Moist Fluffy Coconut Cake

The first time we saw her years ago, we were sure she was pregnant. She was just so round and lumpy. We laughed at the rhythmic harmonic motion of her belly, which nearly swished across the ground with each step. Despite her interesting mechanics, her movement was relatively agile and quick -- perks of being feline, I guess. She was next to us in a flash, headbutting our legs and hoping for a nice ear rub.

Mike was ready to ignore her persistence and hurry into the restaurant -- our breath hung in the air, a visible testament to the frigid temperatures -- but I was predictably smitten. Her gray fur was thick against winter's chill and my fingertips, and her wide face reminded me of a chipmunk trying to manage two mouthfuls of food in one mouth. In short, as I cooed over and over while stroking her, she was sooo-oo-ooo cuuuuute. And so fat! And so sweet! And so fluffy!


speaking of fluffy...

I promised myself that if she were still prowling about after dinner, I'd scoop her up and take her to a vet. With that resolution easing my mind, Mike and I finally sat down to heaping dishfuls of fragrant red curry with hunks of pineapple and duck and -- my favorite -- a plate of colorful Pad Thai garnished with peanuts, bean sprouts, julienned carrots, and a wedge of lime. As we ate, I glanced out the window periodically for our new friend, but quickly lost sight of her. Sure enough, when we came back out of the restaurant, she was nowhere to be found. We left the restaurant stuffed but catless and a little disappointed (well, let's be honest. Mike was probably relieved.)

This past August, years after spotting the Thai Cat, as I've taken to calling her, I moved to a little apartment close to that same Thai restaurant. One warm night I tugged on my favorite orange dress and Mike and I strolled the few blocks to the restaurant to grab dinner. As we approached the door, who do you suppose we should meet but the Thai Cat herself! At this point, we learned two things about her: 1. She had not been pregnant (unless cats stay pregnant for three years) but was just exceptionally rotund. 2. She did, in fact, have owners -- in a manner of speaking.

This second point became apparent because of the ornate red collar she wore, with green accents and a jingle bell. Another clue was a shelter we found secreted away behind a thicket comprised of potted plants: a little house filled with blankets, a dish of food and water. Our chubby friend had been adopted by the Thai family who owns the restaurant! And by the looks of it, she'd been feasting on quite the array of roast duck and chicken herself. No wonder she's a pudge.

The Thai Cat doesn't have too much to do with a Coconut Cake (though no doubt she'd make short work of a slice) besides reminding me of the importance of a home. Her home and family is a bit unusual for sure -- no couch and tons of interesting strangers -- but she's happy as a plump little plum. My home's felt unusual for years. Once I wasn't living with my parents anymore and was instead bouncing around from college dorm to makeshift apartments, hopping between roommates and loneliness, I started to feel a little like dropping my own self off at an animal rescue ("Free to a good home, preferably with a ready-made family, or at least cable.") Lately, though I love my new apartment, that desire for home and family -- of some sort -- has been in the back of my mind. I'm willing to wait for God to put the pieces together for me.

