Last week in this location PJ confessed to her birthday vice: Pepperidge Farm Coconut cake. Well, today is PJ’s birthday, and I took advantage of her being out of the office last week to create my version of that cake so we could have it on hand as we serenade her properly on this momentous occasion. It had to be square, it had to be coconutty and moist, and in this case, it’s coming out of the freezer (where it’s been hiding) just like it does in the store!

I originally designed this cake for Easter; I made round layers, split, filled, and stacked them. Then I colored some coconut with food coloring to look like Easter grass, sprinkled it around and topped it with jelly beans for Jelly Bean cake. Here’s what the cake looked like on the cover:

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But for PJ’s birthday, we needed a classic, square, luscious Coconut Cake.

All cakes benefit from having room temperature ingredients. Here I’ve measured out my mise en place (everything in place) for the recipe. It’s easier to separate eggs when they’re cold, so I did that first, and let the whites come up to room temperature while I measured everything else. Getting the milk to room temperature was easy: a quick 45 seconds in the microwave did it.

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For assembly, the recipe begins like most white cake recipes do: with butter and sugar creamed until light.

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This may seem like old news, but it can’t be said enough. Bakers MUST SCRAPE the bottom and sides of the mixing bowl. This is the place where a lot of people who SAY they can’t bake cakes get into trouble. This mixture of butter, sugar and air is the foundation for the cake’s texture, and if you don’t get all of each ingredient involved, things get blotchy and streaky.

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Now add 1/4 of the dry ingredients. You’re trying to make a stable emulsion that can accept the liquid without separating or getting grainy.

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Combine all of the wet ingredients with the vanilla and coconut flavoring.

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Add 1/3 of the wet to the mixing bowl, and mix until it’s incorporated. Add another 1/4 of the dry, mix, and continue back and forth until everything is added. And SCRAPE. At least twice. The reason for going back and forth is to keep the texture of the batter down the middle: not too juicy that the butter separates out and the batter looks “broken”; not too dry so that the liquid is too difficult to incorporate and the sides of the mixing bowl look like they’ve been stuccoed.

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Once the batter is mixed, it should look like this.

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The pans should be spritzed with non-stick spray, then lined with parchment paper and sprayed again.

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Here’s another reason baking scales are so wonderful. We want to bake two layers with this batter, and we want them to be the same height. How to make sure the dough is divided evenly? Here’s what professional bakeries do:

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Place an empty mixing bowl on top of the scale, and tare it out (reset it to zero). I happen to have a spare mixer bowl at my station, and it’s a tremendous convenience. If you like to bake, put a spare bowl for your mixer on your Christmas list.

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Now put the bowl with the finished batter on the scale. As you can see, this batter weighs 3 pounds, 5 ounces and change. That means each layer should weigh about 1 pound, 10 ounces.

So I put my prepared pan on the scale, zero it out, and add enough batter to hit my target.

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Then I smooth it out with an offset spatula.

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The remaining batter goes in the other pan, and in to the oven they go. The recipe calls for a water bath or cake strips, but it’s not a deal breaker. I find round layers to be more susceptible to doming than square ones, so I didn’t use them here.

Halfway through baking, this is what they look like:

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Now the layers are done. They need to cool completely before coming out of the pan.

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Then I split them in half. Pepperidge Farm makes its coconut cake in 3 layers, but for the sake of symmetry I went with 4. Plus, who doesn’t want more frosting?

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After stacking and filling, I gave the cake a very thin, almost transparent layer of frosting. This is called a crumb coat, and it’s another secret weapon for cake makers. Once you’ve coated the cake, refrigerate it for an hour until the icing sets, and you can touch it without leaving a fingerprint. This makes any stray crumbs stay put, and firms up the cake so you can give it a finished look without building on quicksand.

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Now you can finish frosting the cake. I used a low-tech technique, dabbing frosting on the sides with the back of a spoon, for a shaggy look. Then I put a layer of frosting on top, and sprinkled it with grated sweetened coconut.

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And there it is, a snowy-white, moist, irresistible cake. Happy Birthday, PJ!

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Susan Reid
The Author

About Susan Reid

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.