Monday, October 20, 2008

Nuts About Coconut


My brother Rich asked me to make him a coconut cake after seeing Bobby Flay "throwdown" with Robert Carter from the Peninsula Grill. Apparently coconut cake is one of Rich's favorite cakes, a fact I never knew despite having lived under the same roof for a quarter of a century. Rich looked into ordering a cake from the Peninsula Grill, but the cake costs $100 and overnight shipping from South Carolina to San Francisco would be $116 for a whopping total of $216! He said I could make him any coconut cake I wanted and he didn't care when I got around to making it for him. He said anytime is a great time for coconut cake.

Both Bobby's and Robert's recipes are available on the internet, but I ended up making my own version for Rich. Some commentors who tried Bobby Flay's recipe questioned the accuracy of the recipe on the website and Robert's recipe seemed a bit excessive using 2.5 pounds of butter, 4 pounds of sugar, and 44 ounces (1.3 liters) of heavy cream. I'm not saying that my cake or Bobby's is any less indulgent, but Robert's is super duper over the top indulgent. I guess that's why he calls his cake the "ultimate".

So I used Bobby's recipe as a starting point. His coconut custard recipe sounded like it would result in a delicious coconut pastry cream. I also liked that the custard would be used in the cream filling as well as the frosting. For the cake itself I decided to revisit Dorie Greenspan's perfect party cake which I had tried for a Daring Bakers' challenge a few months ago. I substituted some of the buttermilk in the cake recipe with some canned unsweetened coconut milk to infuse some coconut flavor into the cake. I used Chaokoh brand since it's fairly inexpensive (about $1 for a 13.5 ounce can.) and it's widely available in my local markets. One 13.5 ounce can was enough to make the custard and the cake. For the frosting I went with a cream cheese frosting that was flavored with some of the coconut custard. A simple syrup made by steeping flaked coconut and a garnish of toasted unsweetened coconut flakes completed the list of components.

I'm not very good at assembling layer cakes, a fact that I am determined to change. I hope that with some practice I will eventually improve. Overall, for a first attempt, I think my coconut cake turned out pretty well visually and I was quite happy with the taste. I liked how all the individual components came together in the final product. This was definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The cake just screamed coconut with every bite which is exactly what I wanted to achieve. My brother absolutely loved the cake. My mother, who unbeknownst to me until now is also a coconut aficionado, loved it too. Apparently I didn't know my family at all. :) But I do know that this cake will be making an appearance at many more family gatherings.


Coconut Cake
(makes one 9-inch cake)

Toasted Coconut:
2 cups flaked coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)

Coconut Simple Syrup:
1 1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened flaked coconut

Coconut Custard:
3/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons coconut rum (Malibu brand works well)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Coconut Filling:
3/4 cup coconut custard (see recipe), cold
3/4 cup very cold heavy cream

Cream Cheese Frosting:
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
4 ounces (1 stick / 8 tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temp
1/2 cup coconut custard (see recipe), cold
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 to 3 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

Coconut Cake:
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup buttermilk
4 large egg whites
4 ounces (1 stick / 8 tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temp
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

To toast the coconut:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Spread the coconut evenly onto a baking sheet and toast until lightly golden brown, stirring once, about 8 minutes. Turn off the oven and let the coconut sit in the oven until very dry and crunchy, about 10 minutes longer. Let coconut cool before using to decorate the frosted cake.

To make the simple syrup:

Bring water and sugar to a boil. 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.

To make the custard:

Combine the whole milk, coconut milk and vanilla bean and seeds in a medium nonreactive saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat.

Whisk together the yolks, sugar and cornstarch in a large bowl. Remove vanilla bean from warm milk. Slowly whisk the warm milk into the egg mixture then return the mixture to the pot over medium heat and bring to a boil, whisking constantly, until thickened. Scrape the mixture into a clean bowl and whisk in the rum and vanilla extract. In order to avoid a skin forming on the custard, cover with plastic wrap pressed directly onto the surface of the custard. Refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours.