In the meantime, I'll make Coconut Cake, a fluffy, moist symbol of home and family if there ever was one. A friend of Mike's family recently recalled making one for her son year after year: painstakingly grating the fresh coconut, reserving the water to soak the layers, stacking the cake, slathering on the 7-minute frosting. It's a labor of love -- a gift you present to someone, much like a red collar with green accents and a tiny jingle bell, to say, "You belong here." What represents home and family to you? One year ago: Winter Breakfast Chili Over Eggs in Sourdough Bowls Two years ago: Magic Bars Three years ago: Cinnamon Roll Cookies
Moist Fluffy Coconut Cake
Recipe by: adapted slightly from SAVEUR's associate food editor Ben Mims's grandmother, Jane Newson Yield: 10-12 servings
What can I say? It's like eating clouds. Coconutty, billowy, moist, delectable clouds. Actually, I think after having 8 (give or take a few) slices of this amazing coconut cake, clouds would be sorely disappointing.
Cake Ingredients: 16 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened 2 1/2 cups cake flour, sifted 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon kosher salt 3/4 cup buttermilk 1/4 cup coconut milk 1 tablespoon vanilla extract 2 cups sugar 5 eggs
Frosting Ingredients: 4 egg whites 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar 2 1/4 cups sugar 1/4 cup light corn syrup 1 teaspoon kosher salt 2 teaspoons vanilla extract 1/2 cup water 3/4 cup fresh coconut water 3 cups freshly grated coconut
Directions: Note: This frosting isn't supposed to keep too well, so it's best to frost the cake the day it's being served. However, to spread out the work, you can make the layers in advance. Really, I should also admit that we ate this cake for days after I made it and it stayed delicious, so while I'm sure it's best to eat it the day you frost it, I wouldn't toss the leftovers (if there are any, that is.)
Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two 9″ cake pans (I use Wilton's Cake Release), line with parchment paper rounds, and grease the parchment paper as well. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. In a separate small bowl (or measuring cup), whisk together buttermilk, coconut milk, and vanilla. Finally, in a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until pale, light yellow, and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Add in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each egg. Alternate adding the dry ingredients and buttermilk mixture with the mixer on low speed before increasing the speed to high and beating for a few seconds to smooth out the batter.
Pour the batter evenly into the two prepared cake pans, bang on the counter to remove air bubbles, and smooth the tops with a spatula. Bake until a toothpick comes out with just a few moist crumbs, about 30-35 minutes. Let the cakes cool in the pans for about 20 minutes before turning them out onto a rack to cool completely. Wrap the cake layers and freeze until firm to make them easier to manage (at least 30 minutes). Once firm, use a large serrated knife to carefully cut each cake layer in half horizontally to create four layers. Rewrap and refreeze these layers until you're ready to assemble the cake.
Make the frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment to beat the egg whites and cream of tartar together until soft peaks form. Let this sit while you boil the sugar, syrup, salt, and water together in a saucepan over high heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar and cook until a candy thermometer reads 250 degrees F, about 4-5 minutes. With the mixer on medium speed, drizzle in the hot syrup and add vanilla extract. Turn the mixer to high speed and beat until the frosting has stiff peaks and is only slightly warm, about 3 minutes.
Assemble the cake: Place one cake layer onto a platter or cake decorating turntable. Drizzle 3 tablespoons of coconut water over the cake layer and spread it around. Spoon about 1 1/4 cups of the frosting onto this layer and spread it thick, letting it spill a bit over the edges all around. Top with 1/2 cup of grated coconut. Continue layering cake layer, coconut water drizzle, frosting, and coconut. On top of the cake, drizzle the last 3 tablespoons of coconut water before covering the whole top and sides of cake with the remaining frosting. Spread it thick and billowy and use a cupped hand to lightly press grated coconut all over the surface of the cake -- it'll hide any frosting imperfections! Store cake in the fridge. Serve either chilled or after letting it sit out for about 20-30 minutes to take the chill off.
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48 Comments on Moist Fluffy Coconut Cake

  1. Kelly
    December 12, 2012 at 6:07 am (2 years ago)

    I love coconut! But the process of getting the flesh out of the coconut, peeling off that backing and then grating (or cubing) the pieces makes me shy away from making my favourite coconut desserts.

    Reply
    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      December 12, 2012 at 2:10 pm (2 years ago)

      I’mma be totally honest and admit that I used the bagged stuff — it was still delicious :) But I’d like to try grating fresh!

      Reply
  2. brandi
    December 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm (2 years ago)

    gorgeous, and what a fun story! i’m the same way with pets – i want to have them all!

    Reply
  3. Amanda @ Once Upon a Recipe
    December 12, 2012 at 5:50 pm (2 years ago)

    I could just dive right into this cake – fluffy indeed! I used to turn my nose up at coconut, but over the past couple of years I’ve developed a bit of a taste for it. Clearly…as these photos have me salivating and yearning for a slice!

    Reply
  4. Sarah
    December 13, 2012 at 1:02 am (2 years ago)

    Classic southern coconut cake. This would be perfect to hack together with a tres leches into a crazy mexican-american hybrid!

    Reply
  5. Sharla
    December 13, 2012 at 5:44 am (2 years ago)

    My mom makes me coconut cake very single year for my birthday (I ask for no more than that or I’m afraid I’ll eat the entire thing myself!)

    Reply
  6. Patricia | The Answer Is Cake
    December 13, 2012 at 11:39 am (2 years ago)

    I’m so pleased you admitted to using bagged coconut. Now I don’t have to feel like I’m cheating either!

