Coconut Cake — Partial Fail

I have overheard Marie, on many occasions, ooh and aah over her share of coconut recipes (from cake to cookies to cocktails!) Not being a fan of coconut, I always thought it was funny she could be so excited by all these ideas.  But then Marie and I made the Barefoot Contessa’s signature coconut cupcakes 2 years ago for little E’s birthday.  The cupcakes are amazing, and I sadly acknowledge that this fact probably relates to the obscene amounts of butter that are called for.  My brother-in-law made some pretty terrifying calculations about the amount of butter in each serving, but I’ve fortunately managed to bury that knowledge deep deep into the recesses of my mind.   I hope. 

Anyway.  Another calorific cookbook of mine, the Joanne Chang’s Flour Cookbook, (which, by the way, was the source of the birthday cupcakes for little E’s this year as you may recall),  features a coconut cake recipe using, rather than plain old dairy milk, coconut milk in both the frosting and cake.  Pretty cool.  Perfect for Marie’s visit, right?  And who cares if her birthday was already a few weeks past–there’s always an excuse for cake!

The actual cake might have been perfect too, had I been just a bit more knowledgable about coconut milk.  My historic lack of interest in all things coconut means that I was not aware that the milk is thick and dense, like condensed milk.  When I belatedly noticed that the package of “coconut milk” I bought had in smaller font “beverage” I worried a little, but plowed ahead nonetheless.  And by belatedly, I noticed as I was opening the package to pour into the recipe.  I was in too deep to stop! 

If you are a bit more knowledgable than I about coconut milk, you are at best raising your eyebrows, and at worst, cringing.  I should have known better.  I did actually know that coconut milk is “fatty”; while this looked like skim milk–and as it’s basically just watered down coconut milk, that’s not too far off.  I know that “apple juice drink” is not apple juice, why would “coconut milk beverage” be what I was looking for?   

Um, at least it's organic?

It was a bit of a mixed bag.

The cake did not rise all that much, but otherwise, actually turned out well enough.   As I had used a 9″ cake pan rather than the specified 8″ pan, I took that as the explanation for a lackluster loft, and moved on.  The cake may have looked a bit sad, but things smelled good.  Time to make frosting!

Sad little short coconut cake

And things went south.  The method is similar to the crispy magic icing recipe, where you start out heating a slurry of egg whites and sugar over a double boiler, then transfer to a stand mixer to beat until fluffy and cool, then adding the butter.  (Cool is important so you don’t melt the butter!)

Oh, if I only had stopped there.  Because it was already a perfect buttercream. 

But then I went and dumped in that coconut milk beverage.  And things were soupy.  So I kept beating–soupy frosting was already unusable, so there was nothing to lose.  But it turned into the following mess, which Marie was kind enough to observe that while tasty, looked like “half and half that’s gone bad.”  Down the sink it went.

Not exactly what you'd want to see on a cake

After that I tried seven-minute frosting, which, in our case, took way more than seven minutes, probably because we used pasteurized egg whites.  This frosting also resulted in something a bit more on the liquid side than I’d like:  I followed Mark Bittman’s recipe to take it to the soft peak stage before removing from heat; next time I’ll follow Epicurious’s recipe and take it to stiff peaks first.  Still it worked:  lovely, fluffy, like liquid marshmallow!

The cake experience was a bit marred in the end by the one-hour sojourn into frosting mishaps, with sacrificed butter, impatient preschoolers waiting for cake, and an almost-toddler who fussed vociferously when not allowed to operate the hand mixer.  But in the end, we had a coconut cake, with frosting, and several lessons learned.  And that’s not a bad result.

And finally, voila!

 And finally, children, to summarize the five lessons we’ve learned today:

1.  Coconut milk and coconut milk beverage are not the same thing.  You may be able to substitute one for the other in baking, but not in frosting.

2.  If you use too large a pan, your cake will probably not rise as high, and will bake much faster.

3  Flour recipes must be pretty good if the cake can still turn out despite my gaffes. And I certainly don’t blame Joanne Chang (the author of Flour) for not writing a frosting recipe that withstands the use of coconut milk “beverage.”

4.  Pasteurized egg whites are great to use if you are an anxious mom, but they do take much longer to beat into meringue.

