The coconut cake guaranteed to convert even the most self-proclaimed coconut hater. I promise. The marshmallow meringue frosting and vanilla coconut filling make angels sing and define carpe diem. And the vanilla butter cake balances the whole thing out. Practically perfect in every way. Recipe adapted from the Magnolia Bakery and courtesy of David Leite.
You know that coconut cakes you see in the old-fashioned diners that twirl around in the tall dessert cases? It looks so awesome but when you take a bite, it just tastes like refrigerated coconut cardboard?
This cake isn’t that.
Meet the best coconut cake
This cake deserves to be called the best coconut cake you’ll ever make. I didn’t invent it so I can call it that.
The recipe is adapted from a very popular cake at the Magnolia Bakery in NYC. A big cup of Magnolia’s famous banana pudding, specialty cakes or dainty pink cupcakes (made extra famous by a cameo on season 3 of Sex and the City) drew throngs of people eager to feel like Carrie and Samantha for the day.
What makes it special?
- An amazing vanilla coconut filling sandwiched between the cake layers lends the right amount of coconut to the whole dessert.
- The whole cake isn’t too coco-nutty (and this comes from someone who ♥ coconut) because the vanilla butter cake is more like a moist pound cake.
- And the heavenly swirls of marshmallow frosting add a light and airy texture.
Sweetened or unsweetened coconut?
You might be considering the idea of using unsweetened coconut for this cake. I’m a firm believer in the idea that dessert should taste like dessert and not something that I’m trying to convince myself is dessert. So with that being said, use the sweetened coconut for this cake. You will be disappointed in the results if you use unsweetened coconut.
Unsweetened coconut is drier and is perfect for savory recipes where you wouldn’t want the extra sugar. If you’d like to read more about the difference between the two, The Kitchn has a great perspective on why each kind of coconut deserves a spot in your pantry.
Alright…let’s make some homemade coconut cake.
A very sturdy vanilla cake batter is the foundation of this coconut cake recipe. This isn’t your dainty, pinky finger kind of cake. It’s a cake that you could just bake and eat all on its own without anything else except for a dusting of powdered sugar. It’s that good. With a moist crumb and texture that is on the denser side, these cake layers easily cut in half if you choose to make thinner cake layers with more filling in between.
This. Is. CAKE.
The way cake was meant to be enjoyed. In thick layers and big pieces.
It’s goes a little something like this:
Blend your dry ingredients together in a separate bowl and then make sure to first spray your cake pans with the baking spray of your choice and then line the bottom with a cutout circle of parchment paper.
Cream the butter for a bit and eventually you’ll add the sugar and then the butter to get a nice smooth mix.
Next you’ll alternate your dry ingredients with the milk and vanilla mixing it all for a bit until it all is one happy, big bowl of yummy batter.
Pour the batter evenly into two prepared cake pans.
- I prefer the cake to be in two layers. The original recipe calls for dividing the batter into three pans which means more cake and less filling. You decide.
- Use a ladle with measuring marks (i.e. ½ cup or 4 oz.) and count each time you scoop some batter into each pan while alternating scoops as you go.
- Shimmy that batter back and forth in the pan until it’s evenly distributed and place them in the oven.
Now for the coconut part…
While the cake is baking, you’re going to make the cooked filling. Although it seems intimidating, it’s really easy as long as you keep the heat low and slow. You’re just going to be heating milk, sugar, and a little bit of flour together until it thickens up to custard consistency.
And then you’ll mix in the coconut and vanilla and set the whole thing aside while the cake bakes and cools.
Easy, right? Now onto the frosting which I like to call…
The Unbelievably Amazing Marshmallow Meringue Frosting
Just you try and keep a spoon out of this marshmallow meringue frosting. It’s sort of like homemade marshmallow fluff. Some people (and I’m certainly not naming names) have been known to layer this with a little peanut butter to make some fluffernutter.
Nothing wrong with that, right? RIGHT?
Heat water, sugar and a little bit of cream of tartar in a small saucepan and heat for just a couple of minutes.
Next you’re going to slooooowly pour this mixture into egg whites and vanilla already waiting in a mixing bowl while the mixer is running on medium high.
USING A HAND-MIXER:
- Place your mixing bowl (with the egg whites and vanilla in it) into the bottom of your sink.
- Hold the hand mixer in your dominant hand and the saucepan in the other.
- Turn the mixer on low and mix the egg whites and vanilla together. Increase the mixer to medium-high and start pouring the sugar and water mixture into the mixing bowl in a very slow and steady stream continuously beating for five minutes until stiff peaks form.
Filling the Cake
After the cake layers have cooled, remove them from the pans carefully and remove the parchment paper from the bottom of the layers. Need more help? This video from King Arthur shows you how to remove cooled cakes easily from the pan without breaking them.
Place the next layer, TOP SIDE DOWN. This will ensure that the cake is flat on top.
