There are two things that will forever remind me of Easter. One is the movie Grease. I received it for an Easter gift back when I was like 13 or so, and I’ve loved that movie ever since. What girl didn’t love a young John Travolta dancing and singing, with those big blue eyes? And remember, if you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter!
The other thing that always reminds me of Easter is coconut cake. I remember my mom or my grandma had this cartoon plastic rabbit face that you could shove against a store-bought jelly roll-style coconut cake, effectively making the cake look like the Easter Bunny. I’ve never really known why coconut cake seems so ubiquitous around Easter and springtime in general. Regardless, I’ll eat it happily whenever it’s served!
The base for this Easter-appropriate cake is a fluffy yellow cake with just a touch of flaked coconut added to the batter. You have no idea how happy I was to stumble across this recipe on the forum of some random food website. Trying to find a good, moist, non-cardboard-like yellow cake recipe has been a thorn in my side for several years now. Usually, if I had to make a yellow or white cake, you can bet I was reaching for the nearest box of Duncan Hines. Those days are gone, cause I now have this wonderful recipe at my disposal! After making the cake, it should be fully chilled in order to make cutting it into layers a bit simpler, so keep this in mind when starting out.
My recipe for coconut filling is sort of like a cooked pudding that gets chilled and later whipped to a fluffy consistency. I toasted the coconut before adding it to the filling to give the cake a deeper coconut flavor, but I think there may be too much shredded coconut in the filling. If you’re a crazy fan of coconut, it may be delicious to you but to those who are on the fence about coconut, I’d recommend cutting down the amount in the recipe by half. The filling needs to be well-chilled before assembling the cake, so it’s best to make it ahead by a few hours or even a few days. It’ll keep just fine in the fridge until you’re ready for it.
The finished cake is covered in a smooth, tangy cream cheese frosting and coated with wide crunchy flakes of unsweetened coconut (I found the wide shred coconut at my local Sprouts Farmers Market, but you could probably find it at most natural foods stores or Whole Foods, perhaps). Unsweetened coconut is the way to go because between the filling and frosting, trust me, you’re getting more than enough sugar to power a small army of children for several hours. That being said, there’s no way in hell this cake is low-fat or low-calorie. You know the saying ‘everything in moderation’? Stick to that motto and you should be fine!
toasty coconut cake
(serves 12-24 people, depending on how you slice the cake)
yellow coconut cake layer
2 1/4 c (248 g) cake flour
1 1/4 c (255 g) granulated sugar
3 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 c (44 g) flaked sweetened coconut
1 1/4 c (326 g) milk
2 1/2 tsp (10 g) vegetable oil
1 stick (8 Tbs / 4 oz) unsalted butter, softened
1 Tbs vanilla extract
3 large eggs
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a greased half sheet pan (18″x13″) with parchment paper, and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, measure out the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and coconut. Mix on low speed until everything is well mixed, about 30 seconds. Add the milk, oil, soft butter and vanilla to the flour mixture and beat, gradually turning up the speed to medium, for two minutes. Scrape the bowl well.
Add the eggs and beat on medium for 2 minutes more, scraping the bowl and paddle well at the end. Stir the batter by hand a few times to make sure everything is well mixed. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread it evenly to the edges. Rap the pan hard against the counter a few times to break up any air bubbles stuck in the batter. Bake the cake for 30 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees after 15 minutes The cake should be golden brown and slightly pulling away from the pan’s edges. Let the cake cool fully, then wrap the pan in plastic wrap and freeze for a few hours or overnight, or whenever you’re ready to assemble the cake.
toasty coconut filling
2 1/2 c (577 g) heavy cream
1 1/2 c (315 g) granulated sugar
two sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter
2 Tbs cornstarch
3 1/2 tsp water
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
4 c (348 g) flaked sweetened coconut, toasted
Start out by toasting the coconut. If you’ve just baked the cake, be sure to leave the oven on. Spread the coconut out on a sheet pan in a flat, even layer and toast at 350 degrees until the coconut is an even dark golden brown. I used Baker’s brand flaked coconut and holy moisture, Batman!, this coconut has a lot of water in it. The second ingredient, in fact, is water. I assume a less-damp flaked coconut will take far less time than the 32 minutes it took my oven to properly toast up this wet coconut. I’d recommend a store brand that would have far less moisture, though you’d have to keep an eye on the coconut so it doesn’t get too dark, too soon.
