Active time:30 mins
Total time:3 hours 30 mins
Servings:12 to 14 (makes one 8- or 9-inch cake)
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“Especially in the Black community, there’s going to be a coconut cake on that table if there’s some gathering. It’s one of those desserts that’s held in high esteem,” Day says. “A big memory for me are the tables when I would go see my grandmother and how the cakes would just be displayed in such grandeur.”
Though she grew up in Los Angeles, Day spent her summers in Alabama with her grandmother since around the age of 8, and coconut was one of the first cakes she learned to bake. These sorts of layer cakes are “something that we’re so known for in the Black community,” she says. “In my family, you would always look forward to whoever was making that cake,” because each person’s cake had its own unique flair.
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Coconut cake connects writer and cookbook author Nancie McDermott to her grandmother, too. Born in the 1880s, McDermott’s grandmother was famous for her coconut cake in the region of North Carolina where she lived, and it was what she gave each of her four daughters for Christmas each year, a labor of love. “It’s just always been a shorthand for special and celebration — I guess because it’s so much trouble,” McDermott says.
So how did this confection starring a tropical ingredient — a dessert that conjures feelings of nostalgia and connection for so many — enter the American cake canon?
The history of coconut cake
“Most coconuts belonged to one of two genetically distinct groups. One population traces back its ancestry to palms on the coasts of India, the other group descended from palms in Southeast Asia,” Lucas Brouwers wrote in Scientific American. Eventually, coconuts made their way to the “southern American colonies, arriving as whole mature coconut on trade ships bringing sugar, spices, and slaves from the Caribbean,” according to “Cooking with Coconut” by Ramin Ganeshram.
“Coconut has been a specialty ingredient in American kitchens since the colonial era,” McDermott wrote in The Charlotte Observer. “A recipe for Cocoa Nut Puffs appears in ‘A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry,’ published in South Carolina in 1770.”
Coconut’s use as the main ingredient in cakes seems to have come some years later.
“Coconut cakes have long been associated with the South, and they were baked in New Orleans and Charleston in the early 1800s,” Anne Byrn wrote in “American Cake.” Toni Tipton-Martin’s “Jubliee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking” cites the confection as the prize for cakewalk competitions in the South before the Civil War.
Tipton-Martin wrote: “At the end of an evening of strutting, twirling canes, and tipping top hats, a prize was presented to the winning couple, ‘a towering, extra sweet coconut cake,’ Eliza Diggs Johnson, who was born on a Missouri plantation, recalled. … Like so many things associated with plantation social life, coconut cake eventually became a centerpiece of African American special occasions, reserved for weddings, funerals, church suppers, and Christmastime.”
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The first known printed recipe comes from “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,” published in 1881. One of the first cookbooks by an African American author, it doesn’t explicitly have a recipe for the confection, but it does include one for “jelly cake,” which instructs the reader to spread orange marmalade (homemade, obviously) between cake layers, cover it with an icing made from egg whites and powdered sugar, and “then take one teacup of fine grated cocoanut and sprinkle over cake while icing is soft.” ( “Cocoanut” and “cocoa nut” are alternate spellings that appear in historical texts.)
Other early printed recipes appeared in “The Blue Grass Cook Book,” compiled by Minnie C. Fox with an introduction by John Fox Jr. — with many of the recipes attributed to African American cooks — and first published in 1904. (A recent edition published in 2005 features a new introduction by Tipton-Martin.) “Mountain Cake” features layers of cake and what appears to be a meringue frosting coated in coconut (making it resemble a snow-covered mountain).
The book also includes a recipe for “Cocoanut Filling,” which instructs the cook to “follow the recipe for boiled icing; spread on cakes with fresh, grated cocoanut sprinkled thick on each layer on top and sides.” (“Boiled icing” is also sometimes called “white mountain frosting,” McDermott says, which is essentially an Italian meringue in which hot sugar syrup is whipped into egg whites.)
One must be reminded that baking a cake was a very labor-intensive effort at the time, when cooks had to whip egg whites and cream butter and sugar by hand. And for the dessert in question, it also required people to crack and grate their own coconut.
“It was a hell of a lot of trouble,” McDermott says.
