Vanilla Bean-Coconut Cupcakes with Coconut Frosting

I’m a bit obsessed with coconut cake, or maybe it’s more the idea of coconut cake and the romantic notions of graceful southern living that I’m more enamored with. Really, I don’t care either way. A traditional dessert in southern American cooking, it’s nothing more than a simple vanilla cake sandwiched between tangy, sweet cream cheese frosting and a blizzard of coconut shavings, really. But, to me, they conjure up images of over-sized verandas,wrought iron, hanging ferns, air buzzing with humidity and the scent of honeysuckle and garden wisteria, and white cotton dresses, freshly pressed.

I needed to come up with a birthday dessert for my darling mom and I knew she loved coconut cake, but has never been fond of overly-sweet desserts. After searching through several coconut cake recipes, I found this one for cupcakes, which called for vanilla beans and coconut milk…the scents of the tropics mingled with my nostalgia for southern American cookery. Perfect.

This particular cake gets its incredible moisture from the addition of reduced coconut milk*, which is also highlighted in the rich buttercream frosting. Vanilla beans delicately scent both the cake and frosting, and give a lovely speckled finish from the tiny vanilla seeds.

They were perfect for my mom’s birthday party. Happily aglow with their birthday candle adornment, they needed nothing more than a quick happy birthday serenade and a birthday wish before we could dive in. Of course, we ate them outside in the garden, as is the requirement of all coconut cakes (or at least that’s how it is in my overly-romanticized mind) beneath strands of twinkling bistro lights, and amidst terracotta pots of rosemary, mint, and thyme, the air scented by the herbs and night-blooming jasmine. It may not have been a southern veranda, but it in my little corner of the world, it was pretty great.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Vanilla Bean-Coconut Cupcakes with Coconut Frosting
From Epicurious.com, originally printed in Bon Appetit, April 2009
Yields: 12 large cupcakes

Cupcakes:

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • Seeds scraped from 1 split vanilla bean or 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup reduced coconut milk (see above), room temperature

Frosting:

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup reduced coconut milk (see above), room temperature
  • Seeds scraped from 1 split vanilla bean or 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut, lightly toasted (for garnish)

*For reduced coconut milk:

Bring coconut milk to boil in large deep saucepan over medium-high heat (coconut milk will boil up high in pan). Reduce heat to medium-low; boil until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, stirring occasionally, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat; cool completely. Transfer to small bowl. Cover; chill (coconut milk will settle slightly as it cools). DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled.

For cupcakes:

Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 350°F. Line eighteen 1/3-cup muffin cups with paper liners. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar; beat on medium-high speed until well blended, about 2 minutes. Add 2 eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition and occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Beat in seeds from vanilla bean and remaining egg. Add half of flour mixture; mix on low speed just until blended. Add 1 cup reduced coconut milk; mix just until blended. Add remaining flour mixture; mix on low speed just until blended. Divide batter among muffin cups. Bake cupcakes until tops spring back when gently touched and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Transfer cupcakes in pans to rack; cool 10 minutes. Carefully remove cupcakes from pans and cool completely on rack.

For frosting:

Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Add sugar, 1/3 cup reduced coconut milk, seeds from vanilla bean, and salt. Beat on medium-low speed until blended, scraping down sides of bowl. Increase to mediumhigh and beat until light and fluffy.

Using pastry bag fitted with large star tip, pipe frosting onto cooled cupcakes. (Alternatively, top each cupcake with 2 tablespoons frosting. Using small offset spatula, swirl frosting over top of cupcakes, leaving 1/2-inch plain border.) Sprinkle with coconut. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Store in airtight containers; chill. Bring to room temperature before serving.

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