While the coconut is toasting, heat the cream, sugar and butter in a large sauce pot over medium-low heat until the sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally until the mixture just starts to bubble gently. Mix the cornstarch with the water and vanilla and whisk this into the hot cream mixture. Let it come to a boil, whisking all the while, and cook 2-3 minutes once it comes to a full boil. Pour the thickened filling into a large bowl and once the coconut is toasted, stir it into the filling. Cover the surface of the filling with plastic wrap and let it chill for several hours or overnight, until fully cold and very thick.
When you’re ready to assemble the cake, scrape the filling out into the bowl of a stand mixer and using the paddle attachment, beat the filling on medium speed for 45 seconds. Any longer and the filling might break and look curdled, which is no fun.
cream cheese frosting
8 oz cream cheese, cold
8 oz unsalted butter, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
4 c (413 g) powdered sugar
1/4 tsp kosher salt
4 oz (113 g) wide shred unsweetened coconut flakes, for coating the cake
assorted chocolate candy eggs, for decorating the cake (I used Cadbury’s Mini Eggs)
In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the softened butter on medium-high until creamy and lump-free, for one minute. Cut the block of cream cheese into 4 pieces, adding two pieces at a time and beating two pieces into the butter on medium speed for 20 seconds. Scrape down the bowl and the paddle and mix in half of the powdered sugar on low speed until it’s almost all incorporated. Add the remaining half of the sugar, as well as the vanilla and salt, and beat on low until it’s all mixed in. Turn the speed up to medium-high for about 20 seconds, just to make sure everything is fully combined and that the frosting is light and fluffy.
To assemble the cake: Take the cake out of the freezer and measure across the length of the cake. It should measure around 17 inches, so mark the cake in thirds at approximately every 5.6 inches. Cut the cake into three vertical rectangles, being sure to cut through the parchment underneath. Take a clean piece of parchment paper and lay it on the surface of the cake. Press and rub against the paper with your fingers so that the sticky crumb layer will adhere to the parchment. Pull off the parchment and you should find that most of the sticky crumbs will come off with the paper. If there’s still some remaining, press the paper against the surface again, or roll the crumbs off with your fingertips. Pick up each layer and brush off any excess crumbs from the cut sides.
On a large platter or a prepared cake drum, place a few pieces of parchment paper along the edges, overlapping them to keep the platter/drum clean. Lay down one layer of the cake with the parchment papered side facing up, and peel off the parchment. Using a pastry brush, soak the cake layer with half of a mixture of 2/3 cup of milk and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. On top of the cake layer, spread half of your whipped coconut filling. Place another cake layer on top of the filling, pressing gently but firmly to adhere the cake to the filling. Brush on the remaining milk soaker, and spread the cake with the remaining half of the filling. Top the second layer of filling with the last cake layer, making sure the parchment papered side is facing up.
Next, put on the crumb coat! Using an offset spatula, frost the cake with a thin layer of the cream cheese frosting. Take care to not get any crumbs in the bowl of frosting. Once there’s a thin layer all over the sides and top of the cake, throw the whole thing into the freezer for about 5 minutes so the frosting can firm up. When the time’s up, frost the top and sides with another layer of frosting. Press the wide flaked coconut into the sides and top of the cake, brushing off the excess. Carefully pull away the parchment pieces that are underneath the cake, and press any excess coconut into the bottom edges of the cake once the paper is removed, to tidy up the edges. To further decorate the cake, pipe a small bead border along the bottom edge of the cake with a medium round tip, and pipe some dollops on the top corners to adhere some of the candy eggs.
This cake is a little larger than I anticipated it would be, but it’s quite the Easter showstopper to take along with you to the family’s holiday dinner. It’ll feed 12 people generously, or 24 if you cut the cake in half lengthwise before cutting the slices. Have a grand old Easter party and invite the neighborhood! There’s plenty of this coconut cake to go around, for sure. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have a slice while I do the hand jive along with Sandy and Danny. Happy Easter, y’all!