the layer cake: coconut edition / by Annie Jefferson

Baking a layer cake doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it may feel. It’s actually really fun and when successful, about as rewarding as pulling a fresh loaf of bread out of the oven. This recipe is for a four-layer, coconut-four-ways cake with cream cheese frosting. The tang of the cream cheese and nip of the rum help balance the sweetness, which is pared back to begin with, so, unlike your standard coconut cake, it’s not overwhelmingly sweet and feels a bit more grown up.

Here are some pro tips that will help guide your cake baking process from conception to completion. Follow these and you’ll be on your way to impressing the pants off anyone who comes into contact with your LAYER CAKE.

PREPARATION

  1. When you are looking for the right recipe to make your dream layer cake, make sure it comes from a trusted source – there are a lot of hacks out there. With online recipes, it’s worth reading the comments from readers at the end; these often contain excellent recipe-specific and baking in general suggestions that could make or break your cake.
  2. The quality of your pans makes a big difference when it comes to getting results that are consistent and level. Invest in good aluminum baking pans and you'll have them forever.
  3. If you need to adjust your recipe for pan size, here’s  a helpful guide to do so.
  4. Make sure not only your butter, but also your eggs are at room temperature before you get going. This will ensure proper emulsification with the other ingredients.
  5. Use fresh leaveners (baking powder and soda) – they lose their potency quicker than you think and will yield extremely disappointing and lifeless discs of hardened batter if used past expiration.
  6. Prep your pans. A thin coat of room temperature (not melted) butter, a scant dusting of flour and fitted pieces of parchment paper will help your cakes pop right out without damage. I often get away with skipping the flour dusting stage, but until you know which cakes are sturdy enough, it's worth taking the extra step to avoid the devastation of a broken cake round.

MEASURING + MIXING

  1. It might sound like a painstaking, for-perfectionists-only extra step, but the only way to measure ingredients is in grams. You can tell when someone is a true baker because they won’t even look at a recipe not written in weight. If you haven’t already, you will accept this eventually, so why not get on board now. Weigh your portions with a scale. If you can’t, then get as accurate as you can by using the back of a knife or metal spatula to scrape excess flour or sugar off the top of a measuring cup. Shaking the cup isn’t going to cut it.
  2. Pay attention to the methods of combination specified in your recipe. Folding versus creaming versus whisking will make all the difference in the texture of your cake. Stir to gently but thoroughly incorporate ingredients where no aeration is required. Whip or beat to introduce air into a mixture or fully emulsify ingredients. Fold to gently incorporate one ingredient into another without significantly altering the texture of the ingredients.
  3. Batter left out at room temperature for more than 10 minutes will no longer cook properly, so make sure you’re ready to get it right into the oven once it’s combined. If you’re working in multiple oven batches with your pans for a cake that’s more than a couple layers, it’s necessary to make the batter fresh for each batch so that it’s fresh when you’re ready to bake.

BAKING

  1. To ensure sufficient heating throughout, invest in an oven thermometer. My oven is literally never as hot as the temperature on the outside reads. It also helps to let the oven continue to heat at least 15-25 minutes past the preheat alert.
  2. Place pans as close to the center of the oven as possible, both height- and width-wise.
  3. Rotate pans halfway through baking to ensure even heat exposure and coloration, but besides this, try not to open the oven door as home ovens very easily lose their heat.
  4. Without removing your cake from the oven, test for doneness using a toothpick (moisture will best reveal itself on a toothpick rather than a metal cake tester). You will know your cake is done when it begins to pull away from the edges of the pan and when the top is pillowy to the touch.
  5. Let the cakes cool according to the instructions in the recipe. Don’t cool them on the oven as this is likely the warmest place in your kitchen. Use a cooling rack on a counter. Most cakes baked with a parchment lining can cool completely in the pan.

