Caramel Coconut Sheet Layer Cake
There are good days and there are bad days. Some people think those are the only levels we have to work with here; I wholeheartedly disagree. There are good days, there are fantastic days -- I count myself lucky to have experienced the full range of these -- and then there are bad days.
And then there are absolutely horrendous days.
Before you go calling me a drama queen, I want to lay out the details of the horrendous day which eventually led to me baking this cake, because the cake itself is really begging to tell a story:
And although in the grand scheme of things, the day may not have been as horrendous as I'm building it up to be... in the moment of it all, I can assure you it felt that way.
We can start from the beginning (which is a very bright beginning): I landed a new job at one of the coolest tech startups in downtown Denver as a marketing copywriter. I don't think I've felt as excited or as proud in my career as I did when I was offered the position -- it's a job in a very promising industry, it's downtown in Larimer Square, which has been one of my favorite spots in downtown Denver since I visited, and it's a dream job for any English major who was an English major for the right reasons. My first week was a whirlwind of controlled chaos: 30 meetings, 60 new faces, new projects, new processes, welcome lunches and happy hours and "holiday" parties and throughout all this, I'm desperately trying to learn the jargon of a product that's a true challenge to understand, in addition to understanding how Denver public transportation works. I've found a hip, local coffee shop down the street, I've sprinted to catch the bus multiple times, I've frozen while waiting on a bus that was 45 minutes late and I've just generally felt like a working woman with a downtown job to be proud of. It's a whole new world, and along with the whole new world came a whole new laptop -- a beautiful MacBook Pro right out of the box, to be clear. I finish the first week feeling beyond exhausted and incredibly happy.
My second Monday is a success, and I make it to Tuesday, and we're almost to the end of the day when, suddenly, I have an urge to have a cup of afternoon tea. (You may already know where this is going.)
I don't even remember how it happened, but that's not important.
I do remember this horrible sinking feeling after I spilled the aforementioned cup of tea all over the new laptop. Yes, this is happening. It already happened. It's over. Paper towels, the hand-dryer, everything we could think of (we meaning myself and the angels that I work with) until there was nothing left to do but sit and await my fate.
And then the trackpad stopped working, and then the Caps Lock key stopped working. I took it to a repair shop and left it there, and on my way back home I got a speeding ticket. It's a small detail, but it was such a nice finishing touch to the day I hardly objected to it.
In the end, it was a costly repair -- but the company was amazingly gracious, told me "accidents happen" and covered the repair costs.
My family and Carson, my fiancé, know all-too-well how shame-stricken Chrissy swallows a mistake. It's really difficult to swallow. In fact, for at least the 5 following days after it happens, I won't let myself live it down. One mistake suddenly snowballs into this series of plaguing, demoralizing thoughts that I feel I deserve, when truly: this is one mistake, nobody is hurt, we will move on. I've made worse mistakes, of course -- but this one felt like the worst of them all when it happened in my second week on the new job. Regardless of the mistake, it always feels like I need to do something about it, and in this case, baking a cake just felt right.
Of course, Erin McDowell (baking muse) comes through with this marvelous recipe, which takes two of my all-time favorite flavors and combines them into an unexpected duo: coconut and caramel. The cake is this charming, fluffy batter with coconut mixed in, the frosting is a brown sugar Swiss meringue buttercream, which is a game-changer all on its own; and in between the two layers of cake sits a smooth, gooey spread of caramel, which is then topped off with toasted coconut flakes.
It was very well-received at work.
In fact, a number of co-workers walked by my desk, asking which device they could spill something on so I would bring in another cake. I really love my new job.
Be warned: This cake is quite large, and the meringue takes a very long time to cool down while whipping in the mixer. I highly recommend a stand mixer for this kind of buttercream, and if you begin to feel yourself getting lazy and tired of waiting on the meringue, power through. DO NOT cut the butter into the meringue while the meringue is still hot!
Coconut Caramel Sheet Layer Cake
For the cake:
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon coconut extract (or imitation coconut, if you can't find extract)
4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
For the filling & frosting:
7 large egg whites
Pinch of cream of tartar
2 2/3 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup water
6 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 oz caramel candies
Toasted unsweetened coconut flakes, for decorating
Make the cake: preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease a 13x18 inch baking sheet (half sheet pan) with nonstick spray and line with parchment paper. Spray the parchment paper lightly with nonstick spray, too.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar, until light and fluffy, 4-5 minutes.
Add the eggs one at a time, scraping well after each addition. Add the vanilla and coconut extracts and mix to combine.
In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt to combine.
Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the batter and mix to incorporate. Add ½ of the buttermilk and mix to combine. Repeat, adding alternate additions of flour and buttermilk until both are fully incorporated. Add the coconut and mix to combine.
Pour the batter evenly into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 25-30 minutes. While the cake is warm, run a small offset spatula or paring knife around the outside edge to loosen it anywhere it’s stuck. Cool completely in the pan.
While the cakes cool, make the buttercream. Place the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment.
Combine the brown sugar and water in a medium pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir the mixture until it begins to simmer, then stop stirring and attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pot.
If any sugar has washed up on the sides of the pot, brush it away with a pastry brush dipped in cool water. Cook the sugar mixture until it reads 235° F on the thermometer.
When the sugar reaches 235°F, begin whipping the egg whites on medium high speed. The idea is to get them to soft peaks by the time the sugar reaches 240° F.
When the sugar reaches 240°F, carefully pour it into the mixer in a slow, steady stream while the mixer is running. Continue to whip the mixture until it’s lightened in color, very thick, and the bowl is no longer warm to the touch.
Begin adding the butter to the mixer. If the meringue is still hot, the butter will just melt and the whole thing will be gloopy – so make sure it’s cooled off. Add the butter 1-2 tablespoons at a time, letting each addition incorporate before you add the next. Sometimes, the mixture will look broken about halfway through—just keep whipping, it will come around!
Add the vanilla and mix to combine. Add frosting to the top of the layer and spread into an even layer all the way to the edges.
Melt the caramel candies in a heat-safe container in the microwave until fluid. Transfer to a disposable pastry bag and cut a ¼ inch opening from the tip.
To assemble the cake, remove the cake from the baking sheet. Use a sharp serrated knife to cut the cake cleanly in half to create two rectangular layers (9 x 13 inch each).
Place one cake layer on a serving platter. Add frosting to the top of the layer and spread into an even layer all the way to the edges. Drizzle caramel from the pastry bag all over the surface of the frosting (using about half).
Place another cake layer on top and press down gently. Chill the cake for 15-30 minutes.
Apply a crumb coat to the top and sides of the cake using an offset spatula. Chill for 15-30 minutes.
Frost the top of the cake, then the sides. Remove the excess “wall” of frosting from the upper edge of the cake by swiping across the surface with the spatula.
Decorate the cake as desired – I like to press toasted coconut all around the edge of the cake, and pipe a border at the top edge using excess frosting – then drizzle the remaining caramel all over the surface of the cake! Refrigerate the cake not serving right away, but bring to room temp again before serving.