Friday, April 23, 2010
Every year at about this time, I crave coconut cake. That’s because when I was little, my mom would always make me a birthday cake shaped like a bunny, with coconut fur and jellybean eyes. I loved those cakes. But soon, my taste in birthday desserts started skewing toward the chocolatey, and I never looked back. I don’t think I’ve tasted coconut cake in years, and I haven’t even had cake for my birthday in recent memory; since moving to California, I’ve established a tradition of having a beach bonfire party, so hot dogs and s’mores are the new treat of choice. Plus I like cookies and candy and pie and ice cream more than I like cake. Plus I’ve got no one to make a cake for me (mom is far away, and baking is not one of A’s many skills), and it’s a little sad to have to make your own birthday cake, right?
Not if you’ve got a food blog! When I saw these cupcakes at Ezra Pound Cake a few months ago, I knew I needed a good excuse to make them, so I bookmarked them for my birthday. Besides the fact that they were (a) coconut and (b) cupcakes, what tempted me most about them was the inclusion of almond extract, one of my favorite flavors, and buttermilk, which is always stellar in baked goods, and the cream cheese frosting (I don’t love frosting, but I make an exception for cream cheese frosting—which is odd, because I don’t love cream cheese, either). Plus, the recipe was from Ina Garten, as so many delicious things tend to be. My birthday was on a Friday this year, which was not terribly conducive to cake-baking, but I quickly overcame that obstacle by simply declaring Saturday my birthday as well. Friday would be my office party and my bonfire, and Saturday would be cake baking, fun stuff (a trip to Descanso Gardens and a mini-golf outing), dinner at my favorite sushi restaurant, cake eating, and gift opening.
When I embarked on my baking and was setting out all the butter on the counter to bring it to room temperature, I realized this recipe is definitely a once-a-year treat. We’re talking three sticks of butter for a dozen cupcakes, plus the buttermilk and cream cheese. Aside from my Butter Guilt, however, the baking and frosting proceeded smoothly (it’s pretty much just standard cake procedure). I made no recipe changes, except that I used the ol’ milk + lemon juice buttermilk substitute because I didn’t want to make a special trip to the store to buy a whole carton when I just needed ½ cup. Real buttermilk is always better, though, so in the future I’ll try to make the effort. The cupcakes were still plenty good, but when I use buttermilk I can always taste that nice tang and notice the extra-tender texture it imparts, while when I use a substitute it just seems more…neutral.
These cupcakes were so, so good—exactly what I’d been craving. The cake part was good but unobtrusive, buttery and not too sweet, a perfect canvas to showcase the coconut flavor and the frosting (I did think the cake seemed just a little stiffer than I like it, but that may have been my fault, not the recipe’s). The frosting was excellent: perfectly pillowy texture, again not too sweet. The weird thing was that the cupcakes seemed to actually get better with time. I liked them when we ate them on Saturday, but the frosting seemed too tangy and cream-cheesy, and the coconut flavor wasn’t as strong as I’d been expecting. We stuck the rest of the cupcakes in the fridge, and the next day when I had one (after letting it sit out on the counter for half an hour or so to bring it back up to room temperature), I was amazed. Either my palate was out of whack on Saturday, or the coconut had really permeated the cupcakes by Sunday. I’d thought I was going to try to pawn off the rest of the cupcakes on my coworkers on Monday, but it turned out there was no way I was going to part with them, and we enjoyed cupcakes for dessert every night this week. Now they’re gone and I have something to look forward to next April, because these are definitely becoming a birthday tradition for me.
I’m so glad I went ahead and made my own cake. For one thing, I’d forgotten how happy it makes me to blow out the candles. But more importantly, it feels really good to indulge in exactly what you want. I’d considered just going out and buying two cupcakes from the cupcake shop in our neighborhood, and that would have been fine, but it wouldn’t have been as satisfying. Baking is fun, and when you put labor into something you’re going to eat and it turns out just as good as you’d hoped (or better), it’s like a gift to yourself. Happy birthday, me.
For the cake:
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
¾ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¾ teaspoon pure almond extract
1½ cups flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup buttermilk
3½ ounces sweetened, shredded coconut
For the frosting:
½ pound (8 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon pure almond extract
12 ounces confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3½ ounces sweetened, shredded coconut
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a muffin pan with paper liners.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla and almond extracts; mix well.
3. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
4. Add one-third of the dry ingredients to the batter, then add half the buttermilk. Repeat with another one-third of the dry ingredients and the rest of the buttermilk, then add the remaining dry ingredients. Mix until just combined. Fold in coconut.
5. Fill each paper liner to the top with batter. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, until the tops are brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Remove to a baking rack and cool completely.
6. Meanwhile, make the frosting. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla and almond extracts. Add the confectioners’ sugar and mix until smooth.
7. Frost the cupcakes. Sprinkle with the remaining 3½ ounces coconut.
Time: 1½ hours
Leftover potential: Good. We kept them in the fridge, bringing them up to room temperature before we ate them, and they were still just as good six days later.