ASSEMBLY

  1. Make sure your cake rounds are cold and your frosting is at room temperature when you’re ready to assemble. I like to leave the rounds wrapped tightly in plastic overnight in the refrigerator to ensure they are thoroughly cooled and set.
  2. To level the cakes, use a cake leveler or a long, sharp serrated knife to remove the domes from the top of the cake rounds. If cutting with a knife, keep it flat against the cake surface at all times. The evenness of these surfaces will determine the all-around straightness and flatness of your final cake.
  3. With the exception of the bottom layer, flip the cake rounds over when layering so that the smooth, flat surfaces (that were touching the pan while baking) create the base for the frosting and additional layers.
  4. Get a good crumb coat on your cake – this refers to the application of a thin layer of frosting to all surfaces of the cake, just enough so that the crumbs are contained and the whole thing is set underneath a layer of frosting. After returning the cake to the refrigerator for an hour, the second and final layer of frosting will go on smoothly and without any snags or crumbs peeking through.
  5. It helps to run your spatula under hot water or dip it in a cup of hot water as you apply the second layer of frosting to get that perfect, shiny surface with no lines.

COCONUT MILK CAKE
Enough for four 6-inch cake rounds (I do this recipe with 2 rounds in the oven, halving the recipe and making it twice)

INGREDIENTS
2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
2 1/2 cup (300 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (9 grams) fine sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons (8 grams) baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons (11 grams) baking soda
2 large eggs
2 cups (472 milliliters) canned coconut milk
2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons (10 milliliters) vanilla extract
1 tablespoon (15 milliliters) coconut rum
1/2 cup (105 grams) coconut oil, melted
1 cup (125 grams) unsweetened shredded coconut

METHOD
Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter, dust with flour and line with parchment paper four 6-inch cake pans. Place prepared pans in the oven to come to temperature with the oven.

Combine sugar, flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a large bowl and stir until incorporated. In a separate bowl, whisk together egg, coconut milk, lemon juice, vanilla extract, liquor and oil. Gently stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Fold shredded coconut into the batter.

Remove pans from oven and divide batter evenly between the pans. Carefully drop each pan on the counter or floor a few times to release any air bubbles and to flatten the tops as much as possible. Bake for 30-40 minutes – testing for doneness at 30 minutes – and until cake tops are golden and pillowy, and a toothpick comes out clean.

Allow cakes to cool in pans for 15 minutes before carefully removing and transferring to a cooling rack. Let the cakes spend at least one hour on the cooling rack in the fridge so that they are cooled throughout. They can be stored up to 3 days in the fridge, but be sure to tightly wrap them in plastic wrap if you do this.

Meanwhile, make the frosting.

CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

INGREDIENTS
1 stick (226 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup cream cheese (226 grams), room temperature
1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) vanilla extract
3 cups (375 grams) confectioners’ sugar

METHOD
Using a standing or handheld mixer, cream together the butter and cream cheese. Gently stir in vanilla extract. Then slowly add confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, scraping down sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as you go. Continue to mix until fluffy.

Set frosting aside in a sealed container in the fridge until you are ready to assemble the cake. Just be sure frosting is room temperature at the time of assembly.

ASSEMBLY

INGREDIENTS
2 cups (300 grams) unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut, toasted

METHOD
Remove cakes from fridge. They should be nice and cool and firm. Using a sharp serrated knife, gently cut the dome off each cake round. Be sure to keep the knife flat so your cake surfaces end up even. You should now have four equal, flat cake rounds.

Place your least attractive cake layer in the center of your cake stand. Place a large dollop of frosting in the middle of the cake round (enough to create a 1/4 inch thick layer) and, using an offset spatula, spread into a circle until the frosting reaches the sides. On top of the frosting, place another cake layer flipped over so that the cut surface is facing the bottom. Add frosting. Repeat with the third layer. Be sure to reserve your most attractive cake round for the top.

Apply your crumb coat: using your offset spatula, apply a thin layer of frosting to all surfaces of the cake, enough to contain all the crumbs, but not to fully cover the cake. Place covered in the fridge for another hour.

Remove cake from the refrigerator and apply the second layer of frosting. Once a generous amount has been applied to the whole surface area of the cake, run your spatula under hot water, shake off the excess water, and gently smooth the blade over the surfaces of the cake at an angle.

Finally, using the palm of your hand, gently pat the toasted coconut around the sides of your cake until the surfaces are covered.