    Reply
  7. Katherines Corner
    December 14, 2012 at 3:58 pm (2 years ago)

    Coconut is one of my favorite things! I’d love for you to link this to the favorite things bog hop at Katherines Corner. Hugs

    Reply
  8. Lisa
    December 14, 2012 at 5:32 pm (2 years ago)

    i’m really thinking about making this for christmas – looks lovely. the story about thai cat is wonderful, too!
    i hope you don’t mind the personal note: find the sense of home and equilibrium inside your heart first…

    Reply
  9. Melissa Klotz
    December 15, 2012 at 12:57 am (2 years ago)

    I love coconut cake and it also reminds me of home — we used to always get the frozen square Pepperidge Farm 3-layer coconut cake!

    Reply
  10. Ala
    December 15, 2012 at 7:46 am (2 years ago)

    I hope the holiday seasons are filled with much more family, home, and hugs! And you’ll always have us, just like we’ll have your lovely photos and thoughts. Thanks for sharing, Julie!

    Reply
  11. Laura Dembowski
    December 16, 2012 at 7:00 pm (2 years ago)

    I don’t know where to begin with this recipe. I love coconut cake and this simply looks outstanding. Seven minute frosting is probably my favorite thing I make, and yes, it does keep quite a bit longer than people think. I love that you used fresh coconut. I will for sure have to try that as I bet it makes an incredible difference. I love your story too. Sometimes it is amazing at the interesting stories all around us if we only take a few moments to look.

    Reply
  12. Foodiewife
    December 16, 2012 at 8:04 pm (2 years ago)

    I promised my BFF (who lives in San Francisco) that I would make her a coconut cake, for Christmas. She can hardly wait. This one is beautiful, and seems so appropriate for Christmas. I recall living alone, and there are times I miss the quiet times. I’m blessed to have the most wonderful husband I could have hoped for, considering he waited 50 years before getting married. I always tease him that he was waiting for me to come into his life. I have no doubt it’ll happen. I know you trust in Him. Blessings.

    Reply
  13. Baltic Maid
    December 16, 2012 at 8:44 pm (2 years ago)

    I bet clouds would be tasting utterly disappointing after trying this delicious cake. It looks beautiful!

    Reply
  14. Jessica @ Jessiker Bakes
    December 19, 2012 at 10:08 pm (2 years ago)

    I am DYING!!!!!!!!! I’m not the biggest coconut fan but this cake would turn me into a coconut fanatic ! Great job with it it looks to die for!

    Reply
  15. Beth
    December 23, 2012 at 11:48 am (2 years ago)

    Hi! I’m hoping to make this for Xmas. What kind of bagged coconut did you use, sweetened or non-sweetened?
    Looks amazing!
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      December 23, 2012 at 3:12 pm (2 years ago)

      I used sweetened because it’s what I could find. Worked great :) Thanks, Beth! Hope you LOVE it!

      Reply
  16. Audrey
    January 18, 2013 at 3:26 am (2 years ago)

    Does this have to be made with cake flour? If I use all-purpose, how will that change the recipe?

    Reply
  17. Megan
    February 14, 2013 at 8:34 pm (2 years ago)

    Admittedly, I’ve never made a cake or icing from scratch. Why I’m starting with this cake: I have to have it, I need this is my mouth/in my life. It looks absolutely stunning. The first time I ever baked a cake I lathered the icing on as soon as it came out of the oven. What was I thinking? Who knows, lesson learned. So my first of many rookie questions to come in my baking adventures: When would the appropriate time be to make the icing/will it store in the fridge until after the cakes have cooled if I make it while they are baking? Thank you, and I LOVE the blog. My new fave.

    Reply
  18. Faye
    March 2, 2013 at 2:24 pm (2 years ago)

    Your coconut cake looks so wonderful and fluffy to make- and eat!

    Reply
  19. kim seiler
    March 3, 2013 at 1:43 am (2 years ago)

    Hi , I have never made homemade frosting, am I missing something do I actually drizzle the hot syrup mixture over the fluffy egg whites?

    Reply
    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      March 3, 2013 at 2:12 am (2 years ago)

      You really do! I know it seems counterintuitive :) You drizzle it in while whipping fast, and only a little at a time. In no time you’ll have a fluffy frosting!

