I don’t think I’m alone in declaring January to be low on the totem pole of “favorite months.” By now, the post-holiday blues have set in, the weather is cold and gray (and snow doesn’t seem quite as magical), and there’s not too much to look forward to on the calendar year for a while (Valentine’s Day doesn’t count, in my opinion). As someone who isn’t big on resolutions, I’m also never thrilled with the barrage of messaging about “clean eating” and “lifestyle changes” that the beginning of the year inevitably brings. All of which is to say that as the new year begins, I’m craving a cake that will channel the sunny, warm vibes I need here in my New York kitchen. And that’s where this bright and bold — and easy — Key lime snack cake comes in.
Bottled Key lime juice is a star here (no, it’s not just for pie), and while you can substitute regular lime juice if you can’t get your hands on the Key lime variety, you’ll definitely miss out on the latter’s sweet-tart zippiness. The rest of the recipe is pretty standard, and relies on ingredients you probably already have, but the resulting cake is anything but run of the mill. While I originally wanted to incorporate the traditional elements of a Key lime pie, like condensed milk and graham crackers, I ended up taking things in a slightly ~spicier~ (and more exciting) direction by spiking the cream cheese frosting with cayenne pepper. The heat is subtle, but comes through at the end of each bite, and meshes well with the overall profile of the cake. (That said, if spice isn’t your thing, feel free to omit the cayenne. If you do, you may want to add a pinch of salt to temper the frosting’s sweetness.)
Overall, this is a cake that serves as an antidote to the dreary weather and a delicious way to combat post-holiday “project baking” fatigue — we’re talking a simple square pan, minimal assembly, and zero juicing. I’m already counting down the days to warmer weather, longer days, and my next trip, but I’m not too fussed that this fun, tangy cake will keep me company in the meantime.
Key Lime Snack Cake with Cayenne-Spiked Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes one 8-by-8-inch cake
For the Key lime cake:
1 ¼ cups (175 grams) all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
Zest of 1 lime (optional, but adds more zing)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
A generous ⅓ cup (90 grams) full-fat sour cream, at room temperature
½ cup bottled Key lime juice
For the cream cheese frosting:
4 ounces full-fat cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
2 ½ cups (278 grams) powdered sugar
For the topping:
Toasted unsweetened shredded coconut
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-by-8-inch square cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom with parchment paper, leaving a two-inch overhang on the sides (to make it easier to remove the cake after baking), and grease the parchment.
Step 2: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until combined. Set aside.
Step 3: In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric hand mixer or in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until smooth. Add the sugar and lime zest and cream the mixture until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Step 4: Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition, until combined. Add the vanilla and sour cream and beat until the mixture is smooth and uniform.
Step 5: Add half of the dry ingredients to the bowl and beat just until combined. Carefully beat in the Key lime juice, then add the rest of the dry ingredients and beat until the batter is smooth. Take care not to over mix.
Step 6: Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a small offset spatula. Bake the cake for 40-50 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Step 7: Let the cake cool in the pan for 15-20 minutes, then gently run a small offset spatula around the edges to loosen. Using the parchment sling to assist, transfer the cake to a rack to cool completely.
Step 8: Make the cream cheese frosting: Using an electric mixer or stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl until smooth. Beat in the cayenne pepper. Gradually add the powdered sugar (to prevent a mess) and beat until the frosting is creamy and comes together.
Step 9: Spread the frosting on top of the cooled cake (you may not use all of the cream cheese frosting) and sprinkle with toasted coconut to finish.
Joy Cho is a freelance writer, recipe developer, and pastry chef based in New York City.
Celeste Noche is a Filipino American food, travel, and portrait photographer based between Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep