There is banana bread. And there is banana cake. And though the two share many sweet traits in common, they are not at all the same thing.
Banana bread, baked in a loaf pan, is necessarily restrained – the kind of thing you feel good about eating for breakfast. Though it might have a thin glaze or sugar topping, it never has frosting. You might even spy healthful flecks of wheat germ or flaxseeds folded into the batter.
Such nods to wholesomeness have no place in a banana cake.
With towering layers covered in billowing frosting, banana cakes qualify as dessert, not breakfast – unless, of course, a sugar rush is your waking intention.
This version is most definitely a cake: a fluffy, festooned pile of shaggy coconut and caramelized, buttery banana. With their rich, round tropical flavors, coconut and banana are beautifully complementary.
The cake layers house the bananas, which are roasted until golden and syrupy before being mashed into the batter.
Roasting the bananas is a clever trick I picked up from cooks on the internet. It intensifies their fruitiness and gives them toasted, caramelized notes. Roasting also helps along bananas that are not quite ripe enough to be turned into cake – the ones with peels that are mostly yellow rather than speckled brown. While riper is always better for banana cake (and banana bread for that matter), roasting gives you a slightly wider window of banana usability.
The coconut appears in both the cake and the frosting. Fluffy and white, it is similar to a classic cream-cheese frosting, but coconut cream stands in for some of the cream cheese. Be sure to use pure coconut cream and not cream of coconut (which you’d blend into a piña colada). If you’re unsure, read the label; if there’s any mention of added sugar, it’s not the right stuff. You can also use pure, full-fat coconut milk if you can’t find coconut cream; just chill and skim the solid cream off the top.
Since this is a cake and not a quick bread, be sure to use sweetened shredded coconut rather than the unsweetened kind. Without sugar steeped into the flakes, they won’t turn golden and crunchy in the oven the way you want.
Reveling in the sweet mash-up of sugar, butter, bananas and coconut is what this cake is all about. If you’re looking for something lighter and leaner, there are plenty of salubrious banana bread recipes out there. This one’s to keep your sweet tooth in shape.
Banana-coconut layer cake
Yield: 12 to 16 servings
Total time: 2 hours, plus cooling
For the cake:
Nonstick cooking spray, for pans
6 ripe bananas, unpeeled
2 1/2 cups/213 grams shredded sweetened coconut
4 cups/512 grams all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup/201 grams granulated sugar
3/4 cup/150 grams light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup/227 grams unsalted butter (2 sticks), melted
1 cup sour cream or crème fraîche
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
For the frosting:
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut cream (see Note)
1/2 cup/114 grams unsalted butter (1 stick), cut into 1-inch cubes, softened
8 ounces/1 cup/225 grams cream cheese, cut into 8 chunks and softened
1 1/2 cups/185 grams powdered sugar
1 teaspoon coconut extract, dark rum or vanilla
Pinch of fine sea salt
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 9-inch cake pans with nonstick spray, and line bottoms with parchment paper.
2. Place unpeeled bananas on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until blackened and juices have begun to seep out, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool, then peel and set aside in a bowl. Discard peels, but add any pan juices to the bowl.
3. While bananas are roasting, spread coconut out on another rimmed baking sheet and toast in the same oven until golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes, stirring once. Set aside and let cool.
4. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
5. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix bananas (with juices) until mashed.
6. At low speed, add sugars and mix to combine. Mix in eggs, one at a time, then add butter, sour cream, vanilla extract, and lime juice. Mix in flour and 1 cup toasted coconut, mixing only until just combined. (Save remaining coconut for topping cake.)
7. Divide batter between prepared pans and bake, rotating halfway through, until top is golden and springs back, 40 to 55 minutes. Cool in pans for 10 minutes, then unmold and transfer to a wire rack. Let cool completely.
8. To prepare frosting, open can of coconut cream and scoop 1/2 cup of the solid cream off the top into a measuring cup. Remaining cream can be frozen for up to 6 months.
9. In an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter until soft and fluffy. Beat in softened cream cheese, one chunk at a time, until mixture is very smooth. Beat in coconut cream and sugar until smooth. Beat in extract and salt. If frosting seems too soft, refrigerate 15 to 30 minutes to help it set (not longer, or it may become too firm to spread).
10. Spread a little less than half the frosting over one cake layer and sprinkle with half the reserved toasted coconut. Top with second layer, spread remaining frosting on top, and sprinkle with remaining toasted coconut, leaving sides of cake bare.
Note: Make sure you use unsweetened coconut cream for the frosting, and not cream of coconut, which has added sugar. If you can’t find coconut cream, you can use substitute full-fat coconut milk. To do so, chill a can of coconut milk, then open and measure out 1/2 cup of the solid creamy top and use that as called for in the recipe.