I got a reader email asking for help sorting out a special birthday cake, which prompted me to make this surprisingly simple coconut caramel cake the other day, and let’s just say that glossy caramel is my absolute favorite part.
I say surprisingly simple, yet I was really scratching my head there for a moment, as in this case I was asked how to make a cake using only a handful of ingredients…
This birthday cake request was for a 2 year-old nephew who has FPIES, which makes cake-crafting a big challenge.
Truthfully it was my first time hearing of FPIES (Food Protein-Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome), but after looking it up briefly I completely understood the difficulty — severe allergic reactions to difficult-to-diagnose foods is never easy to deal with, but I can only imagine how challenging and stressful that could be for infants and their parents, especially around an event like a birthday party — probably the last place where you want to start experimenting with new foods and introducing new ingredients…
The thing with FPIES is that the ingredient allergy can be vastly different from person to person. In this particular case the allowed ingredients list was tiny. Like barely there… only a handful of products to work with :o
The short approved list included:
- Carrots, apples, quinoa, coconut products (for all these products the key was that while variants of them could be used they needed to be pure and with no additives). Enjoy life chocolate chips are a-ok too.
- There is apparently a type of baking powder that might be ok and something called neocate nutra, available at a pharmacy and used as a binder, but I’ve never heard of it so gave that item a pass..
- Also red lentil pasta and cheeta puffs, but those didn’t sound very cake-able to me :) .. Otherwise this is it — that’s all there is on this kid’s menu!
I thought to see if I could just make do with what’s there, rather than seeking to expand the list any further. My thinking was — let’s find a way to keep it simple, safe, delicious, and child-approved…
Though I was given a practical range of 5 types of foods to work with, I actually only used one for this whole cake. Yep, this cake is entirely made up from coconut — top to bottom. Surprise!
When I read coconut on that list, and that things like coconut flakes, flour, sugar, syrup, mana, oil, milk and cream were all ok so long as they had no additives, I knew I was in business. It’s such a versatile ingredient that I find can really conjure up magical things — like this whole birthday cake that someone with seemingly zero cake hope could now enjoy.
So coconut was used here as the cake base, the thickener, the sweetener, the moistener, the binder, the frosting, the caramel. No added flavors or spices whatsoever. But you’d never know it. All you’ll know is that you’re about to treat yourself to some caramel cake goodness…
Surprise the second: this cake is not baked! It’s raw.
It looks and tastes pretty close to a baked cake (though the cake part is a bit more “delicate”), but requires no-baking whatsoever. I decided to go that route because of the uncertainty surrounding the permissible baking powder / soda in this case, the strange sounding other binder I already forgot the name of…, and also the fact that if you’re going to bake a gluten-free cake you typically need a bit more than just quinoa and coconut flours to make a good texture happen.
I have a lot of experience making unbaked cake-like things out of just coconut flour, so I thought it was a better way of handling this one. I actually absolutely love how it turned out. Very moist, very delicate, very cake-crumb-like in texture. Just process, shape, freeze briefly, then frost. No fuss, all the cake.
My husband, upon seeing it, said I really need to rename the blog to something like the unconventional “shaper” or “molder” or “blender”, then “decorator” …or something :) . No objections on my end, tbh. Just thinking outside the box and all is good so long as everyone has cake.
So we mostly covered the cake part, which is essentially just coconut flour, coconut sugar, and a bit of coconut cream, manna, and syrup. The coconut sugar and nectar (syrup) in the cake base impart a naturally mild caramel-y flavor.
Now let’s get to the frosting. In the photo below is an “undressed” or mid-making side shot of the cake. I played around with different ways to style the cake, including making funny little cake dough balls out of the cake base mixture, piping out various shapes on and around the cake, padding the sides of the cake with large coconut chips, and also with shredded coconut. Yep, this cake has been through a lot of “costume” changes. In the end I settled on a mostly “naked” cake with a nice layer of caramel sauce, but just wanted to share / show a working version and ideas I’ve tried for inspiration.
Ok, last but not least, the caramel sauce — it’s what makes the cake, in case you haven’t guessed it. So good, so delicious, decadent, and so just 1 ingredient: coconut syrup (aka coconut blossom nectar; not junky coconut-flavored syrup!). This stuff is liquid gold. I actually used this Aussie brand I got to sample out and it’s absolutely amazing, but I don’t think it’s available in North America. Luckily something like this would work equally well (actually there are lots of options on Amazon or at health food shops, including a raw version if you wanted to go full raw here, although I find the flavor of the raw syrup a bit more molasses-like somehow, at least from this brand).
So there you go: one seemingly impossible birthday cake, made up entirely of just coconut flour, sugar, manna, cream, and syrup. No gluten, grains, added oils, refined sugars, dairy, binders, starches, etc. And for all that, it tastes unbelievably good.
- 2½ cups coconut cream (I used nearly two 400ml cans chilled overnight, but removed ½ a cup of cream from one of them for use in the frosting first)*
- 2 cups coconut flour
- 1½ cups coconut palm sugar
- ¼ cup coconut manna (also known as coconut butter)
- ¼ cup coconut syrup (can also use coconut blossom nectar)
- ¼ cup water
- 1½ cups coconut manna
- ½ cup coconut cream (only the firm layer that you get at the top of the can after chilling it overnight in the fridge)
- ¼ cup coconut syrup
- about ⅓ cup coconut syrup
- Place all cake ingredients in a food processor and process into a uniform fine crumb mixture. Test to see if you can roll a bit into a ball with your hands (to see if it sticks together) -- if too wet, add a tiny bit more coconut flour, and if too dry, add a tiny bit more water or coconut milk, then process again.
- Take about 2 tbsp of this mixture and roll into a ball, set aside and repeat 5 more times (to make 6 balls). Place those in a parchment-lined container and freeze while working on the rest of the cake.
- Line a 6" round cake pan (or 6" springform pan, or any dish of a similar size) with parchment paper along base and sides. Transfer the remaining cake base mixture into the pan and press down as much as possible to compact. I used the back of a spoon at first, then covered the cake with a sheet of parchment and pressed down even more using a flat-bottomed object to compact the cake as much as possible and level out the top. Freeze the cake for about 1 hour (or longer).
- To make the frosting, first read the notes below for additional tips**. When ready, blend all frosting ingredients into a smooth consistency. Then bring it to the right temperature for frosting texture.
- When ready to frost, remove cake from the freezer and carefully un-mold out of the pan and parchment paper, and transfer to a serving plate. Remove a bit of the frosting into a pipping bag if you want to make shapes, otherwise frost cake top and sides as desired. Decorate with finishing touches of choice (with the frozen cake balls, piped swirls, pressing shredded coconut into the sides, etc.). Then drizzle the top of the cake with coconut syrup. Freeze the cake for another 30 mins to fully set, then serve. If not intending to serve straight away, keep the cake refrigerated (or freeze then thaw out gently to a sliceable consistency). Enjoy!
**This frosting is made up of coconut cream, coconut manna, and coconut syrup blended together. One thing that's a little tricky is that the coconut manna, which is what gives the frosting its sturdiness and which is what makes it lend itself to piping so well, is a bit temperature-temperamental.
What I mean by that is that it firms up when it touches anything cold and softens when warmed up. The coconut cream in this frosting came from a can of pure coconut cream (no guar gum or additives, as requested) which I chilled overnight in the fridge so that more of the solid cream separates and comes to the top in the process (I used the remainder of the can for the cake). What that means though is that after separating the ½ cup cream needed from the chilled can the substance was cold. So I then had to let it warm up to room temp for a bit before tossing it in the blender with the coconut manna so that its coldness doesn't make the whole thing in the blender firm up and not blend through.
Once blended my frosting was on the soft / fluffy side -- perfect if you just wanted to spread some frosting on something, but if you wanted to pipe it then it needed to chill a bit. I chilled it in the fridge for 15-20 mins and then stirred it up and it was at the perfect temperature to frost and pipe at that point.
So basically, you can control the softness / firmness of the frosting by chilling then stirring, or lightly warming up / bringing to room temp depending on how soft or firm you want it. The consistency can vary a lot depending on your room temperature, etc. so just adjust as needed based on what you're experiencing as you go.
One other thing on that note is that even when the frosting is on the soft side, because you'll be frosting a frozen cake it will firm up / set quite quickly upon contact with the cake. So try and get the smoothness / texture you want in as quick of a go as you can (don't worry, you have a few minutes!), as otherwise it will become firmer and a bit more challenging to spread. A quick tip to fix that in case you need to adjust something once it set is to warm up your spreading spatula a little before making adjustments (run under hot water for a bit to warm it up, then wipe dry and frost).