When my oldest daughter, Isabelle, was about three, she and I made a lemon tart together to bring to a family gathering. We mixed and rolled dough, twiddled our thumbs as we waited for it to chill, pressed it into the pan just so, and cooked a luscious Meyer lemon curd to pour into the shell.

The result was a camera-ready tart of which she was so proud, she insisted on carrying it to the car. I placed the tart, still in its protective tin, in her sturdy little hands and advised her to take care so as not to upset the delicate crust. Isabelle marched confidently outside, holding up the tart for me once she’d arrived, at which time I took in the damage: her tiny thumbs has smashed the edge of the tart beyond repair and were sunk deep into the curd. She was none the wiser, but the perfectionist in me was as crushed as my crust. Barely able to keep my wits about me, I did manage to see the lesson in it all: First, don’t trust a toddler with pastry. Second, if you’re going to cook with your kids, don’t be too tied to the outcome.

This Coconut Carrot Cake is just the right sort of baking project to tackle with little ones underfoot. Make them layer cake style, or if it’s Easter season, get playful and do them up in the shape of a bunny. Both the baking and decorating are far more forgiving than pastry, and imperfection is part of the appeal in a cake like this: If the icing isn’t smooth, or the bunny ears cockeyed, it will be no less charming (or delicious).

I started making Easter cakes when I was a kid; a ritual that has continued with my own family. If you don’t celebrate the holiday, consider making it anyway… after all, who doesn’t love cake? or bunnies?

Although these cakes are a long-held tradition, this particular recipe is new to me, one I found in Marisa Churchill’s pretty new baking book, Sweet & Skinny. A professional pastry chef and former Top Chef contestant, Marisa applies her considerable skill toward making delectable, low-fat desserts. Her enviably slender shape is the book’s best advertisement.

Carrot cake seems like a natural for a rabbit-shaped confection, although it’s notoriously caloric (don’t be fooled by those carrots). This recipe, however, cleverly swaps out most of the oil, whole eggs, and some of the sugar for yogurt, crushed pineapple, and egg whites. Neufchatel cheese is the base for the frosting, an ingredient that is naturally about 1/3 of the calories of conventional cream cheese. The result is truly a delicious cake that doesn’t taste a bit like any corners were cut in the fat and calories department.

Once you’ve baked and cooled the cake, it’s time for the fun: assembling your bunny. This is when you need to take a step back and hand over the frosting. Give your kids a little room to play. They will make mistakes, want to lick everything, and yes, may indeed stick their tiny thumbs deep into your baked perfection.

Just don’t let them carry it out to the car.


 

LIGHTER COCONUT CARROT CAKE (for Easter or Any Day)

This Coconut Carrot Cake is just the right sort of baking project to tackle with little ones underfoot. Make them layer cake style, or if it's Easter season, get playful and do them up in the shape of a bunny. Both the baking and decorating are far more forgiving than pastry, and imperfection is part of the appeal in a cake like this: If the icing isn't smooth, or the bunny ears cockeyed, it will be no less charming (or delicious).

Ingredients

Cake

  • Oil or butter and all-purpose flour for greasing the pans
  • 1/2 cup raisins, golden or dark
  • 1/2 cup walnut pieces
  • 1/3 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
  • 2 cups crushed pineapple packed in juice, drained, liquid reserved
  • 2 cups very finely shredded carrots (about 2 medium carrots)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup liquid egg substitute (such as Egg Beaters)
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons plain Greek-style nonfat yogurt
  • 1/4 cup canola oil

Frosting and Decoration

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 4 ounces Neufchatel cheese or light cream cheese
  • 4 tbsp butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest and lemon juice
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 3 pieces black licorice and several jelly beans for garnish

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. with a rack in the center position. Coat the bottom and sides of two 8- or 9-inch cake pans with butter or oil and lightly coat with flour, tapping out the excess.
  2. Put the raisins in a bowl and cover with hot tap water. Let stand for 5 minutes to plump, then drain and set aside.
  3. Chop the nuts into pea-size pieces and mix with the raisins, carrots, drained pineapple, and coconut in a medium bowl; set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk together the 2 cups all-purpose, whole wheat flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
  5. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg substitute, yogurt, oil, and 1/3 cup of the reserved pineapple juice until smooth (reserve any remaining juice for another purpose or discard).
  6. Whisk the egg mixture into the flour until the batter is thoroughly combined. Fold in the carrot mixture with a rubber spatula until well distributed.
  7. Pour and spread the cake batter evenly into the prepared pans and bake until a knife inserted into the center comes out with no more than a few crumbs clinging to it, 30 to 40 minutes. If the top browns before the cake is done, tent a piece of foil lightly over it for the remainder of the baking time.
  8. Cool the cake in the pans on a wire rack for 30 minutes. then invert the cakes and cool them right side up directly on the rack (2 to 3 hours). The cake can be stored at room temperature, tightly wrapped in plastic film, for up to 1 day before frosting.
  9. To prepare the frosting, in a medium bowl, beat the powdered sugar, cream cheese, butter, lemon zest, and lemon juice with electric mixer at low speed until combined, then increase the speed to medium for another 2 minutes, until the frosting is free of lumps. (If using a standing mixer, use the paddle attachment.) The frosting can be kept refrigerated, tightly covered, for up 2 days; whisk to smooth before using.

  10. To finish, cut 2 ear shapes into one of the cakes with a bow tie shape in the center (as pictured below).
  11. On a large serving platter or cutting board, arrange the bunny face by perching the 2 ears atop of the remaining cake round. Put the bow tie beneath the round (also pictured below).
  12. Frost the cake generously and sprinkle the coconut evenly over the surface. Decorate the face of the bunny as you wish using black licorice cut into thin strips for whiskers and a mouth, and jelly beans for eyes, nose and any decorations desired on the bow tie.
  13. Serve immediately or refrigerate, tightly covered with plastic film, for up to 3 days.

Recipe Notes

Recipe printed with permission by Marisa Churchill from her book Sweet & Skinny (Clarkson Potter, 2011)

 

Recipe lightly adapted and used with permission from Marisa Churchill. The original recipe is published in Sweet & Skinny (Clarkson Potter, 2011). Featured coconut cake photo by Cobraphotography/Shutterstock