For McDermott, who has an entire chapter of her book “Southern Cakes” dedicated to those of the coconut variety, her grandmother’s signature sweet was a two-person operation. McDermott talks of Christmas memories when her grandfather would be roped into the kitchen to help — “He was not seen in the kitchen unless he was eating,” she said — where he grated the coconut in the meat grinder, which created a nubby texture. (Coconuts where once available in the United States only during the winter, when they were less likely to perish on their journey from the Caribbean.)
Thankfully, shredded coconut (not to mention chemical leaveners) became commercially available at the end of the 1800s, meaning it was that much easier to enjoy this cake.
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The two men responsible for shredded coconut’s proliferation among American bakers are Leopold Schepp and Franklin Baker.
In New York City, Schepp ran an import business that brought in coffee, tea and spices, but shifted to focus on dried coconut in 1873, and his “successful techniques in preserving what had been a perishable item from the tropics brought him a fortune,” Christopher Gray wrote in the New York Times in 1991.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Baker, then a flour miller, “received a boatload of fresh coconuts as payment from a Cuban merchant for flour he shipped to Cuba” in 1894, his company’s website states. The following year, he purchased a struggling coconut business and figured out a way to uniformly shred coconut meat at scale, turning it into a product for him to promote to local housewives.
Schepp’s company seems to no longer exist, as it appears the “cocoanut man” gave away his fortune, but Baker’s legacy lives on in the blue bags of shredded coconut available in grocery aisles today, allowing people to more easily enjoy the dessert year-round.
There is no one “authentic” recipe for coconut cake. “For its base, cooks followed one of several butter cake formulas, each adapted well to all sorts of flavorings, toppings, and frostings, limited only by the baker’s imagination,” Tipton-Martin states in “Jubilee.”
The cake itself can be white or yellow (a.k.a. gold), the latter of which relies on egg yolks for color. Almond, coconut or vanilla extract are all options for flavoring. Day calls for cream of coconut in the recipe from “Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking.” For an extra dose of coconut in the batter, pastry chef and cookbook author Stella Parks triples down by using coconut milk, flour and oil in her recipe. Acclaimed pastry chef Dolester Miles includes ground toasted pecans in her renowned version.
“Basically, you just want a really moist, delicate crumb,” Day says. “I’m constantly experimenting.”
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In the recipe below, which is an update of one I developed a few years ago, I call for coconut oil, coconut milk and shredded coconut to all go into the batter. Similar to Parks, I use a mix of butter and coconut oil as the fat. Make sure to use unrefined (sometimes labeled virgin or pure) coconut oil for the most flavor.
The batter bakes into deliciously dense, moist layers. One note: Do not rely on appearances when checking for doneness, as they can be deceiving. The cake layers may still look wet on the top even though they are fully baked, so it’s important to use a skewer or cake tester. Even if the cake does spend a few more minutes in the oven, you will still be pleased with the result. But if for some reason it does dry out, some bakers brush the layers with simple syrup or coconut milk (in the case of Day) for extra moisture.
As with the cakes of yore, such as Mrs. Fisher’s jelly cake, some bakers like to include a fruit filling in the layers. For those looking for tartness, Tipton-Martin includes a lemon filling in “Jubilee,” and a pineapple filling makes an appearance in one of the seven recipes in McDermott’s “Southern Cakes.” Day is all about the coconut and combines shredded coconut, heavy cream and frosting for the filling in her recipe.
I do none of the above because a layer cake and frosting is enough work as is, but you could sprinkle some of the coconut between the layers as you’re assembling for an easy alternative.
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When it comes to covering the cake, anything white will do. In addition to the meringue-type frosting referenced earlier, ermine icing or boiled-milk frosting is another recipe that showed up in early iterations of the cake. (Day includes a version in her cookbook, “Back in the Day Bakery,” which involves cooking flour and milk in a saucepan before whipping with butter and sugar.) Miles’s version calls for a light chantilly cream. A simple American buttercream will also do the trick, or you can throw in some cream cheese, as I recommend, for some tang to balance the sweet cake. (If you are a big fan of tang, try halving the sugar in the frosting and see what you think. You can always add more.)
Last, but certainly not least, cover the cake with its namesake ingredient. You can use it straight from the bag for a more classic look, but “the most wonderful innovation in coconut cake life is toasting the coconut,” McDermott says. In doing so, the sugar in the sweetened coconut caramelizes for a greater depth of flavor, and the crisp texture it adds plays nicely with the soft and fluffy cake and frosting.