      Reply
  20. Willy
    March 17, 2013 at 1:04 pm (2 years ago)

    Julie, This looks sooo good. I promised my friends I would make a cocnut cake for our Easter dinner, but she wants a white cake, not yellow. If I just use egg whites in the cake mix, will that do it? Will the buttermilk make the cake yellow?
    Please help?
    Thanks so much :)

    Reply
  21. Sarah @ the magical slow cooker
    April 29, 2013 at 9:54 pm (2 years ago)

    Oh, this cake looks amazing. We had a local restaurant that served a cake like this, and my husband and I would go there just for this cake, and coffee. Thank you so much for the recipe!

    Reply
  22. SusanAnn Sheidy
    May 7, 2013 at 3:42 am (2 years ago)

    I would like to make this cake for my birthday but I can’t find coconut water anywhere? Can you tell me how to make it? I love coconut and since it’s my birthday I want to make my own cake and a cake I love not a store or box cake. I do have a coconut cake recipe that I love but I would like to make something new. Hope you can help me please?

    Susie

    Reply
    • Julie Ruble
      May 7, 2013 at 3:51 am (2 years ago)

      Hi Susie! Coconut water is usually by the water or in the Hispanic food section. It can also be found at health food stores. If you can’t find it, though, make a regular simple syrup with 1 part sugar to 1 part water (boil, dissolve the sugar, and cool). You can add a touch of coconut extract and it will be just about the same thing :) Happy birthday!

      Reply
  23. BettyLockee
    December 23, 2013 at 1:18 pm (1 year ago)

    My cake was a flop,,, :( dont know what I did wrong,,,,,, ughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

    Reply
    • Julie Ruble
      December 23, 2013 at 1:19 pm (1 year ago)

      Hi Betty, how did it flop? If you’ll let me know, I can help you troubleshoot.

      Reply
    • Jeanne
      January 3, 2015 at 10:02 pm (4 months ago)

      I actually tried this recipe. Cake was dry, not a lot of coconut flavour. Frosting was a gooey mess that ran all over everything. Looks are deceptive. Never again!

      Reply
      • Julie Ruble
        January 3, 2015 at 10:06 pm (4 months ago)

        Hey Jeanne, sorry you were disappointed. Happy to help you troubleshoot. If your cake was dry, try baking for less time (take it out of the oven when a toothpick has a few moist crumbs instead of being completely clean). You can also use a simple syrup (or coconut syrup) on the layers before frosting if your cake will be sitting for awhile before you serve. As for the frosting, sounds like your meringue didn’t set up properly — it shouldn’t run. Did you frost the cake while warm, or did you make your meringue on a rainy day? Either of these things can affect the texture. While I do enjoy this cake, my favorite coconut cake on the blog is the Ultimate, Moist, Ridiculous Coconut Cake, so you can always try that if you’re looking for another recipe.

        By the way, looks are not deceiving on THIS blog. I would never post a misleading photo. These photos are exactly representative of how my cake turned out. I’m sorry yours didn’t work out.

        Reply
  24. Dawn
    December 26, 2013 at 1:26 pm (1 year ago)

    I made a cake like this before but put marshmallows in the syrup when done, before mixing with egg whites

    Reply
  25. Noemi
    April 19, 2014 at 7:58 pm (1 year ago)

    Mmmmmmm yuuumyyy cake super moist…

    Reply
  26. Valérie I♥Cakes
    May 23, 2014 at 9:17 am (11 months ago)

    I made the frosting this morning and it was really delicious ! This only problem I had was that when it started to cool, it became really hard to spread and impossible to cover my cake with a smooth finish so I was a bit disappointed. I was was looking at it in the bowl of my stand mixer while it was cooling and when I saw that it was becoming too stiff on the sides, I stopped whipping but it wasn’t cool yet… I don’t know what when wrong, any idea ?

    Reply
    • Julie Ruble
      May 23, 2014 at 3:08 pm (11 months ago)

      This frosting doesn’t come out smooth because it’s quite sticky. Since you’ll be covering the coconut cake with coconut, it won’t matter too much. If you want a smoother frosting, try my Swiss meringue buttercream on my ultimate coconut cake recipe.

      Reply
  27. Rachel
    July 13, 2014 at 8:55 pm (10 months ago)

    This recipe has a lot of eggs for the cake. Is it a dense and heavy cake?

    Reply

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