Ultimate Coconut Cake

March 16, 2021
10 Ratings
Photo by Food52
  • Prep time 2 hours
  • Cook time 1 hour
  • Makes 1 (9-inch) cake
Author Notes

I have a serious thing for coconut. From a young age, it became one of my most craved flavors—and one of my most requested for special treats. My mom happily obliged, because she was a coco-nut, too! She used to surprise me with my favorite coconut candies—slipping one into my backpack, or leaving it on my seat in the car for me to find when she’d pick me up for school.

The real coconutty prize I always craved was a tall slice of coconut cake. You know the kind I’m talking about, I’m sure—those lofty, multi-layered beauties often found in a spinning dessert case behind a restaurant counter. Always piled high with fluffy frosting and usually more coconut of course.

For me, this is the ideal coconut cake. Soft, fluffy layers of coconut cake, filled with dense (but creamy!) coconut custard and frosted with a simple smooth icing. This style of frosting seems to be lesser known, but is so simple and easy to make. It starts with whipped butter, then sweetened condensed milk is added, and the mixture is whipped until thick and fluffy. To coconut it up, I made my own coconut sweetened condensed milk, which is thick and so flavorful (and also delicious in iced coffee or no-churn ice creams).

I like to finish this cake with flaked coconut, which serves the added benefit of covering up the frosting so you don’t have to be too precious with the decorating. Sometimes I toast it, sometimes I don’t, sometimes I use both for a natural sort of ombre finish. —Erin Jeanne McDowell

Test Kitchen Notes

Bake It Up a Notch is a column by Resident Baking BFF Erin Jeanne McDowell. Each month, she'll help take our baking game to the next level, teaching us all the need-to-know tips and techniques and showing us all the mistakes we might make along the way. Today, a very sweet lesson in all things frostings, icings, and glazes. —The Editors

What You'll Need
Watch This Recipe
Ultimate Coconut Cake
  • CAKE
  • 6 cups (720 grams) all purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups (340 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups (594 grams) granulated sugar
  • 6 large (340 grams) eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon coconut extract
  • 1 1/2 cups (339 grams) buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1 1/3 cups (151 grams) shredded unsweetened coconut
  • 1 (13 1/2–ounce/383-gram) can full-fat coconut milk
  • 3/4 cup (170 grams) heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup (28 grams) cornstarch
  • 2 large (113 grams) eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons (28 grams) unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups (141 grams) toasted coconut (sweetened or not, whatever you prefer)
  • 1 (13 1/2–ounce/383-gram) can full-fat coconut milk
  • 1 cup (198 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 pound (4 sticks/454 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon (15 grams) vanilla extract
  • 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • Flaked coconut or shredded coconut (sweetened or not, toasted or not), as needed for finishing
  1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch cake pans and line the base with parchment paper, then grease the parchment paper.
  2. Make the cake: In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon to combine. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes.
  3. Add the eggs one at a time, beating on medium speed until each is incorporated and scraping the bowl out well before adding the next addition. Add the vanilla and coconut extract and mix to combine, 30 seconds more.
  4. Add half of the flour and mix on low speed to incorporate. With the mixer running, add the buttermilk in a slow, steady stream and mix to fully combine. Scrape the bowl well, then add the coconut and mix to combine.
  5. Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans and spread into an even layer. Transfer to the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.
  6. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then run a spatula around the outside edge and invert onto a cooling rack to cool completely.
  7. Make the filling: In a medium pot, bring the coconut milk and cream to a simmer. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Whisk in the eggs. When the coconut milk mixture comes to a simmer, add about 1/4 of it to the eggs while whisking constantly to temper the mixture.
  8. Add the egg mixture back into the pot while whisking constantly to combine. Continue to cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and fat bubbles appear in the center of the pot. Stir in the butter and vanilla.
  9. Strain the filling into a medium bowl and stir in the coconut. Cover directly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled.
  10. Make the frosting: In a medium pot, heat the coconut milk until it’s fluid—whisk occasionally until the solids have “melted” and it’s one uniform consistency, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the sugar and stir until fully dissolved. Bring the mixture to a simmer, reduce heat to low, and cook until the mixture is reduced by just over half. I place a spatula into the pot at the beginning of the cooking to sort of visually mark the height of the liquid, then continue to do this to check until it’s reduced properly, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely (this can be done up to 1 week ahead and held in the fridge—bring to room temp before using).
  11. When the coconut mixture is cool, place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Whip the butter on medium speed until visibly lightened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the coconut milk mixture, vanilla extract, and salt and whip for 1 to 2 minutes until well combined, very smooth and fluffy. Transfer about 1/4 of the frosting into a pastry bag and cut 1/2-inch opening from the end.
  12. Assemble the cake: Use a serrated knife to remove the domed top of the cakes, if desired, and then cut each cake into 2 layers—you should have 4 layers total.
  13. Place one layer on a cake turntable, platter, or cake stand. Pipe a ring of frosting around the outside edge of the cake. Use an ice cream scoop (about 1/4 cup in size) to scoop 4 scoops of filling into the center and spread into an even layer. Place another layer of cake on top, and repeat this process—continue until you’ve used all the filling and layers.
  14. Apply a thin all over “crumb coat” of the frosting, and chill the cake for 10 to 15 minutes. Frost the cake with the remaining frosting, and press coconut into the frosting all over the cake.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • FoodForThought
  • Lynne Cashley
    Lynne Cashley
  • Lena B
    Lena B
  • chowter
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!

