Coconut desserts have always been a popular spring treat, and with its distinctive smell and taste, coconut—at least for me—always evokes thoughts of warm weather and fun outdoor gatherings with friends. I like coconut in many forms, both sweet and savory, but I have to admit that, in spring, my favorite way to enjoy coconut is in cake form, whether that be a dainty cupcake or (even better) a huge slice of coconut cream-filled layer cake with cream cheese frosting and toasted coconut on top with cream cheese frosting and toasted coconut on top. Yum.
Here’s a fun fact for you about coconuts: They come from a Spanish and Portuguese word that means “monkey face.” Whole coconuts were often used as currency until as recently as the beginning of the 20th century, and coconut palms—the trees on which coconuts grow—are prolific in Florida and other tropical climes such as Hawaii and South America. Interestingly, in spite of their association with the warmer months, peak months in which to get the freshest coconuts are October through December, but here in Florida, we’re lucky to have access to them year-round.
Coconut meat is white, fleshy, and delicious, and can be used fresh or in dried form. A note to those attempting to use fresh coconut for baking: Cracking one open is hard. If you’re not up for that challenge, you can find shredded sweetened and unsweetened coconut in your local supermarket, and that works perfectly for any recipe requiring coconut’s sweet, nutty taste. And to really bring out the flavor, spread shredded coconut on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown. The bonus of toasting, in addition to the enhanced flavor, is that your whole kitchen will smell delicious.
Almost everyone I know has a beloved coconut pastry recipe, but my favorite coconut cake comes from a recipe based on The Peninsula Grill’s famous (and almost terrifying) 12-layer (yes, 12!) coconut cake. Edited to a more reasonable three layers, filled with a creamy coconut center and topped with decadent cream cheese frosting that’s flecked with golden toasted coconut, this cake is an indulgence, yes—but it’s worth it. I’m coco-nutty for it!
Giant Coconut Layer Cake
Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups sweetened flaked coconut
1/4 cup sour cream
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
5 large eggs
1 1/3 cups whipping cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups sweetened flaked coconut, toasted
Stir cornstarch, 2 tablespoons water, and vanilla in small bowl to dissolve cornstarch. Bring cream, sugar, and butter to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Add cornstarch mixture and bring to boil. Remove from heat and stir in coconut. Cool completely. Mix in sour cream. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour three 9-inch round cake pans. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt in large bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in another large bowl to blend. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in cream and vanilla. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture. Divide batter equally among pans. Bake until tester inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool completely.
Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl to blend. Beat in powdered sugar and vanilla extract.
Place 1 cake layer on cake plate. Top with half of filling. Place second cake layer atop filling. Top with remaining filling. Place third cake layer atop filling. Spread frosting over top and sides of cake. Pat toasted coconut over top and sides of cake, pressing gently to adhere. (Can be prepared up to 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature 3 hours before serving.)