Lemon Coconut Cake for Spring
Spring has started to bloom here on Nantucket. In the garden, our edible violas that seeded themselves are popping up everywhere in happy shades of purple, blue, and pink. Clumps of red clover are greening everywhere throughout the garden and yard. These welcome signs of spring were the inspiration for making this mini lemon coconut cake with cream cheese frosting.
The cake is fluffy and moist and flavored with lots of lemon zest and a hint of coconut. It pairs perfectly with fluffy whipped lemon cream cheese frosting, which also makes the perfect canvas for adding edible spring embellishments.
Lemon is the dominant flavor in this cake, but the coconut flavor can be increased by adding flaked coconut to the batter itself, which I detail in the recipe below. Flaked coconut can also be added to the sides and top of the cake as decoration. Optionally toast the flaked coconut in the oven at 350˚F/175˚C stirring it frequently until it just starts to brown. You can use sweetened or unsweetened flaked coconut as you prefer. Use full-fat canned or homemade coconut milk to get the best coconut flavor and richness. I tested this recipe with virgin coconut oil but it gave the cake a dry and brittle texture so I do not recommend using it in this or any cake for that matter.
This cake is wonderful for any spring celebrations like Easter, spring birthdays, and Mother’s Day. Its light bright lemon and creamy coconut flavors with the fluffiest sweet and tangy lemon cream cheese frosting will delight the palettes of young and old. Iley was a big fan of this one.
Fluffiest Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting
The key to making fluffy cream cheese frosting is to whip the heck out of it. Whip it for a full 5 minutes. Make sure to start with room temperature full-fat brick-style cream cheese and butter. Sift the powdered sugar if it is lumpy, if it’s not lumpy then don’t worry about this step.
Once the frosting is very light and fluffy then make sure to chill it for about 30 minutes before frosting the cake. Otherwise, it can be a bit too soft right after it’s whipped to stay put once you spread it onto the cake layers.
This recipe makes a 2 or 4 layer 6-inch cake or a 1 or 2 layer 8 or 9-inch cake. Pictured is a 4 layer 6-inch cake which was baked in 2 6-inch cake pans and then each cake was cut into 2 layers. You can leave the cakes whole to make a 2 layer cake. I tend to opt for 6-inch cakes because there are only 3 of us and we always have leftovers even with smaller cakes.
If using an 8 or 9-inch pan then the cake can be kept as a 1 layer cake or cut in half to make 2 layers. The recipe can also be doubled to make a 2 or 4 layer 8 or 9-inch cake. In that case, you can leave the cakes whole to make a 2 layer cake or cut them into 2 layers each to make a 4 layer cake. The frosting recipe should be enough for a 2-layer 8 or 9-inch cake but double it for a 4 layer cake.
Once you’ve figured out how many layers you want to do and have chilled the whipped cream cheese frosting it is time to assemble the layers and then apply a crumb coat of frosting. A crumb coat is a thin layer of frosting spread over the entire outside of the cake. To apply the crumb coat use an offset spatula to spread a thin layer of frosting evenly over the top and sides of the cake then scrape away any excess as you smooth it out. At this point, the cake will have a naked cake look, which you can leave as-is for a naked cake aesthetic.
Once the crumb coat is applied the cake needs to chill for another 30 minutes before applying the final layer of frosting. Return the unused frosting to the refrigerator at this time as well so it does not soften back up at room temperature. Chilling the cake will let the crumb coat set so that when you frost the cake it will be smooth and keep any cake crumbs from mixing into the frosting.
Foraged and Edible Cake Decorations
Spring is the perfect time to head out in nature or even your backyard to find edible flowers and plants to use as cake decorations. The leaves I used to decorate this lemon coconut cake are from the very common red clover plant, which is often thought of as a “weed”. There is a good chance it is growing in your yard if you live in the northeast US. It has a grassy flavor, so I don’t expect folks to eat it as a dessert but it has the prettiest leaves and makes a beautiful pattern when pressed to the sides of the cake.
Edible flower cakes are having a trendy moment in time, which I love to see. I started decorating desserts with edible flowers when I was a child with my mother. She showed me how to make candied violets that I picked from our yard. Violets are still one of my favorite flowers and they would be a great option to use to decorate this cake. Wild violets are not quite in season here yet but we have loads of violas, which are related to violets. They come in a variety of shades and are relatively easy to grow in a garden.
Other edible flowers in the season during early spring include pansies, primroses, forsythia, redbud, wisteria, and dandelion. When using edible flowers or foraging for edibles always make sure to identify the plant correctly and confirm it is edible. Do not use flowers from nurseries unless you know they have not been sprayed or given growth retardant, which is sadly common for potted annuals.
