Coconut lovers, stand up and be counted!

Last week in this location PJ confessed to her birthday vice: Pepperidge Farm Coconut cake. Well, today is PJ’s birthday, and I took advantage of her being out of the office last week to create my version of that cake so we could have it on hand as we serenade her properly on this momentous occasion. It had to be square, it had to be coconutty and moist, and in this case, it’s coming out of the freezer (where it’s been hiding) just like it does in the store!

I originally designed this cake for Easter; I made round layers, split, filled, and stacked them. Then I colored some coconut with food coloring to look like Easter grass, sprinkled it around and topped it with jelly beans for Jelly Bean cake. Here’s what the cake looked like on the cover:

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But for PJ’s birthday, we needed a classic, square, luscious Coconut Cake.

All cakes benefit from having room temperature ingredients. Here I’ve measured out my mise en place (everything in place) for the recipe. It’s easier to separate eggs when they’re cold, so I did that first, and let the whites come up to room temperature while I measured everything else. Getting the milk to room temperature was easy: a quick 45 seconds in the microwave did it.

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For assembly, the recipe begins like most white cake recipes do: with butter and sugar creamed until light.

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This may seem like old news, but it can’t be said enough. Bakers MUST SCRAPE the bottom and sides of the mixing bowl. This is the place where a lot of people who SAY they can’t bake cakes get into trouble. This mixture of butter, sugar and air is the foundation for the cake’s texture, and if you don’t get all of each ingredient involved, things get blotchy and streaky.

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Now add 1/4 of the dry ingredients. You’re trying to make a stable emulsion that can accept the liquid without separating or getting grainy.

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Combine all of the wet ingredients with the vanilla and coconut flavoring.

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Add 1/3 of the wet to the mixing bowl, and mix until it’s incorporated. Add another 1/4 of the dry, mix, and continue back and forth until everything is added. And SCRAPE. At least twice. The reason for going back and forth is to keep the texture of the batter down the middle: not too juicy that the butter separates out and the batter looks “broken”; not too dry so that the liquid is too difficult to incorporate and the sides of the mixing bowl look like they’ve been stuccoed.

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Once the batter is mixed, it should look like this.

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The pans should be spritzed with non-stick spray, then lined with parchment paper and sprayed again.

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Here’s another reason baking scales are so wonderful. We want to bake two layers with this batter, and we want them to be the same height. How to make sure the dough is divided evenly? Here’s what professional bakeries do:

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Place an empty mixing bowl on top of the scale, and tare it out (reset it to zero). I happen to have a spare mixer bowl at my station, and it’s a tremendous convenience. If you like to bake, put a spare bowl for your mixer on your Christmas list.

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Now put the bowl with the finished batter on the scale. As you can see, this batter weighs 3 pounds, 5 ounces and change. That means each layer should weigh about 1 pound, 10 ounces.

So I put my prepared pan on the scale, zero it out, and add enough batter to hit my target.

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Then I smooth it out with an offset spatula.

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The remaining batter goes in the other pan, and in to the oven they go. The recipe calls for a water bath or cake strips, but it’s not a deal breaker. I find round layers to be more susceptible to doming than square ones, so I didn’t use them here.

Halfway through baking, this is what they look like:

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Now the layers are done. They need to cool completely before coming out of the pan.

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Then I split them in half. Pepperidge Farm makes its coconut cake in 3 layers, but for the sake of symmetry I went with 4. Plus, who doesn’t want more frosting?

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After stacking and filling, I gave the cake a very thin, almost transparent layer of frosting. This is called a crumb coat, and it’s another secret weapon for cake makers. Once you’ve coated the cake, refrigerate it for an hour until the icing sets, and you can touch it without leaving a fingerprint. This makes any stray crumbs stay put, and firms up the cake so you can give it a finished look without building on quicksand.

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Now you can finish frosting the cake. I used a low-tech technique, dabbing frosting on the sides with the back of a spoon, for a shaggy look. Then I put a layer of frosting on top, and sprinkled it with grated sweetened coconut.

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And there it is, a snowy-white, moist, irresistible cake. Happy Birthday, PJ!

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Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

  1. Jennifer

    So, of course, this gets posted not only after I just placed a big ole order with King Arthur Flour, but at the same time a co-worker suggested we do a “King Arthur Flour Recipe” vs. “Grandma’s Recipe” coconut cake bake off. And the only thing I needed were the coconut milk powder and the coconut flavor!

    I think I found the coconut milk powder in one of my local international grocery stores (I live in Northern Virginia where the Asian population is high and such things are not uncommon). I found a green box of Chao Thai brand coconut cream powder. Is that the green box referred to? I also got some Chaokoh Brand Coconut Milk Powder, which is sold in little 2 oz. silver and brown foil envelopes as well as little cans the size of tuna fish cans. Is there a difference between “coconut cream powder” and “coconut milk powder”?

