Recipe: Southern Coconut Layer Cake

by Nealey on June 5, 2012

First and foremost, let me just start by saying this coconut cake is my masterpiece. But it didn’t come easy. What you see here took lots (and lots) of licked fingers, too many slices to count, and a few more tears than I’d like to admit.

It all started out simply enough, when I decided to surprise Walt with an impromptu 30th birthday party on a particularly nondescript Sunday afternoon. In years past, the menus have been very much the same and always include my “famous” chocolate chip cookie cake. But milestones are milestones (no matter how hard we try to avoid them) and deserve something a bit more over the top. I took it upon myself to whip up the most impressive, most irresistible, most Southern cake I could think of—the one and only coconut cake.

To get started, I needed to do my homework. (It should be noted that when I take on a project like this, I demand perfection.) I trolled the many reputable food websites and culled through all of my cookbooks. I compared and contrasted and left no stone unturned. The sheer amount of recipes available to me was overwhelming, but I persevered and marched into battle ready to bake.

Unfortunately, all the research in the world does not guarantee a perfect cake. I learned this the hard way. I made a costly impulse decision, putting my usually hard-earned trust in the hands of a yet unproven cookbook (by a famous Southern chef, no less!), when I should have followed my instinct and chosen a more reputable source. Just ask Walt. Because he’s the one who found me sitting alone and defeated on the kitchen floor, black streaks of mascara the only remaining proof of the tears I had shed. Three sullen, sunken cake layers glared down at me from the counter, a bittersweet reminder of how much I still have to learn.

I spent the next few hours feeling beaten up and broken down. I’m a pretty chill girl, but for some reason mistakes in the kitchen get me and they get me good. And it’s cakes that always pack the hardest punch, it seems. So I decided to sleep on it. I knew a little rest would ease the pain, and then with the party only hours away I wouldn’t have too much time to sulk, anyways.

It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do. I woke up ready to bake, armed with a new recipe in hand. This time I went straight for Cook’s Illustrated, which never lets me down in a moment of need. Sure enough, two golden, flat, and damn near perfect cake layers emerged from the oven safe from harm’s way. Talk about a huge sigh of relief!

The final product was a piecemeal of recipes: a Food & Wine buttercream and a Martha cream cheese frosting. I even salvaged one cake layer from the previous day’s disaster, which yielded a triple-stacked Southern beauty. My tragic coconut cake had gone from ugly ducking to beautiful swan in almost an instant.

Of course one of the major conversation starters at the party was coconut-gate 2012. But all the drama was forgotten as soon as it was time to blow out the candles and cut into the cake. The silence from my guests seemed to be a good sign. I took one bite and must admit that even I was impressed. (And I really am my worst critic, you know.) It was so good, in fact, that I didn’t even get a moment to snap a blog-worthy photo, because every last slice was gone in the blink of an eye.

Since this recipe was too good not to share, I’m giving y’all a dessert encore, however this time around I made the recipe my own. I think you’ll very much like the changes. Of course, three cakes in as many days is a lot for anyone—I’m going to need a short break from all things coconut, piña coladas not included. I truly hope you enjoy this coconut cake as much as Walt and I did. It was definitely a labor of love, but worth every single second of blood, sweat, and even those pesky tears.


I developed the base recipe of this 3-layer coconut cake after too-many-to-count hours of baking research, in addition to my previous testing using versions from both Cook’s Illustrated and Bottega Favorita. It is a fairly traditional butter cake steeped with lots of extra coconut flavor, and yields a dense, super-moist crumb. The filling, which I adapted from Martha Stewart via Charleston’s Peninsula Grill, is nothing short of spectacular. I think I went into shock from deliciousness upon my first taste from the bowl. Next time I’ll probably double the recipe—half for the cake and half for me. The frosting contains both butter and cream cheese; it has a slightly thicker texture than the filling and adds just a bit more tang. And last but not least, a coconut cake isn’t a coconut cake without a cozy blanket of sweetened, shredded goodness. This cake must be the taste of heaven!

Source: Nealey Dozier, adapted from Cook’s Illustrated and Martha Stewart
Yields: 16 or more slices

For the cake layers
1-1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
13-1/2 ounces cake flour (approximately 3-1/4 cups, spooned and swept)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
1-1/4 teaspoons table salt
1 (13-1/2 ounce) can coconut milk
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons stirred, sweetened cream of coconut (such as Coco Lopez)
5 egg whites
1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1-1/2 teaspoons pure coconut extract
10-1/2 ounces granulated sugar (approximately 1-1/4 cups, spooned and swept)
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 large eggs

For the coconut filling
1-1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, cubed
1-1/4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
Pinch of kosher salt

For the coconut frosting
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese
2 teaspoons pure coconut extract
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
1 (16 ounce) box confectioners’ sugar
3 cups sweetened shredded coconut plus more as needed, for garnish

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously coat 3 (9-inch) round cake pans with shortening and flour the pan, discarding the excess. (I use Baker’s Joy, a shortening spray with flour added. It’s fabulous!)

