Building on the warm flavors of traditional carrot cake—existing somewhere between health food and decadent dessert—the once-popular tropical version adds coconut, pineapple, dried fruit (papaya, mango, or raisins), and macadamia nuts.
Element of Distress
We were hard-pressed to identify anything resembling a tropical flavor using traditional recipes. The texture was even worse; while a regular carrot cake can be made soggy by the carrots and oil, tropical carrot cake compounds the problem by adding juicy pineapple. And the dried fruit and nuts made the cake too heavy, like bad fruitcake.
Line of Attack
We would make a light, moist cake with predominant flavors of coconut and pineapple—and say farewell to the nuts and dried fruit.
We wanted this cake to go absolutely loco for coco… but where to begin? Toasting the coconut improved the flavor incrementally, but it made the stringy bits even tougher. Then our minds wandered (as it does often) to other strategies, and we fixated on the idea of infusing sugar with flavor, like one does when using vanilla pods to make vanilla sugar. After mixing shredded coconut and sugar in a food processor and creating a sweet hybrid coconut sugar, we were delighted to discover the stringy texture was gone, and the grinding extracted maximum coconut flavor. But big coconut-iness alone wouldn’t be enough.
We were certain that a single bite of our perfected cake would immediately conjure up thoughts of mini cocktail umbrellas, cabana sarongs, and turquoise tides. (You know, thinking conservatively.) Therefore, to complete the pina colada effect, we’d also need to amp up the flavors of pineapple.
We had to call ixnay on pureed canned pineapple—too watery—and frozen pineapple chunks alone were weak on flavor. However, during testing we stumbled on the magical formula: Frozen pineapple juice concentrate mixed with pureed frozen pineapple, cooked down with a little cornstarch to evaporate excess moisture to create an intense pineapple pudding. Incorporating the pudding in the mix made for a cake that was not only extremely pina colada-y, but also super fluffy. Win-win.
To push the el tropical fervor over the edge, we also doctored up the cream cheese frosting with said pineapple pudding (it worked like a charm) and pressed toasted coconut into the sides and on top of the cake.
Goodbye, dreary fruitcake. Hello, sunshine.