Going Nuts for Coconut Layer Cake

Edna Stewart (1938–2010), SFA Oral History Subject, Chicago, IL. Photo by Amy Evans.

In the most recent issue of Vogue, Jeffrey Steingarten reflects on his 20-year quest to recreate the perfect coconut cake, which he proclaims “The Queen of Cakes.” And actually, he refers to it throughout the article as the Classic Southern American Coconut Layer Cake, always capitalized, never shortened. We appreciate his reverence!

After you read the article, you can attempt Steingarten’s favorite incarnation of the coconut cake, which he adapts from The Prudhomme Family Cookbook, or you can try ours, from The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. 

Coconut Layer Cake

When longtime SFA member Angie Mosier was growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, a trip downtown meant a visit to the Rich’s bakeshop and a purchase of its famous coconut cake. Angie adapted this recipe from Carl Dendy, who was the head baker at Rich’s for thirty years.

Makes 1 eight- or nine-inch layer cake, 12 servings 

Basic Yellow Cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 lb. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Easy Buttercream Icing
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 lb. 10x confectioners’ sugar
1 to 3 tablespoons whole milk, half-and-half, or cream

Coconut Filling
2 (14-oz) bags sweetened, shredded coconut, divided
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup easy buttercream icing

To make the cake layers: Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour 2 eight- or nine-inch cake pans and set aside. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl; set aside. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture in 3 equal additions, alternating with half of the milk, beating only until the batter is smooth after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as you go. Beat in the vanilla. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pans.

Bake until the center of the cakes springs back when pressed lightly with your finger, about 25 minutes. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks to cook completely.

To make the icing: Beat the butter and vanilla in a bowl with an electric mixer until smooth. Gradually beat in the sugar, letting each addition blend into the butter before adding more. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as you go. The mixture should look a little dry at this point. Add the milk 1 tablespoon at a time, beating on high speed until you get the right texture. The icing should be smooth but not so creamy that it won’t hold onto the cake.

To make the filling: Stir 1 bag of the coconut and the cream together in a bowl. Let sit and soak for 10 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of the easy buttercream icing.

To assemble the cake: Place 1 of the cooled cake layers on a serving plate or cake stand. Tuck pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap under the edges to catch the excess coconut. spread the filling over the top of the cake. Stack the second cake layer on top. Spread the remaining icing over the top and sides of the cake. Cover the icing with the coconut in the remaining back, gently pressing to adhere. When all of the coconut is on the cake, gently ease the wax paper strips out from under the cake.

Angie Mosier of Atlanta, Georgia