9 Reviews

FoodForThought June 5, 2022
Worst instructions ever.
michelle April 5, 2022
I really wish I had read the reviews before starting. It seems there are at least a few major editing issues, as I had some of the same problems as the other commenters.
1. The custard is delicious as written (I actually used the custard alone as one of the fillings in a chocolate cake several months ago, and it was lovely).
2. The homemade condensed coconut milk is a great idea for adding coconut flavor without adding too much extra liquid.

1. The baking time seemed noticeably inaccurate as written, which is not great if you're on a tight schedule. I baked it in two 8-inch pans and two 6-inch pans, partly because of the design I had in mind and partly hoping it would speed up the baking time (since the batter was spread over a larger surface area), but it still took longer than the instructions indicated. Also, the layers came out quite tall, so I'm not surprised one of the other commenters mentioned that two (presumably 9-inch) pans weren't sufficient to contain the batter.
2. It seems like there must be a typo in the frosting ingredients. I was a little wary of the high butter-to-sugar ratio, but hoping that somehow, in the process of condensing the coconut milk, maybe the sweetness would intensify. In the end, it didn't, and the frosting still tasted like barely sweetened butter. I really like extra salt and less sugar in my desserts, and even I thought it could use quite a bit of extra sugar. I added a few cups of powdered sugar, trying to get a more normal frosting texture and flavor, and it still tasted like lightly sweetened butter. In the end, I set aside about two thirds of the butter, added some more powdered sugar and two blocks of cream cheese to make a coconut cream cheese frosting (and will figure out something to do with the leftover butter). That said, although the improvised frosting wasn't the sturdiest out there, it turns out cream cheese frosting goes well with the cake, and everyone really enjoyed it.

1. The cake and custard also pair well with passionfruit curd (but would be best assembled on site, as the passionfruit curd is a bit slippery)
2. I think chowter's idea of soaking the layers in lime syrup was definitely a good call (the cake could have benefited from a bit of extra moisture, and the acidity of the lime sounds like it would play well off the cake and custard)
Lynne C. March 31, 2021
I loved the cake, but I felt you had to increase the time for baking . My cakes were not fully baked in 35 minutes. It was a very coconut tasting cake. Delicious.
Lena B. January 10, 2021
Did anyone else have major issues with the frosting? It feels like it may be missing an ingredient because the frosting tasted like (and essentially is) slightly sweetened butter. I understand cake and frosting aren’t healthy, but it was neither tasty nor appropriate to just be slathering sweetened butter on top of a cake! Butter is not a frosting!
Lena B. January 10, 2021
Did anyone else have major issues with the frosting? It feels like it may be missing an ingredient because the frosting tasted like (and essentially is) slightly sweetened butter. I understand cake and frosting aren’t healthy, but it was neither tasty nor appropriate to just be slathering sweetened butter on top of a cake!
chowter September 5, 2020
I made this last weekend and loved it! Every component of this cake is delicious. I soaked the cake layers with a lime syrup, it went well with all the coconut flavor.
Baker I. August 22, 2020
Love this recipe but it does need some editing as there were a few places where the next step is missing. For example, when do you add the second half of the flour? What about the coconut filling? I figured it out and the cake was delicious but it could be written so as to be easier to follow.
Cecilia January 27, 2021
I too felt it was incomplete & had major issues with frosting. 2 cake pans weren't sufficient but cake & filling were delicious.
ac.ledesma April 9, 2021
I HAD THE SAME QUESTIONS ABOUT THE OTHER HALF OF FLOUR! My cakes seemed as if they didn't have enough gluten to support themselves; they came out flat. I'm going to try again using all of the flour.