut extract. The cakes should be made otherwise as directed, then assemble as directed. You'll have extra cake when trimming, which is a delicious benefit of making too much cake.
Now go make your best friend a cake!
Recipe Note: I like to do this sucker in stages. It takes just a few minutes a day. I'll make the simple syrup and toast the coconut on the first day. Then I make the coconut custard, the buttercream and the cake on the second day and then I make the filling and assemble on the third. It's definitely worth it and broken up, it's about a half hour of active time per day.
Tools I Use:
For the cake (if not subbing cake mix)
2 cups of sweetened, toasted coconut flakes or shards
Coconut Simple Syrup
Coconut Cake Layers
Toasted Coconut: (Day 1)
2 cups of sweetened coconut
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread on baking sheet and bake 8-10 minutes, until golden brown. Check halfway through, stir and watch closely so you don't burn it.
Coconut Simple Syrup: (Day 1)
1 1/2 cups water
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
3/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut
Bring water and sugar to almost a boil, making sure that all of the sugar dissolves. Stir in the coconut, remove from the heat and let sit for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours. Strain the liquid into a clean saucepan, bring to a boil and let cook until the mixture is slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Let cool.
For the coconut custard: (Day 1 or 2)
3/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons dark rum (recommended: Gosslings)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla paste
Combine the milks in a medium, non-reactive saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat.
Whisk together the yolks, sugar and cornstarch in a large bowl. Slowly whisk the warm milk into the egg mixture, 1 Tablespoon at a time. When you've added more than half of mixture, return the it to the pot over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or spatula, until thickened.
Scrape the mixture into a bowl and whisk in the rum and vanilla extract. Let cool to room temperature then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours.
For the coconut filling: (Day 2/3)
3/4 cup coconut custard (see above), cold
3/4 cup very cold heavy cream
Combine the custard and cream in a bowl and whip until soft peaks form.
For the cake: (Day 2)
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
3 cups sifted flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 1⁄4 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla paste
Cream butter then gradually add sugar, beating well.
Add eggs, beating well after each addition: this mix should be fluffy yellow.
In another bowl, combine the flour and baking powder: The add mix to the creamed mixture (above) alternating with milk, beginning and ending with the flour mix. Mix well.
Stir in vanilla.
Pour batter into 2 greased/floured 9" pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center come out clean.
Cool in pan for 10 minutes then remove layers from pans and cool completely.
For the Coconut Buttercream:
4 cups of powdered sugar (about 1 box)
1 cup (2 sticks) of softened butter
1 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste
1/2 teaspoon of coconut extract
3 Tablespoons of milk (up to 1/2 cup, depending on desired level of thickness)
Cream butter then gradually add sugar, beating well. Slowly add milk to desired level of thickness. When desired buttercream texture is achieved, add vanilla paste and coconut extra and beat for a few seconds. If mixture becomes too thick, add milk.
Using a long serrated knife, slice each cake horizontally into 2 layers. Reserve 1 of the flat bottom layers for the top of the cake. Place another layer on a cardboard round cut side up and brush with some of the coconut simple syrup. Spoon 1/3 of the coconut filling onto the cake and using a small offset metal spatula, spread it into an even layer, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edge of the cake. Repeat with 2 more layers. Brush the cut side of the reserved cake layer with the remaining syrup. Place the layer cut side down on top of the cake.
Frost the sides and top of the cake with the buttercream. Pat the coconut onto the sides of the cake and sprinkle the remaining coconut on the top of the cake.