My friend Ryan O’Connell is a superstar in every sense. Not only does he have his own show on Netflix, he was featured this weekend in a New York Times article about artists as activists. (Coincidentally, the article was written by Mark Harris, a Lunch Therapy alumni, just like Ryan.)
Suffice it to say, I feel very lucky to call Ryan a friend. And knowing that his birthday was coming up, and that he’s part of our quarantine bubble (a very small group of friends that we still see), I asked if he had a menu in mind for his birthday dinner. He didn’t hesitate: “Oooh, can we have Martha’s Mac and Cheese?” (The best of all time, in case you didn’t know that.) “Oh, and maybe a salad with peaches? Peaches are season, right?” (They are.) “And can we do a coconut cake for dessert?” “You got it,” I replied.
I like how Ryan knows what he wants. And it’s fun to make a dinner for someone who’s so looking forward to the food you’re making.
Strategy-wise, I made the cakes the night before, wrapped them in plastic, and refrigerated them overnight. (It’s easier to ice a cooled cake.) The next morning, I put together the mac and cheese — with almost two pounds of cheese — and refrigerated it. Then, in the afternoon, I set about icing the cake.
I’ve learned a thing or two about icing a cake over the years. Firstly, as mentioned, I always let the cakes cool for as long as possible before icing them. The refrigerator is a good idea. In my naive, early days I tried icing still warm cakes and you can guess how well that went.
The other major discovery is how important it is to line your cake stand with torn pieces of parchment as you ice. Why? Because when you do the outside layer — which is the hardest part — you can yank away the falling mounds of glop and have a clean-looking cake stand and a perfectly iced cake at the end.
See how messy that looks? But once that parchment was yanked away, the cake looked almost professional. Well, if not almost professional, like it was made by an expert home cook.
That’s the thing about a cake like this: you do want it to look a little shaggy, so everyone can see the love you put into it. And the coconut, which was easy to sprinkle on to the top, but harder to get on the sides — I basically flung it and let the coconut go everywhere — hides most of your icing mistakes.
As you can see, the birthday boy was very happy indeed.
My only other tips are to make sure that your butter and eggs are at room temperature before you make the cake — it’ll make for a fluffier cake — and same when you’re making the cream cheese icing; it’ll whip up more cleanly.
Happy birthday, Ryan! Excited to hear next year’s menu.
The Fluffiest Coconut Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
For the cake:
- 3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans 3/4 pound, if you don’t measure by sticks.
- 2 cups sugar
- 5 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 tsps pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 tsps pure almond extract
- 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pans
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 cup whole milk
- 4 ounces sweetened shredded coconut
For the frosting:
- 1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temp 1/2 pound, again if you don’t measure by sticks.
- 3/4 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp pure almond extract
- 1 pound confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- 6 ounces sweetened, shredded coconut
Preheat the oven to 350. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with non-stick spray (or butter them, if you have softened butter); line with parchment (use this trick), and spray the parchment, and dust with flour. Knock out any excess dust.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high for 3 to 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Crack the eggs into a bowl and with the mixer on medium, add the eggs one at a time, scraping down as necessary. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and mix well.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low, alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk to the batter in three parts, beginning and ending with the dry. Mix just until combined. Fold in the 4 ounces of coconut with a rubber spatula.
Pour the batter into the two prepared pans, smooth the tops, and bake 45 to 55 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. (I use a piece of spaghetti.) Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn out on to a baking rack to finish cooling. (It’s not a bad idea to do this the night before.)
To make the frosting, combine the cream cheese, butter, vanilla, and almond extract in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment on medium speed. (Be sure everything’s at room temperature first!) Add the confectioner’s sugar and mix until smooth. Ina says: “Don’t whip!”
To assemble, place one layer on a cake stand, top-side down (I sliced a little off the top to make it sit flat). Spread with frosting, about a cup. Place the second layer on top, top-side up, and frost the top and sides. Sprinkle with the coconut and press more coconut on to the sides. Serve at room temp.
Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting (Amateur Gourmet)
Hummingbird Cake (Amateur Gourmet)
Plush Coconut Cake (Smitten Kitchen)
Chocolate Coconut “Candy Bar” Cake (David Lebovitz)
Banana Coconut Layer Cake (Melissa Clark)