Saturday, June 27, 2009

Coconut Cake with Fresh Strawberries and Whipped Cream. . . Perfect Summer Dessert for a Special Occasion

I'd been pondering making a coconut cake of some sort for quite a while. Not necessarily the kind that's big and snowy white, blanketed with icing and lots of shredded sweetened coconut--though heaven knows I like that kind of cake and so, he tells me, does my husband. I will undoubtedly make that giant, furry-looking layer cake someday, but the recipe below is for a coconut cake of a different color, you might say.

Considerably different and, I must add, extremely delicious. The combination of the delicately sweet, subtly flavored, velvety cake with the fresh ripe strawberries is just absolutely perfect. Covered in sweetened whipped cream, with sliced almonds on the sides, you can't go wrong. If you're looking for something a little fancier than the usual strawberry shortcake but less sugary and heavy than a big, fat, fuzzy, traditional coconut cake, this recipe is worth your time.
This cake does not include any shredded coconut at all, so you avoid that chewy aspect that some people don't care for. The rich authentic flavor comes from coconut milk, augmented by a very small amount of coconut "extract." And where, pray tell, does one find coconut "extract"? Uh . . . it seems one doesn't, because it more or less doesn't exist. What does exist is imitation coconut extract/flavoring, and/or flavored coconut oil, and sometimes you may find something called "coconut natural flavor blend," (though based on that stuff's ingredient list it doesn't sound very natural to me). Why is this true? Why no real coconut extract? Beats me. Maybe it has something to do with perishability? Mmm . . . I don't know. We do know that coconut milk is highly perishable, which pretty much explains why we only see it for sale in cans. (You can, of course, start hacking open your own fresh coconuts if you're a hardcore do-it-yourselfer, but I don't think I've ever met a single human, living or dead, who looks like they could competently penetrate a coconut. So that's out.) While typically I would not want to use an imitation extract for any baked good I make, in this case there seems no reasonable alternative, and the fake stuff appears to taste fine. One must make do . . . mustn't one?

The original recipe, from which my version derives, came from the California Strawberry Commission website. They call their version, "Coconut Strawberry Cake." (I happened upon it one day while searching under the term "strawberry cake." I didn't really want to make a garden variety strawberry cake, though, because every recipe I've found for that yields a ferociously pink cake! I didn't want a pink cake. Haven't wanted one in probably forty years. Though I confess that pink is still my favorite color.) My changes to the recipe included: using only one layer for my cake (one layer split in two) versus their use of two full layers; using regular versus lite coconut milk; not using their cooked icing recipe at all; and not putting coconut on the sides of the cake. And, finally, I revised the instructions somewhat, without leaving out anything important.

The recipe you see below still yields two full 8" layers, but I wrapped and froze the extra layer to use another time; you'll only need to use one layer to assemble one cake, as I prepared it. That is, of course, unless you want a big, tall, bonafide two-layer cake. My advice, though, is that the use of one layer, split in half, is just right. Especially "just right" if you use full fat coconut milk; the added richness in that milk, in combo with two big cake layers, would put this dessert over the top as far as richness goes.

Coconut Cake with Fresh Strawberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 8" cake pans with baking spray, or grease them. Cut out two 8" circles from parchment paper; fit them into the pans. Spray/grease the paper as well and then dust the pans with All Purpose flour.

For the cake:

2 cups sifted cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup (1 and 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 and 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1 cup coconut milk (canned type)
1/2 tsp. coconut extract (imitation's okay!)

In a medium bowl, sift together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixer bowl, with paddle attachment, beat the butter at medium speed until light colored and soft.

Slowly pour the sugar in with the butter, at medium speed, and mix for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy.

Add in the egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition until mixed.

At low speed, alternately add the flour and coconut milk; three additions of flour and two additions of coconut milk, beginning and ending with the flour.

Add in the coconut extract at low speed until well combined.

In a small, clean mixer bowl, using the whisk attachment at high speed, beat the three egg whites until they form soft peaks. Gently fold about one third of the whites into the cake batter, then fold in the remainder, being careful not to overmix and deflate the whites.

