How To Make the Best Classic Coconut Cake from Scratch

How To Make the Best Classic Coconut Cake from Scratch

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Meghan Splawn
May 6, 2018
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

My love affair with Southern-style coconut cake happened 10 years ago — just after I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and began working on a little TV show called Good Eats. My very first bite of coconut cake made me fall in love with its steep peaks of fluffy frosting, tender white cake, and halo of freshly shaved coconut.

But here's the secret: That coconut cake required several days of work from a kitchen intern (me). I vowed to someday make a coconut cake of that caliber with less fuss. Well, my friends, that day has arrived!

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Easier Coconut Cake with Tons of Flavor

I learned the most about coconut cake in the first season I worked on Good Eats. I was an intern on that particular episode and was tasked with cracking and hand-grating the coconut for each cake. Alton Brown's coconut cake recipe requires two whole coconuts — their juices drained and their meat freshly grated (by hand) and turned into both coconut cream and coconut extract. The entire process for that cakes takes about a week (the extract has to sit for several days), but the efforts are tasted in every single bite of the cake.

This recipe takes all the lessons I learned from that cake with every improvement for ease. You'll have to buy a few special ingredients — coconut extract, coconut milk, and coconut water — but you won't need to buy, crack, and shred your own coconuts, and the cake will taste just as sweet and full of coconut.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

All the Coconut You'll Need for Coconut Cake

Coconut cake requires a few ingredients you might not already have in your pantry. Here's what to grab for the most coconut-filled coconut cake.

  • Coconut extract: You'll only use 1 teaspoon total, but this is one ingredient, like vanilla extract, where quality really makes for a better-tasting cake.
  • Coconut milk: This is one ingredient you just might have already. Make sure to give the can a few good shakes before opening and a decent stir before measuring; the cream can separate from the water of canned coconut milk, and we need the homogenous mixture.
  • Coconut water: Coconut milk would ruin the texture of our coconut 7-minute frosting, but coconut water will give us the light, airy texture we desire. This is the only coconut ingredient that can be substituted — use plain water in a pinch.
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Key Steps for Coconut Cake

  • Use cake flour. Tenderness is at the heart of coconut cake, and cake flour has a lower protein content than all-purpose flour, all but guaranteeing a tender finished cake.
  • Skip the cartoned egg whites. Between the cake and frosting you'll need 11 egg whites. It is very tempting to use the cartoned egg whites instead of separating nearly a dozen eggs, but don't. I've tried and failed to produce the same fluffy cake and airy frosting with cartoned egg whites and have been nothing short of disappointed.
  • Fold whipped egg whites into the cake batter. Lofty cakes like angel food and coconut cake rely on the volume of egg whites for their height, texture, and tenderness. And folding them — that is, gently working them into the cake batter without losing all their volume — is the trickiest part of coconut cake. Here's how to get the best results: Sacrifice the first third of the egg whites by quickly and vigorously beating them into the cake batter. This will loosen up the cake batter and lessen the volume loss in the next two additions. Now gently work the remaining egg white mixture into the batter in two portions — a few streaks should remain after each addition.
  • Frost with a 7-minute icing. Seven-minute icing is essentially a Swiss meringue — just egg whites and sugar heated over boiling water until thickened — with coconut water and coconut extract added for flavor. It is prized for its marshmallowy texture, but it's also incredibly easy to make and eat.
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Frosting and Serving Coconut Cake

Once your cakes are baked and cooled, your frosting whipped, and your cake stand ready, now comes the most fun part: the frosting! The 7-minute icing is pretty sticky stuff, and just a dab will hold the first cake layer in place. Use about a cup of the frosting to fill the two cakes. The rest of the frosting can be spread on in an airy, swirly layer.

Now here's how I think you finish the very best coconut cake: Skip the sweetened angel flake coconut (that would make the cake too cloying) and go straight for unsweetened shredded coconut. Sprinkle the coconut on top of the cake and then use your filled palm to guide the coconut up the sides.

Seven-minute frosting is a little better, stiffer, and easier to cut after a quick chill, so stick the whole cake in the fridge for 30 minutes before slicing, serving, and rejoicing in the tender perfection of a job well done.

