Kitchn Love Letters

Ina Garten’s Coconut Cake Was the First Recipe I Ever Baked

published Apr 7, 2023
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Someone lifting slice out of coconut cake.
Credit: Justine Lee

Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury — they’re the boxed baking mixes we know and love. But for me, the first name I knew to trust on the cardboard box belonged to none other than the contessa: Ina Garten. That’s right! In case you didn’t know, back in the early 2000’s the Barefoot Contessa brand had its own line of boxed baking mixes sold at the high-end kitchen supply store, Stonewall Kitchen. The collection included many of Ina’s classic baked goods, but only one mattered to me: her coconut cake with cream cheese frosting. 

I immigrated to the U.S. with my mom from South Korea when I was about five years old. My dad, who had already been here for a few years, always did his best to help us get acclimated but in the hours he was at work, my mom and I were left to navigate our new home. The first time we made Ina’s boxed coconut cake, it felt more or less the same as other American experiences: uncomfortable (we never baked in Korea — we didn’t even have an oven!), scary, and trying. Until it wasn’t. We followed the package instructions to the letter, and after one bite, instantly fell in love with this classic American sweet. 

Ina’s line of baking mixes unfortunately sunsetted shortly thereafter but it never left my memory. 

When I got more serious about cooking as a Korean-American teenager, I sought out the from-scratch recipe of Ina Garten’s coconut cake only to find that it was just as good and grounding as that boxed mix. The vanilla and almond-kissed cake still fragrant, tender, and speckled with coconut, while the tangy cream cheese frosting still begged to be licked off the spatula. I’ve made the recipe again and again ever since. 

Credit: Justine Lee

How to Make Ina Garten’s Coconut Cake 

Before you start to bake, bring eggs, butter, and cream cheese to room temperature, flour and line your baking pans, and measure out as many of the other ingredients as you can (sugar, milk, shredded coconut, and sifted dry ingredients).

Like a standard layer cake, you begin with a classic creaming method. Beat softened butter and sugar until pale yellow and fluffy. Crack in eggs one at a time with the mixer on low speed, scraping after each addition, then follow up with the addition of both vanilla and almond extracts. Keep the mixer on low speed, and in three parts, add in the dry ingredients and milk, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Only mix until combined, then turn off the stand mixer, fold in coconut with a spatula. Distribute the batter evenly into two pans and bake at 350°F until a cake tester comes out clean, 45 to 55 minutes. 

For the frosting, beat together softened cream cheese, butter, vanilla extract, and almond extract until combined. Finish by mixing in sifted powdered sugar until the frosting becomes smooth and creamy, but not whipped. Assemble and frost the layer cake. To decorate, sprinkle the top with shredded coconut and work around the sides of the cake to lightly press with the remaining coconut. Serve at room temperature. 

If You’re Making Ina Garten’s Coconut Cake, a Few Tips 

  • If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Since there’s a lot that goes into this cake, it’s easy to forget something unless you read the recipe carefully and plan and prep accordingly. The last thing you want is to dig into the cake and, oh no, realize you forgot to add in a crucial ingredient. Going slow also makes for a soothing bake. 
  • Almond extract is key. A lot of recipes for coconut layer cake call for coconut extract, but I really enjoy how Ina calls for almond extract because it marries with the vanilla to enhance the buttery notes of the shredded coconut.
  • Don’t overmix. At its best, the cake has a blissful balance of airiness and dense crumb with the right amount of heft. Beat the cake batter until there are some streaks of flour — you’ll have to mix some more when folding in the shredded coconut. 
  • Keep a close eye on the oven. Ina says the cake will bake in 45 to 55 minutes. But in my oven, the cakes take on a decent amount of color around the edges at the 40 minute mark.