Divide the batter between the two cake pans and smooth the tops. Place the pans on the middle shelf of your oven. Bake for approximately 25 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cakes on a rack for five minutes, then turn the cakes out carefully onto the racks to finish cooling completely. When they're cooled, wrap one and set it aside/freeze it; you won't need it to assemble this cake.

Put the cake layer that you're using on an 8" cardboard cake circle, if at all possible. (It's by far the easiest way to pick up and move a cake like this; you can buy them at Michael's or JoAnn's in the cake decorating aisle--invest in some!) Using a sharp bread knife, carefully slice horizontally through the middle of the remaining cake layer. Separate the top layer and set it aside.

For the strawberry filling and top-of-the-cake garnish:

2 lbs. of medium to medium-large strawberries, fully ripe
1/2 cup good strawberry preserves with all the large fruit chunks removed (you need it to be easily spreadable)

Rinse, and completely remove the stems from, the strawberries. Dry them on a paper towel. Separate out the prettiest and most uniformly sized/shaped berries for use on the top of your cake. You'll probably need at least 20 nice berries for the top; set them aside. With the remaining berries, slice them vertically, about 1/4 inch thick. Have ready at least one cup sliced, more or less; set them aside until you're ready to assemble the cake.

For the sweetened whipped cream (aka Chantilly cream or, if you prefer to say it the French way, Creme Chantilly!):

1 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup sifted confectioners' sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Beat the cream on high speed until soft peaks start to form. Add in the confectioner's sugar and the extract. Continue beating until medium-firm peaks form. Put the finished whipped cream in the fridge, covered, until everything you need to assemble the cake is ready.

To assemble the cake:

Take the cake layer that's still sitting on the cardboard cake circle, and spread it evenly with half of the strawberry preserves.

On top of that, spread out the strawberry slices, overlapping a bit, in concentric circles. It doesn't need to look perfectly uniform, it just needs to be about the same thickness all over.

Take the other layer and spread it evenly on one side with the remaining preserves. Now, as carefully as possible (because this cake is soft and floppy), gently lay it jam-side-down onto the sliced strawberries. Best to flip it on there quickly, like you'd flip over a cooking pancake.

Now cover the cake with the whipped cream. Put a big scoop of it on the top of the cake, and spread it evenly and thickly (with an offset spatula, if you've got one). Smooth it all over the top and sides, but don't worry about making it real smooth. It will be mostly covered up.

For the garnish on the sides and top of the cake:

3/4 cup sliced almonds, untoasted (or, if you prefer, you can use toasted coconut instead)

To apply the sliced almonds, hold the bottom of the cake with your left hand (see why it's good to have it sitting on a cake board?), over something like a baking sheet with sides to catch the falling almonds. Grabbing a handful of the almonds in your right hand, gently press them into the sides of the cake as you turn it with your left hand. Do this until the sides seem sufficiently covered all around. Try not to let the almonds get onto the top of the cake.

Now, arrange your strawberries as you prefer on the top of the cake, pressing them just lightly, tips pointing up, into the whipped cream.

If you can manage to work it out that the cake is served within a few hours of being assembled, without it having to be refrigerated for very long at all, that would be best. The cake part itself is beautifully soft and nice at room temperature, and it contrasts pleasingly with the cold berries and whipped cream. Do whatever you need to do, though, as far as keeping it cool/cold. In any case, just don't let the whipped cream get warm.

Voila! Put your cake on a cute serving plate and you're good to go!

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Arlene said...

Ok, coconut and strawberries, sounds heavenly. I will be trying this recipe and when I do I will let you know how delicious it is, because it looks and sounds like it is...

Jane said...

If you do make it I'd love to hear how you like it, Arlene. I really thought it was delicious myself. I happened to make it when my husband and younger son were out of town for a few days. It was so good that I gave my 16-year old son, who was home with me, clearance to eat as much of it as he wanted, whenever he wanted--otherwise I'd have been tempted to whittle away at it constantly myself! Needless to say, I was very relieved that he loved it too. :)

Thanks for commenting!