How To Make the Best Classic Coconut Cake from Scratch

Makes 1 (9-inch) layer cake; serves 10 to 12

What You Need

Ingredients

  • For the cake:
  • Cooking spray

  • 3 cups

    cake flour

  • 1 tablespoon

    baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    salt

  • 1 cup

    (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 2 cups

    granulated sugar, divided

  • 1 cup

    coconut milk

  • 8 large

    egg whites

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    cream of tartar

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    coconut extract

  • For the 7-minute frosting:
  • 1 1/2 cups

    granulated sugar

  • 3 large

    egg whites

  • 1/3 cup

    coconut water

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    cream of tartar

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    coconut extract

  • 2 cups

    unsweetened shredded coconut

  • Equipment
  • Measuring cups and spoons

  • Stand mixer with paddle attachment (optional)

  • 2 (9-inch) round cake pans

  • Parchment paper

  • Mixing bowls

  • Cake stand

  • Offset spatula

  • Electric hand mixer

Instructions

Make the cake:

  1. Preheat the oven and prepare the cake pans. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 375°F. Spray 2 (9-inch) round cake pans with cooking spray. Cut two rounds of parchment paper and line the cake pans; set aside.

  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients. Place the cake flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and whisk to combine; set aside.

  3. Cream together the butter and sugar. Place the butter and 1 2/3 cups of the sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. (Alternatively, use an electric hand mixer and large bowl.) Beat on medium-high speed until lightened in color, increased slightly in volume, and creamy looking, 3 to 4 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

  4. Add the dry ingredients, alternating with the coconut milk. Beat in the flour mixture in 3 increments and the coconut milk in 2 increments: Beat in the first 1/3 of the flour mixture on low speed until incorporated. Add 1/2 of the coconut milk and beat until smooth. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl with a spatula. Repeat adding another 1/3 of the dry mixture on low speed, followed by the coconut extract and the remaining coconut milk. Finish by beating in the remaining flour mixture until just combined.

  5. Whip the egg whites and remaining sugar. If you don’t have a hand mixer, transfer the batter to a large bowl, then wash and dry the stand mixer bowl. (If using a hand mixer, use a large bowl.) Place the egg whites, cream of tartar, and remaining 1/3 cup sugar in the bowl and whip with the whisk attachment on medium-high speed until medium peaks have formed — the mixture should hold a slightly arched peak when the whisk is removed from the mixture.  

  6. Fold the whipped egg whites into the cake batter. Here’s the hardest part of this recipe: adding the light, fluffy egg whites to the thick batter without losing their volume. Start by sacrificing some of the egg whites: Add 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter and quickly fold them into the batter to loosen it. Then work carefully to “fold” the remaining egg whites into the batter in 2 batches. Folding is gently turning a wide spatula over and then up and under the batter to incorporate, turning the bowl after each fold to incorporate evenly.

  7. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 30 minutes. Divide the cake batter between the two pans. Bake until lightly golden-brown and the cakes spring back when touched and pull away from the sides, 30 to 35 minutes.

  8. Cool the cakes. Place the cakes on a cooling rack and cool for 10 minutes. Flip the cakes out of the pans onto the rack, discard the parchment, and let cool completely, about 1 hour. If you aren’t frosting the cakes right away, tightly wrap in plastic wrap to prevent the cakes from drying out and store at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Make the frosting:

  1. Make the frosting. Bring a quart of water to a boil in a 4-quart pot. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Place the sugar, egg whites, coconut water, and cream of tartar in a heatproof medium bowl that will fit onto the pot of water without the bottom touching the water. Place the bowl over the simmering water and mix with an electric hand mixer on low speed until combined. Increase the speed to high and whip for 5 minutes — the mixture will thicken, increase in volume, and become glossy. Remove the bowl from the heat, add the coconut extract, and beat on medium speed for 1 minute. Let the frosting cool for 5 minutes before frosting.

Frost the cake and decorate:

  1. Frost the cake. Smear a tablespoon of the frosting onto a cake plate. Center one cake layer on the plate. Evenly spread 1 cup of the frosting on the cake. Top with the second layer of cake. Dollop the remaining frosting on the top of the cake and spread the cake evenly over the top of the cake and down the sides.

  2. Cover the cake with coconut. Sprinkle the coconut over the top of the cake. Then, working with a handful of coconut at a time, gingerly press the coconut into the sides of the cake.

  3. Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes before serving. Refrigerate the frosted cake for 30 minutes before slicing and serving.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: If you aren’t frosting the cakes right away, tightly wrap in plastic wrap to prevent the cakes from drying out and store at room temperature for up to 2 days.

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