A Cake for Easter
I added a tiny toasted coconut robin’s nest complete with pale blue chocolate candy mini-eggs to the top of this cake to make it extra special as an Easter cake. This cake will add a bit of whimsy to your easter or spring celebrations.
Lemon Coconut Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
- 113 g softened unsalted butter 1/2 cup or 1 stick
- 198 g granulated sugar 1 cup
- 2 large eggs at room temperature
- 118 g coconut milk 1/2 cup, full-fat canned or homemade
- 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- 9 g lemon zest from 2 lemons
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 210 g all-purpose flour 1 1/2 cups
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 85 g flaked coconut 3 oz. or about 1 cup loosely packed, optional for more coconut flavor, can use unsweetened or sweetened as you prefer
Cream Cheese Frosting:
- 227 g softened cream cheese 8 oz., full fat brick-style
- 113 g softened unsalted butter 1/2 cup or 1 stick
- 9 g lemon zest from 2 lemons
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 266 g powdered sugar 2 cups, sifted if lumpy
- 1 tablespoon flaked coconut toasted or untoasted
- 1/4 cup edible flowers and leaves such violas and red clover loosely packed, or other spring season varieties include pansies, primroses and wild violets
- 4 mini chocolate egg candies
- Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C. Grease two 6-inch cake pans or one 8-inch or 9-inch cake pan. Line the bottom of each pan with a parchment paper circle.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or with a hand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.
- Crack the eggs into a small bowl or measuring cup first before adding them to the butter-sugar mixture to avoid adding any eggshell fragments. Add the cracked eggs and beat them into the mixture for about 3-4 minutes.
- Mix in the milk, vinegar, lemon zest and vanilla for about 1 minute. The mixture will look curdled at this point.
- Add the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda and mix until just combined for about 30 seconds.
- If adding flaked coconut fold it into the batter now.
- Divide the batter evenly between the 2 pans and smooth it out with an offset spatula.
- Bake the cakes at 350˚F/175˚C for 40-45 minutes until golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center of the cakes come out clean.
- Transfer the cakes to the cooling rack and allow them to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Then run a butter knife around the edges to loosen the cakes from the pans. Invert the cake pans onto the cooling rack and lift off the pans then peel away the parchment paper lining. Allow the cakes to cool completely before frosting them.
- To make the frosting whip the softened cream cheese and butter in a stand mixer with a balloon whisk attachment or with a hand mixer until light and fluffy for about 3 minutes.
- Mix in the lemon zest, salt, and vanilla extract.
- Add the powdered sugar and mix in on low to start then increase the speed and whip until the mixture is light and fluffy for about 5 minutes.
- Chill the frosting for 30 minutes before frosting the cake.
- Slice the cooled caked in half to create 4 layers if you want or leave them for a 2-layer cake.
- To assemble the cake add a dab of the frosting to the cake plate or serving plate to hold the first layer in place. Spread about 1/2 cup of the frosting onto the first layer for a 4-layer cake or 1 cup of frosting for a 2-layer cake.
- Stack the next layer of cake and repeat for all the layers.
- Spread a thin layer of the frosting over the sides and top of the cake for the crumb coat. Then refrigerate the cake and the remaining frosting for 30 minutes.
- Frost the side and top of the cake with the remaining frosting, smoothing it out with an offset spatula.
- Decorate the side and top of the cake however you like with edible flowers and leaves. Add a flaked coconut bird's nest to the top of the cake and place the mini eggs in the center of it.
- Refrigerate the cake until you are ready to serve it that day.
- Leftover cake can be wrapped and refrigerated and used within 1 week.
- The cake batter can be made dairy-free by swapping butter and milk with equal amounts of plant butter and plant milk of your choice. For dairy-free frosting, you can use a vegan buttercream like the one in this recipe.
- When using edible flowers or foraging for edibles always make sure to identify the plant correctly and confirm it is edible. Do not use flowers from nurseries unless you know they have not been sprayed or given growth retardant, which is sadly common for potted annuals.
- This recipe can be doubled to make an 8 or 9-inch 2 or 4 layer cake. For a 2-layer cake divide the batter evenly between the two pans. For a 4-layer cake do the same thing but cut the cakes in half to make 4 layers. The frosting recipe should be enough for a 2-layer cake but double it for a 4-layer cake.
- Tip for slicing cakes into 2 layers: Score the cut line at the halfway point of the cake around the entire circumference with a serrated knife about 1/4" deep. Now you have a guide for the knife to follow as you cut through the cake.
- To toast the coconut bake it on a sheet pan in the oven at 350˚F/175˚C stirring it frequently until it just starts to brown, about 10 minutes.
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