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A luscious take on a nostalgic favourite

THE WASHINGTON POST – Coconut cake is highly revered in soul food and Southern cuisines. Associated with celebrations and gatherings large and small – Easter, cookouts and Sunday dinners – it typically features dense, moist layers of white cake coated with frosting and then covered with grated coconut.

Having existed in some form or fashion since at least the 19th Century, coconut cake is “nostalgic, but also timeless,” says baker and cookbook author Cheryl Day.

“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 eight, 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.

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 labour 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?

“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.

Here is how to whip up a delectable coconut cake.

Coconut cake is a staple of Southern and soul food cuisines, served at celebrations and gatherings. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST


Active time: 30 minutes | Total time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
12 to 14 servings (makes one nine inch cake)

Coconut cake is a staple of Southern and soul food cuisines, served at celebrations and gatherings large and small. Sometimes it is as simple as a vanilla cake coated in shredded coconut, but this recipe also includes coconut milk and oil for a coconut trifecta.

A tangy cream cheese frosting provides some relief from the sweet cake, and you can toast the coconut used to decorate the cake to give it a crisp texture and add a hint of nuttiness.

Make Ahead: Cake layers can be baked up to three 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 three months.

Storage: Leftover cake may be stored, wrapped airtight or in a covered container, in the refrigerator for up to three days. Leftover cake can also be placed in the freezer, uncovered, until firm before tightly wrapping and storing in the freezer for up to three months.

NOTE: You may also bake the cakes in two nine-inch pans, but the layers will be somewhat shorter and you may need to reduce the baking time.


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 grammes) unsalted butter, softened but cool to the touch

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon fine salt

One (1-pound/453-gramme) 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 eight-inch cake pans with baking spray, line the bottoms with parchment paper and set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a two-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, three to five 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 half 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 three inches and drop it onto the counter two or three 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 two 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 six minutes, or until golden brown, stirring every two 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 one minute. Turn the mixer off and add one 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, one cup or so at a time, and beat, starting on low and increasing to medium, until the frosting is fluffy and is thoroughly combined, one to two 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 one cup 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.