Coconut + Vanilla Bean Birthday Cake

February 10, 2016

So you know by now that I celebrate my birthday for an entire month. 

Let me clarify that I don’t do this to open up the door for a month to be showered with affection, celebration, and attention. On the contrary. This month is for me to be about me. Not necessarily for other people to be about me. (Though, of course it wouldn’t really be a celebration if the people I value in my world weren’t in on the fun.) 

The month of celebration started off with this. I came home and promptly started recovering from a “hangover of goodness,” which looks a lot like recovering from any other hangover (baths, chocolate milk, exhaustion, sniveling, bowls of cereal the size of your face, best pajamas.) I’m feeling better now, less punch-drunk-lucky-and certain that I dreamt the whole thing. And so slowly but surely, I’ve been thinking about where I am, where I’m going, and where I’ve been.

I am incredibly busy with projects that are truly valuable to me.

I am surrounded by people who truly inspire me and make me beam.

I’m going to start reading that book I keep putting off.

I’m going to pack for a trip to Africa. (Also, I’m going to race my mountain bike in Africa?! What!)

I’m going to write love notes to those people I don’t get to squeeze on the regular.

I’m going to formulate a candy bar.

I’ve been taking way more of those long luxurious baths that I never make time for.

I’ve kept my computer closed on quiet mornings so I can read the newspaper. Or Vogue. Or whatever cookbook I’ve been thinking of.

I’ve been buying really spectacular high tops. And really lovely shades of lipstick (that I really am going to start wearing more often. Really.)

And, per usual at this time of year, I’ve been plotting an epic birthday cake (or two.)

The making of a birthday cake is something that stays the same, year after year, birthday month after birthday month no matter how epic and wonderful, or down to earth and lovely the birthday celebrations are. The baking of the cake is never the same, but the cake itself is always different. In years past I’ve made this, this, this, and this for myself (and then subsequently for others too,) and the question of “what flavor birthday cake am I this year?” is sort of a fun one. It has to be something that feels innately like the year, but also will please the people that are going to help me eat it because the cake isn’t necessarily for candles, or songs; I bake it because there’s a true therapy in the baking for me, in the scheming of flavor, in the assembly. The baking is absolutely so that I, and anyone around me, can chop off a hunk and enjoy every last crumb. This last Sunday was the day for me to bake the birthday cake, for us to enjoy it. Every last crumb of this Coconut + Vanilla Bean Birthday Cake was devoured. I was over the moon. 

Cake on a Pedestal


This cake. I think the recipe came originally from one of the Flour cookbooks, and the idea of it is one that I’ve revisited quite a few times until this year, I think we nailed it. The idea is quite simple – coconut. Vanilla beans. Layer all the flavors in there as deep as you can get them and that’s the ticket: the coconut is layered on every level in the cake. You get it two-fold  in the batter with shredded coconut and coconut milk, and again in the frosting. And again with the masking. Using two vanilla beans here is a must. And there’s one more secret: cultured butter. Unsalted cultured butter. It just smells like birthday cake already, and the culture creates a deeper, richer flavor that was made for nothing if not a lovely cake for a birthday. 

A couple of notes on baking the cake: the method here is not what you’ll see with other cake recipes (ie: you want to fold the dry ingredients in, but don’t!) You’ll whip the egg whites, then you’ll add the dry ingredients in THEN the coconut milk and believe me, it works. The buttercream is a little tricky as well. Don’t let it intimidate you! You’re making a swiss meringue buttercream here which is a little more sturdy than other buttercream frosting (ie: if you do it right, it will set up on the cake really nicely and last without gooping off!) You’re going to add coconut milk to it, so it needs to be sturdy! Be sure to take the egg whites + sugar all the way to 120F degrees, then remove and beat until the bowl of the electric mixer comes to body temp. Then get that butter in there. Don’t wait until the bowl is too cold – you’ll have chunks of butter in your frosting! Then assemble your cake and eat the bejeezus out of it.