    The ingredients, that I can read, are as such:
    coconut cream powder: fresh coconut cream (85.2%), glucose syrup (11.8%), sodium caseinate (2%), silicon dioxide (0.5%), dipotassium phosphate (0.5%)

    coconut milk powder: coconut milk (90%), dextrin (8%), sodium caseinate (2%)

    I’m not really sure what that means, other than 4.8% difference in coconut cream/milk.

    Also, I couldn’t find coconut flavor locally (well, I did at Whole Foods but they were out) so if I use imitation coconut extract, I’m assuming I use the amount I would if I was just using vanilla extract and not what you guys sell as strong coconut flavor?

    Thanks for the recipe! We shall see who prevails…KAF or Grandma. 😉

    Dear Jennifer: I’ve used both of the coconut milk powders you describe; I’ve found the Chao Thai (yes, that’s the green box) to be slightly grainier in consistency than the Chaokoh brand (I first bought it by mistake; it was in a small tin that looked like curry paste). Either will work without making any adjustments or substitutions.
    Generally extracts are a little bit less potent than the Lorann flavorings we carry; I used about 4 or 5 drops of the flavoring, but for an extract I’d start with 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon. True confession: I taste the batter, and adjust it if I think it needs a little “encouragement” in the coconut flavor department. Have fun with the taste-off! I’m looking forward to hearing the results. Susan

    Reply
  2. Susan Reid

    Hi, Kathy, and all other coconut hounds. I was absolutely dismayed that the market for palm oil has taken off so much that our coconut milk powder supply is now suffering. I have seen coconut milk powder in the Thai section of coop food stores (green box) and oriental grocery stores. If you don’t have access to such a place, do this:
    Buy a can of unsweetened coconut milk (look for a dusty one that hasn’t moved for a while on the shelf, and don’t shake it too much on the way home). When you get there, open the can. It should have a chunk of waxy looking, very thick coconut milk (usually on top) that you can spoon off, with coconut water underneath. Use 1/2 to 2/3 cup of this instead of the coconut milk powder in the recipe, and decrease the milk to 1 cup from 1 1/2. That should do it. Susan

    Reply
  3. Kathy Hunter

    I cannot find the powdered coconut milk in the King Arthur online store. Is there a secret code?

    Sorry, Kathy – it’s on back order and they’re having trouble getting any. Something about the coconut crop… I’ll ask Susan about a possible substitution. – PJH

    Reply
  4. Emilie

    I can’t wait to try this! I’ve always made a coconut cake with frozen coconut and—I hate to say it—butter cake mix and cool whip— and sour cream, and sugar, etc. You put it in the fridge for 3 days and my family loves it. Of course I always think scratch is better, so I’m hoping I can convince them too with this recipe. One question, I really like those square layers rather than round. Are they 8″ or 9″ pans? Thanks.

    Emilie, those are 8″ square pans, 2″ deep. An 8″ square is the equivalent of a 9″ round, if you feel like making a square rather than round layer cake. – PJH

    Reply
  5. Merav

    Happy birthday! Hope you had a great day! That cake looks amazing!

    The cake WAS amazing (notice I say WAS,since it disappeared quickly) and I did have a great day! Thanks, Merav. -PJH

    Reply
  6. Susan

    Happy birthday PJ!

    That cake looks absolutely delicious.

    A quick question. I’ve made lots of bread but no so many cakes. Is there a trick to getting the whole cake layer out of the pan whole? It looks like you use the parchment only on the bottom of the pan without any overlap (so you don’t pull it up using any overlap from the parchment). How do you get the cake out of the pan without it breaking into pieces?

    I’m new to this blog and enjoying it thoroughly.

    Thanks, Susan – I’ve found the secret to getting cakes out intact is to grease the bottom AND SIDES of the pan (I use Everbake spray – it’s a good non-stick vegetable oil spray we sell in the catalogue, one that doesn’t discolor your pans). Then line the bottom with parchment (no overlap necessary), and grease the parchment (Everbake again). When the cake is cool enough – maybe 10 minutes after it’s out of the oven? – put a cooling rack over the top, and flip the whole thing upside down. The cake and parchment should flop out (gently) onto the rack. Then you just peel off the parchment. Really, it works slick – pun intended! – PJH

    Reply
  7. grace

    oh, how i adore coconut cake. you should probably count me twice, as i tend to eat enough of it to satisfy at least two people. 🙂

    Reply
  8. Sue

    Mmmmm. I would love a slice of that!! This is a great entry with lots of good tips. Slicing those cakes in half looks like a bit of a trick.

    Happy Birthday PJ!!

    Thanks, Sue. Slicing the cake isn’t hard – be sure to use a long serrated knife, like a bread knife, and you’ll be fine. – PJH

    Reply

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