Coconut Cake

Coconut Cake
When you make a layer cake, you shouldn’t think about how much of a mess it will make. You shouldn’t think about how many sticks of butter go into it, or how many separate components it requires. You should instead focus on how good it will taste, how impressive it will be, and how many friends it will feed. And, if you’re like me, you can use the amount of time you spend measuring, mixing, and cleaning as justification for the calories.

When I looked to see if other bloggers had tried this recipe, I was surprised to see several negative reactions. It seems that coconut can be either refined or kitschy, depending who you ask. In Baking as Biography: A Life Story in Recipes, Diane Tye lists coconut as one of several “exotic” baking ingredients indicative of mid-century, middle-class status (along with nuts, citrus, pineapple, and dates, to name a few). Coconut appears in a majority of my family’s sweet and savory recipes, so I always regarded it as a staple. Personally, I loved this cake. I thought it was simple, subtle, and elegant.

This cake is relatively time consuming, but you can divide it into stages. It’s a basic white cake brushed with rum syrup, filled with whipped cream-lightened custard, and frosted with coconut buttercream. The cake layers, rum syrup, coconut custard, and buttercream can all be made ahead of time. Properly wrapped, the cake layers and buttercream keep well in the freezer (though you’ll have to re-whip the frosting before you can use it).

Coconut Cake

adapted from Tish Boyle’s “The Cake Book”

For the cake:
3 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 tbsp baking powder
3/4 tsp table salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2.5 cups granulated sugar
6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon zest
2/3 cup coconut milk
2/3 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt.
3. In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg whites one at a time, mixing until thoroughly combined and scraping down the sides as needed. Add the vanilla and lemon zest and mix until combined.
4. With the mixer on low, alternate adding the flour (in 3 additions) and the milks (in 2 additions), stirring until just combined. Fold in the shredded coconut.
5. Divide the batter equally between the two cake pans. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the cakes are springy to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pans for about 10 minutes, then remove from pans and cool completely.

For the coconut custard:
1 1/2 cups whole milk, more as needed
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp corn starch
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp dark rum
1. Heat the milk and coconut in a saucepan until just below boiling. Turn off the heat and let steep for 1 hour. Strain the liquid- you should have 1 1/3 cups left. Add more milk if you don’t have enough.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and corn starch. Set aside. Return the coconut-infused milk to the heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and temper about 2/3 cup of the hot milk into the yolk mixture. Whisk the yolk mixture into the saucepan, then place over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Boil, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat, scrape the bottom of the pan with a spatula, and whisk until smooth. Quickly strain the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a medium bowl. Whisk in the vanilla extract and rum.
3. Set the bowl containing the coconut mixture in a larger bowl filled about one-third of the way with ice water (be careful that the water doesn’t splash into the coconut mixture). Stir the custard frequently until it is slightly chilled, about 15 minutes.

For the coconut filling:
3/4 cup coconut custard (see above)
3/4 cup heavy cream
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the 3/4 cup coconut custard with the heavy cream at high speed until the mixture is light and forms soft peaks. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

For the rum syrup:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp dark rum
1. In a small saucepan, heat the water and sugar until dissolved and boiling. Turn off the heat and stir in the rum. Set aside to cool.

For the coconut buttercream:
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
pinch table salt
3/4 cup coconut custard (see above)
1. In a clean mixer bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and confectioners’ sugar at high speed until light and creamy, about 4 minutes. Add the 3/4 cup coconut custard, vanilla extract, and salt and beat at medium speed until blended and smooth.

Assemble the cake:
1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
1. Using a long serrated knife, trim off the domed tops of the cakes so that they are even. Cut each cake horizontally into 2 layers. Reserve one of the flat bottom layers for the top of the cake. Place another cake layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or flat serving plate and brush liberally with the rum syrup. Spoon 1/3 of the filling onto the cake and spread it into an even layer, leaving a 1/2 inch border around the edge of the cake. Top with another cake layer and brush with rum syrup. Top with another 1/3 of the filling. Repeat with another layer+syrup and the remaining filling. Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake, and brush with syrup.

2. Frost the sides and top of the cake with the buttercream. Garnish with the flaked coconut.

9 thoughts on “Coconut Cake”

  1. Because this cake has a custard/whipped cream filling, I recommend refrigerating it if you’re not going to serve within an hour or two of assembly.

    If you do refrigerate the cake, try to bring it to room temperature before serving. Cold, hardened frosting just isn’t as good!

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