Make Ahead: Cake layers can be baked up to 3 days in advance. Allow them to cool completely before tightly wrapping and refrigerating. The cake layers may also be frozen, tightly wrapped, for up to 3 months.
Storage: Leftover cake may be stored, wrapped airtight or in a covered container, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Leftover cake can also be placed in the freezer, uncovered, until firm before tightly wrapping and storing in the freezer for up to 3 months.
NOTE: You may also bake the cakes in two 9-inch pans, but the layers will be somewhat shorter and you may need to reduce the baking time.
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- Nonstick baking spray with flour
- 2 1/2 cups (313 grams) all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
- 1 cup (240 milliliters) unsweetened full-fat coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup (170 grams) unrefined coconut oil, at room temperature
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick/113 grams) unsalted butter, softened but cool to the touch
- 5 large eggs, at room temperature
- One (7-ounce/198-gram) bag sweetened shredded coconut, divided
- Two (8-ounce/227-gram) packages full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
- 16 tablespoons (2 sticks/227 grams) unsalted butter, softened but cool to the touch
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
- One (1-pound/453-gram) box confectioners’ sugar (3 2/3 cups)
Make the cake: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Coat two 8-inch cake pans with baking spray, line the bottoms with parchment paper and set aside (see NOTE).
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a 2-cup liquid measuring cup or small bowl, combine the coconut milk and vanilla extract.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment — or, if using a hand mixer, in a large bowl — combine the sugar, coconut oil and butter. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure the mixture is evenly creamed.
Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and add the eggs, one at a time, beating until each is emulsified into the batter before adding another. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed, and after the last egg is added, mix until no streaks remain, but no longer than an additional 20 seconds, to avoid beating too much air into the batter.
With the mixer on low speed, slowly add about a third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the coconut milk mixture, another third of the flour mixture, and then the remaining coconut milk mixture, stopping to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed to make sure everything is evenly mixed. Add the remaining flour mixture and mix until just a bit of the flour mixture remains unincorporated. (The order is dry-wet-dry-wet-dry.) Remove the bowl from the mixer, add 1/2 cup (45 grams) of the shredded coconut and, using a rubber spatula, fold the batter, ensuring it is evenly mixed and no dry pockets of flour mixture or lumps remain. Do not overmix, or your cake will be dense and tough.
Divide the batter between the cake pans; each pan should get about 750 grams of batter. Using a small offset spatula or spoon, level the batter in each pan. Grasp each pan by the rim on opposite sides, lift it up about 3 inches and drop it onto the counter 2 or 3 times to release any large air bubbles. Bake in the oven for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the middle of the cakes comes out clean. (If planning to toast the coconut, keep the oven on.)
Let the cakes cool in their pans on a wire rack for 20 minutes, then run a thin knife or spatula around the edge and gently invert onto a wire rack. Remove the pans and let the cakes cool, upside-down, completely (at least 2 hours), before frosting.
Toast the coconut (optional): While the oven is still at 350 degrees, spread out the remaining coconut on a parchment-lined large, rimmed baking sheet and bake for 6 to 8 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring every 2 minutes.
Make the frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment — or, if using a hand mixer, in a large bowl — combine the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and salt. Beat on medium to medium-high speed until well combined and fluffy, about 1 minute. Turn the mixer off and add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar. Starting on low speed and increasing to medium, beat to combine, then turn the mixer off. Add the remaining confectioners’ sugar, 1 cup or so at a time, and beat, starting on low and increasing to medium, until the frosting is fluffy and is thoroughly combined, 1 to 2 minutes, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. Cover and refrigerate the frosting until ready to use, if necessary.
Assemble the cake: If the frosting has stiffened, beat it briefly, by hand or using the paddle attachment on your mixer, until it’s fluffy and spreadable. Lay one cake layer on a plate or platter and top with 1 1/2 cups of the frosting. Spread the frosting into an even layer, then top with the second cake layer. Coat the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. Coat the cake all over with the shredded coconut.
Calories: 834; Total Fat: 53 g; Saturated Fat: 38 g; Cholesterol: 152 mg; Sodium: 370 mg; Carbohydrates: 85 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 66 g; Protein: 8 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Recipe from staff writer Aaron Hutcherson.
Tested by Aaron Hutcherson; email questions to email@example.com.
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