How to Make the Ultimate Coconut Layer Cake

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Videos: Natalie Holt]

Down south, I'm not sure any cake is more revered than coconut—a stately affair typically served around the holidays or on other momentous occasions (including but not limited to birthdays, anniversaries, and Sunday supper). Usually, it's a simple white cake with shredded coconut in the batter, maybe a splash of coconut milk if the baker's feeling fancy, and a capful of coconut extract in the powdered-sugar icing. It's a dense and moist cake that tastes the way suntan lotion smells—which can be a good thing, depending on whom you ask. While I'd never turn down a slice, I take a very different approach when making coconut cake for myself.

Which brings us to this regal beast: three layers of fluffy cake, infused with natural coconut from the inside out, slathered in a creamy coconut frosting, drenched in caramelized white chocolate coconut ganache, and crusted over in toasted coconut. In short, layers upon layers of coconut flavor at every turn.

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Structurally, it's a simple twist on my classic vanilla butter cake with Swiss buttercream, but it involves enough adjustments to warrant new recipes, rather than lengthy footnotes for each of the previous ones.

In a nutshell, the changes all relate to the strategic replacement of traditional ingredients, like butter, all-purpose flour, and milk, with their coconutty counterparts: virgin coconut oil, coconut flour, and coconut milk.

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That means you probably don't have all the ingredients needed to start baking right away, but finding them is well worth the effort—here's why.

Virgin Coconut Oil

The cake starts with a 50/50 mix of butter and virgin coconut oil, a flavorful fat that's solid at room temperature, which means it can be creamed up fluffy and light (more on that here). This ratio offers the best mix of flavor and stability, as coconut oil's low melting point might otherwise prevent the batter from retaining air in the oven. To make the most of that limited quantity of oil, it's crucial to use a virgin coconut oil that really packs a punch.

After much testing, Vita Coco proved to be my clear favorite, with a flavor and fragrance that won't fade with baking. I've spotted it in places as disparate as rural Kentucky and Brooklyn, New York, so it shouldn't be hard to find.

Virgin coconut oil turns up in the frosting as well, where it replaces a portion of butter in an otherwise classic Swiss buttercream. Well, mostly classic, except for my use of turbinado sugar to play up the cake's overall tropical vibe.

Coconut Flour

My recipe also replaces some of the all-purpose flour with coconut flour, a powdery by-product of coconut milk production. (Look for brands like Bob's Red Mill in supermarkets and online.) Coconut flour can have quite the learning curve, but I've used it extensively in cake over the years, so I had a pretty good idea of where to start. Because it's free of moisture, coconut flour has a more concentrated flavor than fresh or shredded coconut, so a little—a mere two ounces in a cake this size—goes a long way. Even with such a small amount, I had to decrease the all-purpose flour by four ounces and increase the milk by two ounces to compensate. Without those adjustments, the cake would dome up in the oven like a giant muffin, with a crumbly and dry interior rather than one that's velvety and moist.

Coconut Milk

As it turns out, bumping up the amount of liquid means making more room for flavorful coconut milk. It adds another layer of coconut flavor, and a lovely richness, too. Like coconut oil, flavor and intensity will vary from brand to brand; my go-to is Chef's Choice, which seems to have a stronger flavor than many supermarket brands. The amount of coconut milk called for in the batter won't quite polish off two cans, leaving enough left over for a batch of coconut ganache (more on that in a bit).

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Once you have those ingredients, the actual method is identical to the one for my Vanilla Butter Cake. If you've never made a butter cake before, that recipe's a great introduction to some of the finer points for success. Even if you don't make it, do read up on the procedures before jumping into the coconut cake recipe! For those who've already mastered Cake 101, coconut will be a straightforward variation.

After baking and leveling are done, the layers are filled and crumb-coated with coconut frosting in place of plain Swiss buttercream.

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The crumb-coated cake is enrobed with a blond ganache made from caramelized white chocolate and coconut milk. I started out with dark chocolate, in the hope that the cake would taste like a Mounds bar, but its intensity overwhelmed the coconut. Milk chocolate didn't lighten things up as much as I'd wanted; its chocolaty presence still felt like a distraction. Plain white chocolate made the cake too sweet, but caramelized white chocolate did the trick. Its nutty, cooked-milk flavor is a perfect match for coconut, playing up the toasty flavor of the cake without getting in the way.

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Instead of making my own, I took a shortcut with Valrhona Dulcey. If you're not interested in the trouble or expense of enrobing the cake, don't worry—it looks and tastes perfectly delicious without the ganache (as seen here). But on special occasions, it's wonderfully over the top.

With or without the ganache, the final touch is a shaggy coat of coconut flakes. You can leave them snowy-white and chewy if you prefer, but I'm all about that toasted flavor and crunch. Instead of toasting the coconut in a low oven, stirring frequently to ensure even browning, I take the lazy but arguably more artistic route by just tossing the whole tray in a 350°F (180°C) oven until the edges are dark brown.

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It may seem like the proverbial hot mess, but once the cooled flakes have been tossed together, you'll have a funky blend of white, gold, and dark brown flakes that create a sort of calico vibe.

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By the time the coconut flakes have been toasted and allowed to cool, the blond ganache will have reached a good working temperature as well (more on that here). Set the chilled cake on a wire rack in a half sheet pan, and pour the lukewarm ganache on top.

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Before the ganache can fully cool, sprinkle the cake with toasted coconut, using your hands to help press it around the sides. Don't worry about the excess coconut and ganache that mingle on the baking sheet: Once the ganache hardens, the mixture can be scooped into bite-size truffles (like these) using a melon baller.

With a cake like this, you'll finally have a chance to bust out that cake stand you've always been meaning to use—or else, the one that'll make you want to bake cakes again and again. For me, that's this glass and marble number, which makes any occasion feel pretty darn special.

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Of course, there's no need to fuss when it comes to a cake this fancy—slap it on a sturdy plate, and it will still steal the show. Do give it plenty of time to warm at room temperature; otherwise, it will still be cold from when you refrigerated the crumb coat. Below 70°F (21°C), the butter and coconut oil in both the cake and the frosting will be hard, and slow to melt on the tongue, factors that can make a layer cake seem heavy and dense. When it's allowed to reach about 72°F (22°C) over the course of a few hours (up to 12 if the cake was refrigerated overnight for storage), every bite will melt away like a dream.

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