Monday was my ACTUAL birthday and it was filled with little things that make me happy; running with the dog through open fields. Eating chocolate donuts for lunch. I got to squeeze my mom good and hard because without her I wouldn’t be here anyway. I went for a nice crusher bike ride in the mountains and got to feel my heart beating through my chest. There was whiskey consumed. And pizza. And more text messages received from dear friends than I can even count. It’s going to be a crazy great year. I just know it. Enjoy! – xo L

Coconut + Vanilla Bean Birthday Cake
For the Cake
  1. 2¼ cups cake flour
  2. 1¼ cups granulated sugar
  3. 2 teaspoons baking powder
  4. ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  5. ¾ cup cultured unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 2-inch pieces
  6. 6 large egg whites
  7. 1 cup full fat coconut milk (the kind in the can!)
  8. 1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
  9. 2 vanilla beans, split in half lengthwise
For the Frosting
  1. 1½ cups granulated sugar
  2. 6 large egg whites
  3. 1½ cups cultured unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 2-inch pieces
  4. 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  5. ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  6. ⅔ cup full fat coconut milk
For the Garnish
  1. 2-3 cups big flaked coconut, lightly toasted
  1. First, you'll make the cake! Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Then, grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans and set aside.
  2. Sift the cake flour into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the sugar, baking powder and salt and beat on low speed briefly to combine. Add the butter pieces and beat on low speed until the mixture is coarse and crumbly and there aren't any big chunks of butter left visible.
  3. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg whites, coconut milk and the 1 cup shredded coconut until a little bit frothy and voluminous. You don't want to make a meringue, you just want a little air in those eggs. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla beans into the mixture and whisk to thoroughly incorporate. You'll see little specks of black scattered in the egg whites when you've mixed enough.
  4. Next, you'll combine the wet and dry ingredients. Add half of the coconut milk mixture to the dry ingredients and beat on medium-high speed for 1 minute, until just barely combined. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, then add the remainder of the coconut milk mixture and beat on medium speed for about a minute, or until the batter is well-mixed, light and fluffy.
  5. Divide the batter evenly between the cake pans and bake until the tops are firm and golden brown, and until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clearn (roughly 35 to 45 minutes.) The centers will spring back when touched lightly! Pull the cakes from the oven, and then let the cakes cool completely in the pans on a wire rack. Once the cakes are cool invert the pans and pop them out. At this point, I like to pop them in the freezer for a couple of hours or overnight, wrapped tightly, so that they're easier to frost. I HIGHLY recommend that you do this as well.
  6. Next, you'll make the frosting! In a small, heatproof bowl, (or more easily, in the clean bowl of the mixer) whisk together the sugar and egg whites. Place the bowl on top of a saucepan with about an inch of simmering water (do not let the bottom of the bowl touch the water). Heat the mixture, whisking occasionally, for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture reaches 120F degrees iand the sugar is dissolved.
  7. Immediately remove the bowl from the heat and lock the bowl into the electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until the bowl is body temperature to the touch. It will be a light, voluminous white meringue. Reduce the speed to low and add the butter a couple of pieces at a time, but quickly, not mixing too much in between additions. (You don't want the butter to melt before you get it on the cake!) Increase the speed to medium and mix for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the butter is thoroughly incorporated and the frosting is smooth and glossy. The frosting may initially look curdled after adding the butter, but continue beating and it will come together, looking smooth and creamy by the end of the mixing time.
  8. Lastly, add the vanilla extract, salt and coconut milk and whip for another few minutes on medium speed, or until the coconut milk is thoroughly incorporated and the frosting is smooth. Again, the buttercream may look thin and separated, but continue mixing until it comes together.
  9. Note: Use the frosting within 30 minutes, or transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 1 day, then beat with a mixer (using the paddle attachment) until smooth before using. You can also store the frosting in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, then bring to room temperature and beat with a mixer (using the paddle attachment) for 6 to 8 minutes until smooth before using.
  10. Lastly, you'll assemble the cake: using a serrated knife, cut off just the rounded dome of one of the cakes (making it easier to ice and layer them.) Then, place one cake layer on a cake stand and top with 2 cups of the frosting, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly to the edges. Place the second, still rounded layer on top, with the rounded side up. Spoon 1 cup of the frosting onto the top of the cake and use a large offset spatula to spread the frosting on top and over the sides of the cake, covering it with a very thin layer (this is the crumb coat). Pop the cake in the refrigerator for 20 minutes for the buttercream to firm up.
  11. Lastly, pull the cake from the fridge and use a wooden spoon to mix the remaining frosting to lighten it up since it has been sitting. Spoon it onto the cake and spread it evenly over the top and down the sides with an offset spatula to create a smooth finish. Press the big flaked coconut onto the top and sides of the frosted cake to cover completely. Serve, and enjoy!
  12. (The cake can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days, but what birthday cake ever lasted that long?)

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