To make the filling:

Whip heavy cream until soft peaks form. Stir in about 1/3 of the whipped cream into the chilled custard to loosen and lighten the custard. Add the remaining whipped cream to the custard and gently fold in the whipped cream.

To make the frosting:

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese, butter, coconut custard, vanilla extract on low speed. Add 2 1/2 cups of the confectioners' sugar and mix until just smooth (don't whip). You may or may not need the remaining 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar depending on how stiff or sweet you want your frosting.

To make the cake:

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans. Line with parchment circles and butter parchment.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Whisk together the coconut milk, buttermilk and egg whites in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer, at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light.

Beat in the vanilla extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, and then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients.

Finally, give the batter a good 2 minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated. Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch – a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean.

Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unfold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature, right side up.

The cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to two months.

To assemble:

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 frosting. Pat the toasted coconut onto the sides of the cake and sprinkle the remaining coconut on the top of the cake.



Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

What a wonderful cake! Delicious!



Sylvie said...

I think you should be proud of your assembling skills. The cake looks pretty perfect to me.

Jenny said...

Looks great, I can see my grandfather drooling over that.
And those layers look pretty well done to me, so I'm not sure what you were talking about when you say you aren't great at layers.

VeggieGirl said...

Your brother has good taste in cakes!! Looooove coconut cake.

Patricia Scarpin said...

Mary, that is a beautiful cake! I love coconut - in fact, many of us here in Brazil love the stuff - and would be so glad to have something like this baked for me on my birthday.

Fuji Mama said...

Oh yum! The cake looks incredible!

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Ah Mary did I say before how happy I am you're posting again.

Isn't it grand that we can still learn things about the people we think we know ;0)

I somehow have the feeling even people who are not coconut nuts might just like this one! Beautiful.

Melanie said...

This looks so incredible. I can't wait to try it out - coconut cake is a big hit at our house but I haven't hit the perfect recipe yet. Looks like this might be it!

Peabody said...

Mmmm,coconut cake all piled up high...swoon.

Audax Artifex said...

Bloody excellent looking cake! I love the fact that it has so many steps.

kimberleyblue said...

I've never actually had a coconut cake. This has convinced me that I should! Yum!

Faery said...

I am so so happy that you are back i was reading all the new recipes and I love all of them
Alpineberry and La mia Cucina are my inpirations to learn to cook and blogging...

Elle said...

That is on beautiful cake! Love that you figured out how to put coconut in every part.Your brother is very luck...and still has all that money in his wallet :)

Jude said...

Looks awesome. 4 layers of cakey goodness.

Andrew Abraham said...

You are great.. your explanations... your Coconut Nut Cake...looks so yummy...


Steph said...

Your cake looks beautiful! I'm glad your family enjoyed it. I'm still in search of a white cake because none seem to be flufy enough for me. I've tried Dorie's and CI's, but for both, they seem too dense or buttery. Maybe I'm searching for the wrong kind of cake!

breadchick said...

I'm pretty sure there isn't a cake I love more than coconut cake and this recipe is just what is ordered for a great old fashioned version. I'm not seeing how you have problems assembling layer cakes here?! ;-)

Tartelette said...

Tell Rich that he did much better having yours! Just thought you could have shipped a Tartelette with that cake all the way from Charlie-town...Anyhoo, the cake at Peninsula is just sweet, very faint taste of coconut and butter sticking to the roof of your mouth but really....just coyingly sweet.
I am loving your version and can't wait to give it a whirl!

Shelly Borrell said...

This cake looks abosolutely fantastic. I wish I could have a bite without making it myself.

Shelly B.
Nibbles of Tidbits

yemek tarifleri said...

excellent looking cake! I love the fact that it has so many steps.

Jackie said...

Hi Mary

When you used the toasted coconut for the outside of the cake, was it sweetened or unsweetened coconut.

Alpineberry Mary said...

Jackie - I toasted unsweetened coconut flakes for the outside.