5.  When making seven-minute icing, take to the stiff peak stage before removing from heat.

6.   Don’t trust a one-year-old with a fork near a cake.

More? I don't mind if I do!

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16 thoughts on “Coconut Cake — Partial Fail

  1. Love that last picture. It sounds like despite the coconut milk beverage, you managed to be successful. I have horror stories of making three different frostings in a row and all of them failing… after who knows how many eggs and pounds of butter!

    • Three? That’s dedication (and all the more frustrating I am sure!). If the seven-minute frosting had not worked, that was it for us! It was very sad to have wasted all that butter. Since I had a container of pasteurized egg whites to use up, at least I didn’t feel too bad about that.

  2. Hilarious post (sorry I shouldn’t laugh!). Your story reminds me how many times I spoiled partially or completely my cakes because I have forgotten an ingredient, have bought the wrong ingredient (I got crazy recently since I have bought something called “delicate butter” and it was margarine!!!!) or tried to substitute something with something completely incompatible.
    Recently I had an adventure which reminded me of something my close friend told me. I broke two eggs into a cookie mixture and the third one was completely rotten. My friend would always tell me her mother always broke the eggs one by one into a small plate, she would smell them and add one by one to the dough or batter. I think I will never laugh at her mother’s precaution.
    Your cake looks fantastic after all these adventures!
    (Now, reading once more your post I know why I hardly ever frost my cakes 😉 )

    • No worries, laugh away! I do that with the egg too–I’ve never really encountered a bad egg, but just last night I made a spanish omelet with 8 eggs and wouldn’t that have been painful if #8 was a sulfer-bomb?

      • You are right! It would be such a pity! When I think how many dishes calling for many eggs I have made without checking the eggs… I have goosebumps.

  3. The cake looks beautiful (and H doesn’t look so bad either. I like his approach!) I made the buttercream from your blog w/the pasteurized egg, and the buttercream for my recent lemon/raspberry cake with it too. I didn’t notice it taking a lot longer. Is that because I was making meringue buttercream as opposed to just meringue icing? I am ignorant on these things…

    • I hadn’t noticed before either, because I had used my kitchenaid mixer (it’s more powerful of course, and since you don’t have to hold it, you don’t notice with such clarity how long it takes!) When making the seven-minute icing, (1) I was running my hand mixer in the egg whites over the double boiler, and (2) I “knew” it was only supposed to take seven minutes; and thus was painfully aware that it did not. I read in the Gourmet Cookbook later on that pasteurized egg whites sometimes take a lot longer to whip (same place I read that you should beat to stiff peaks before removing from the heat). The seven minute icing, beating the whites over the double boiler is kind of insane. I wonder if powdered egg whites go faster?

  4. After all the frostings adventure, the cake looks really good with a very pretty shinny frosting! And I have glad to learn that coconut milk is not similar to coconut milk beverage. I had trouble depending which brand of coconut milk I was using, so I will now pay extra attention to the label 😀

    • Glad to know my trials and tribulations were not in vain! The frosting really is just marshmallow sans gelatin–am looking forward to making it again…

  5. hi Sara. i thought i might let you know that i tried the semolina bread again, and just uploaded a new post. have a look. i found some very interesting facts about working with semolina and summed it all up on the post.

    i did have a little bit of trouble with the ‘spreading dough’, as did you. and i did ferment and proof in the fridge, so it was not the weather. it is the nature of the loaf. also, i think chads loaf is really hydrated. given the nature of semolina (see the summary on the post, it will all make sense), it may be one of those grains that begs a reduction in hydration for ease of handling. given that my last loaves used very thirsty flax seeds, which absorbed some of the hydration, i dont think reducing the water content would be a bad thing. perhaps, i was thinking NOT adding that extra 50g of water he requires when we add the salt. that alone might do the trick. let me know what you find out if you make it again. i wont revisit it again for a minute, because i have a few loaves planned ahead. but suffice it to say, this was one of the best tasting loaves ive made for sure. probably because i also added a fair amount of olive oil!

    here’s the link. (p.s., your coconut cake looks lovely!)

    http://tartine-bread.blogspot.com/2011/08/semolina-education.html

  6. Pingback: Tartine’s Lemon Meringue Cake | Three Clever Sisters

  7. Pingback: Butternut Squash Soup with Coconut Milk, Miso and Lime | Three Clever SistersThree Clever Sisters

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