Place shredded coconut in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until very finely chopped.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the chopped coconut, flour, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk the coconut milk, cream of coconut, egg whites, vanilla, and coconut extracts until completely blended.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the sugar and butter on high speed until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low and beat in the three whole eggs, one at a time, until well combined. Add the flour mixture, alternating with the coconut milk mixture, to the creamed butter, starting and ending with the flour.

Divide batter equally into the three prepared pans (I use a kitchen scale for accuracy). Bake the layers until they are light golden and set, and come out clean when pricked with a toothpick, approximately 35 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pans for 15 minutes. Cut around the edges with a pairing knife and remove the cakes to wire racks. Cool completely before moving forward with the recipe.

For the filling: Place shredded coconut in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until very finely chopped. Set aside.

In a medium to large saucepan, bring butter, cream, and sugar to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and sugar completely dissolved.

Meanwhile, whisk the cornstarch, water, vanilla bean paste, and a pinch of salt together in a small bowl, then stir the mixture into the saucepan with the cream mixture. Bring cream back to a boil, stirring constantly. Once the mixture returns to a boil, cook for an additional minute or so, until just thickened.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the chopped coconut. Continue stirring for another minute or so to release some of the heat. Transfer the filling to a mixing bowl and cool at room temperature for an hour. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill, stirring occasionally, until cool, 3-4 hours (or overnight).

When ready to assemble the cake, beat the chilled filling with a handheld mixer on high speed until thick, light, and fluffy, approximately 1-2 minutes.

For the frosting: Place butter and cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with a hand mixer) and beat on medium speed until light and creamy. Turn mixer on low and add coconut extract and vanilla bean paste, followed by the confectioners’ sugar. Continue beating until smooth, about 3 minutes.

To assemble the cake: Place one cake layer on a large plate or cake stand and coat with half of the coconut filling. Add the second cake layer and cover with the remaining coconut filling. Add the third cake layer. Frost the top and sides of the cake with a crumb coat of coconut frosting, followed by thicker layer. Thoroughly cover the frosted top and sides of the cake with shredded coconut, pressing gently to adhere it to the cake.

Kitchen tip: I recommend breaking this cake into steps—at least baking the cake layers ahead of time. The layers can be made up to three weeks in advance. If making two days in advance or less, just wrap each individual layer tightly in plastic wrap and tuck into a large Ziploc bag. Store the cakes on the counter at room temperature. To store the layers longer than two days (and up to three weeks), wrap a layer of aluminum foil around the layer of plastic wrap before freezing. Allow layers to thaw to room temperature before continuing with the recipe. The frosted cake will keep three or four days in an airtight container.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

meghan June 5, 2012 at 7:35 am

Damn girl! This cake looks beautiful.

I’m sure you’ll get some flack for using cream cheese in your frosting, but I’m thinking cream cheese and coconut are a dream team.

Congrats on this achievement and happy 30th to Walt!

Now I’m inspired to try conquering the Caramel Cake again.


Sarah June 5, 2012 at 8:22 am

I had a very similiar experience with making macarons. It only took 7 batches to perfect. My fiancee has made it very clear that, “he is good on Macarons for awhile.”
I would love to try this recipe, only problem is nobody in my family likes coconut. Maybe I’ll make a smaller batch and turn them into cupcakes!


Sara June 5, 2012 at 11:55 am

This cake looks gorgeous! I’m sorry it took so much drama to produce, but it looks like it was worth the effort.


Sarah June 11, 2012 at 7:38 am

Hi Nealey,
Just wanted to let you know that I tried this recipe but I changed it up a little bit by making them into cupcakes. They turned out fantastic. Thanks for going the through the trouble and sharing!


Amelia Saltsman June 12, 2012 at 4:04 pm

There is nothing more irresistible to me–in the cake department–then a tender coconut layer cake. Was I Southern in a previous life? Your photos capture everything that tempts me when it comes to this yumminess. And your trials and tribulations make me believe utterly that your recipe is the one to use! Thanks for bushwhacking the trail!


Natasha July 10, 2012 at 8:02 am

Holy night!! My grandmother used to make coconut cake for my dad on his birthdays. Although we have most of her recipes, this one was lost, and I haven’t been able to find anything that matches it. But your cake looks so close to my grandmother’s–perhaps a bit more impressive actually. I am definitely going to try it. Thanks for sharing!!


Nealey July 10, 2012 at 9:38 am

Homemade Coconut Cake definitely equals LOVE! If you make it, be sure to come tell me about your experience.


Sarah July 12, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Hey Nealey,
Good to see you back. Can’t wait to read more posts.
This is my experience with the recipe.


Charles Goines April 6, 2013 at 7:17 am

Every Friday night I try to bake something to take to a dance. I am the most unlikely person to find in a kitchen, but following directions accurately helps me get through life. I am a Civil Engineer with an extraordinary background who was dumped by the USDA for being a whistleblower. I want to do things right and making this cake is an open invitation to do a good job and do it right. No shortcuts! I feel good about myself when I do something right. So, between now and Friday I will be working toward that big smile I get when I bake something that comes out right. Thanks for the challenge!


Nealey April 8, 2013 at 8:57 pm

I can’t wait to hear about it, Charles! Fingers crossed!


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