island carrot cake + toasted coconut cream cheese frosting.

Carrot cake is one of those strange desserts which resists being defined by a particular season or holiday. Sure, some people think, “oh, carrot cake…spring, bunnies, Easter!” but that’s not necessarily true, is it? Carrot cake is just as appropriate in the fall as a spice cake as it is in the spring, or summer, for that matter. How many times have you seen carrot cake at a summer wedding? And then there’s the winter carrot cake; could anything be more inviting than a plump slab of carrot cake bursting with flavor? I don’t think so. 

Carrot cake is also one of my family’s favorite cakes. It’s the cake no one has any complaints about. And we’re not terribly picky about the specific recipe, either. We’ve made sky-high, layered carrot cakes, and loaf carrot cakes without icing, all of which have been successful. Carrot cakes are like that; they’re forgiving and open to you messing with them. It’s hard to ruin one. They won’t deflate if you add too much of this, or go rock hard if you add too little of that. Carrot cakes beg you to screw around with the ingredients until you get it just the way you like it. Recently, I saw this recipe for a “tropical carrot cake,” I thought, ok. It’s January, after all, and who couldn’t use a little tropical island cake vacation? Me.

This cake is falling all over itself with ingredients. it’s got everything: pineapples, coconut, walnuts, you name it. The original recipe called for raisins, but, having none, I chose to leave them out. I can take or leave raisins, but if you love them, please: add them back in. To up the tropical-ness, I increased the pineapple and substituted some of the white sugar for brown, which I’m guilty of doing on several occasions with cake, with great results. This one was no exception.

The best thing about this cake is that it is a “no-frills” cake. and i mean it: it’s been awhile since I’ve made one of those completely homey, 13 x 9 inch pan cakes that just defy any sort of snobbishness. You can’t be fancy with this cake, and there’s something so comforting about that. You slap some frosting on it, cut it into squares, and…done.

Oh, and the other best thing: the toasted coconut frosting. Please don’t skip the coconut-toasting for the topping, because it adds such a nice texture and crunch to this cake. For the frosting itself, you have a few options with it. If you’re like me, you like a pretty straightforward frosting, which means I left the coconut extract out and let my toasted coconut do the flavor work. I loved my results. If you like a little extra tropical paradise in your frosting, add the coconut extract.

Adapted from Taste of Home’s recipe for Tropical Carrot Cake.

for the cake:

  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup canola oil
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated white sugar
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar (or dark would work also)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups finely shredded carrots
  • 1 cup raisins (optional)
  • 10 ounces (1/2 of a 20-ounce can) crushed pineapple, undrained
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup flaked coconut
for the frosting:
  • 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
  • 3-4 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
for the topping:
  • 2-3 cups sweetened shredded coconut (or more, depending on how thick you want your topping)

first, make your cake:

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Butter bottom and sides of a 13 x 9 inch Pyrex baking dish.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt together. set aside. In another large bowl, combine shredded carrots, pineapple, walnuts, coconut, and raisins (if using). Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine eggs, oil, and buttermilk, whizzing them together on medium for about 20 seconds. Add both sugars and vanilla and beat until well combined. Add flour mixture in two parts, beating after each addition until just incorporated. Once mixed, add carrot mixture, mixing on low for a few seconds. Remove bowl and use a spatula to finish stirring in until everything looks evenly mixed. Your batter will be loose; that’s ok.

Pour into prepared baking dish and bake for 45-50 minutes until cake tester comes out clean in the center. Carrot cakes are usually easy to tell: they wobble slightly in the middle until they’re done. Check after the 40-minute mark to see how much more time you’ll need. Once done, remove from oven and place on wire rack to cool.

now, make your coconut:

Keep your oven at 350˚F. On a lipped sheet pan lined with parchment paper, spread out your coconut in a thin layer. Place in the center rack of the oven and toast for about 10-13 minutes, turning once during toasting time. You’ll see the edges getting brown first, so flip the outer coconut inward when you toss it. Watch it carefully as it gets close to being finished; it should look several shades of peach to light brown. Remove from oven and let cool.

finally, your frosting:

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, and using a hand mixer (maybe it’s superstition, but I always use a hand mixer for frosting; I feel like it works best), beat until your desired consistency is reached. If you feel like it’s too thin, add a little confectioner’s sugar. If it’s too thick, thin it out with a tiny bit more cream.

Once everything has cooled (and that cake takes a good little bit to cool, so give it time or you’ll have a mess on your hands), spread your frosting out. Sprinkle toasted coconut on top, cut in squares, and enjoy.

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  • Reply Brianne January 24, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Vacation via cake indeed. This looks lovely.

  • Reply Gayle March 31, 2016 at 8:35 am

    I made this cake for Easter and OMG … sinfully delicious!!! Shared the recipe with friends and one noticed ingredient list has baking soda but directions has baking powder. Which is correct? Or should it be a combination of both? Thanks!!

    • Reply shannon April 7, 2016 at 10:49 am

      Hi Gayle! So happy you liked this cake! One of my favorites, to be sure. Good catch on the ingredient mixup: i checked the original source and it should be baking soda, all the way. So the ingredient list is correct, and i’m changing the directions to reflect that. thank you!

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