Frosting the Cake
Grab a big spoon and load it up with some frosting. Using a flat icing spatula, go around the outside of the cake making sure to fill the gap on the edges with frosting. You want an even smooth first coat.
Next, frost the top of the cake in an even layer. And then go back and start swirling the sides. I like to use the tip of the spatula and make little curly-q’s one of top of the other. Use as much of the frosting as you need. If you make two layers, you’ll have some left over for that fluffernutter project.
Making Ahead and Storing
- You can make the layers ahead of time and freeze them.
- This cake is best made the same day you’ll eat it BUT eating a piece the next day is almost a certainty. In between servings, store the cake in the fridge, letting it come to room temperature before eating (that should take about ½ hour).
For a few: Make the recipe as is and enjoy it over a few days. And share a little with the neighbors!
For many: Make as cupcakes and use an apple corer to remove a little bit of the center. Don’t go through to the bottom. Fill the hole with the coconut vanilla filling and pipe the frosting on top.
A couple of notes from the trenches:
- The recipe looks long and time-consuming but it really isn’t hard. And you’ll feel so accomplished. Your family will look at you differently – in a good way. Not in that “what are you trying to feed us?” way.
- Make this the day you want to eat it. While it’s almost as good the next day, any time after that and you’re pushing it.
- GIve this a try as a cupcake – use an apple corer to remove a bit of the center and put the coconut filling in the middle. it’s so good!
Some other cakes to try:
Peanut Butter Mousse between chocolate cake layers
Best Coconut Cake
A vanilla butter cake surrounds a coconut filling and is topped with a marshmallow meringue frosting.
- 1 cup unsalted butter room temperature
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 larger eggs room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups self-rising flour I use King Arthur’s
- 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 cup milk
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp all purpose flour
- 1 7 oz package sweetened coconut
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 large egg whites
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/4 plus 1/8 tsp cream of tartar
Make the Cake
Preheat oven to 350.
Butter and lightly flour 2- 9"cake pans and line with either wax paper or parchment. You can use also use three (which the original recipe calls for) and you'll just bake the cake a little less [instructions below].
Combine the flours and place in a medium bowl and set aside.
Pour the milk and vanilla into a glass measuring cup and set aside.
- Cream the butter in a large bowl or electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat until light and fluffy and add the sugar. Continue beating for three minutes. Add the eggs, beating well after each addition.
To the mixer, add the dry ingredients alternately with the milk and vanilla mixture in four groups, beating well after each and ending with the milk. You'll have a smooth mixture by the end.
Divide the batter evenly among the pans. [see notes below]
Two pans: Bake for 25-30 minutes.
Three pans: Bake for 20-25 minutes.
Either way, a cake tester inserted in the middle of the cake should come clean letting you know when the cakes are done baking.
Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Remove the cakes from the pan to a wire rack until completely cool. Check out this video on how to remove a cake from a pan.
Make the Filling
Combine the milk and sugar in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the flour and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking the whole time until thick and bubbly, which should take about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat and add coconut. Stir in vanilla, cover and set aside to cool completely.
Make the Frosting
Get ready by putting the egg whites and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
- In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar, and cream of tartar over high heat. Bring to a boil for 2-3 minutes, counting once the mixture begins to bubble on the edges. Remove from heat.
On medium-high speed with either a hand or stand mixer, beat the egg whites and vanilla until foamy approximately 1 minute.
Keep the mixer on and with a thin, steady stream, sloooowly pour the sugar water mixture into the egg whites. Continue to beat on medium-high until fluffy and stiff peaks form. This will take around 5 minutes and the frosting will be bright, white and glossy. Try and resist tasting it. Or you'll eat the whole thing. And your cake will be lonely.
Assemble the Cake
Place one layer of cake on your serving platter or cake plate and spread 1/2 of the filling on top. If you’re only using two layers, use as much as makes sense to you and save the rest to eat vanilla wafers or graham crackers and chocolate for an upscale s’more.
Place the next layer on (and repeat steps 1 & 2 if necessary).
Frost the top and sides of the cake with the frosting.
- Top with extra sweetened coconut.
Tip to pour batter in pans equally:
- I use a 4 oz. ladle and alternate scoops between pans, counting as I go.
- Shimmy the pans back and forth to evenly distribute the batter.
Hand mixer tips for frosting:
- Place a towel in the bottom of the sink and your mixing bowl with the egg whites/vanilla on top of that.
- Hold the mixer in your dominant hand and the saucepan in the other. Starting on low and working up to med-high, follow the steps above for making the frosting.
Make Ahead Tips
- Make the cake layers ahead of time and once completely cooled, wrap in plastic wrap and then foil. Place in large freezer bags and freeze. Defrost completely in the fridge overnight before frosting.
- The filling can be made the day ahead. Bring to room temperature before filling the cake.
- Make the frosting the day your plan to serve it.
**TOTAL TIME DOESN’T INCLUDE COOLING TIME FOR CAKES