Coconut layer cake

For the past month I’ve been working on a chapter about the rise of the white cake, the layer cake, the fluffy and utterly unflavored cake, the “sweet nothings,” as I’ve tentatively titled it. I’ve nearly finished a draft that explains this phenomenon, really nothing less than the evisceration of the American sense of taste, by way of Victorian table manners, the invention of the eggbeater, a gastric fistula, yogurt enemas, jello salads, and fears of sexual excess. And that is just one chapter. People, seriously, you will want to reserve a copy on Amazon as soon as humanly possible.

In the meantime, I’ve needed to bake a number of Gilded Age recipes, including something called “cornstarch cake” that tastes distressingly reminiscent of an expired snack cake found in the trash after the vending machine has been refilled. But not everything that came out of that era of American baking was inexcusable. The angel food cake is lovely when made well. And the layer cake isn’t inherently bad; it’s just too often made that way. It can be redeemed. Consider, for example, the coconut cake.

coconut cake

The earliest recipe for coconut cake I’ve found was from Eliza Leslie, who offered this “West India Cocoa-Nut Cake”:

Cut up and peel some pieces of a very ripe cocoa-nut. Lay the pieces for awhile in cold water. Then take them out; wipe them very dry; and grate, very finely, as much as, when grated, will weigh half a pound. Powder half a pound of the best loaf-sugar. Beat eight eggs, till very light, thick, and smooth. Then stir the grated cocoa-nut and the powdered sugar, alternately, into the pan of beaten egg, a little at a time of each; adding a handful of sifted flour, a powdered nutmeg, and a glass of sweet wine. Stir the whole very hard. Butter a square tin pan. Put in the mixture, set it immediately into a quick oven, and bake it well; seeing that the heat is well kept up all the time. When cool, cut it into squares. Have ready a thick icing, made of powdered sugar and white of egg, flavoured with rose-water, or extract of roses. Ice each square of the cake, all over the top and sides.

You may bake it in a loaf, in a deep, circular pan. Ice the whole surface, and ornament it.

I want to try this at some point — the wine, nutmeg, and rose water would pair well with the coconut, I think, and keep the cake from being merely sweet and gummy.

But last week was Easter, and coconut cake was on my mind, and what I wanted was something a little more recently traditional, something I might conceivably have eaten as a child, only better. For that, one turns to James Beard. Beard rarely lets me down; I know what I’m getting — a certain mid-twentieth-century charm bolstered by a genuine love of eating — and when he feels compelled to pass along a piece of crap in the name of historical accuracy, he warns you.

What I made, with rather a lot of help from my seven year-old, was a two-layer cake, flavored with coconut milk in the batter, coconut custard between the layers, seven-minute frosting, and grated coconut over the whole thing. It was fantastic, if I do say so myself. It was exactly what I wanted. Ivy thinks we should do this every week. Once a year is probably enough, but once a year is worth the trouble.

A note about ingredients: I didn’t crack open and grate a fresh coconut because this project was more than enough work already, and mid-twentieth-century charm does not include cracking open coconuts. If you have preteen boys with too little to occupy their time, please, by all means, give them a couple of coconuts and a hammer. Otherwise, a can and a bag will do nicely.

Recipe: Coconut cake

Adapted from James Beard’s American Cookery (Little, Brown and Company, 1972), pp. 661–662.


  • 1 cup canned coconut milk (not “lite” or “coconut cream”
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 cups sifted cake flour
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 egg whites (save the yolks for the custard, below)
  • 1 recipe coconut custard, below
  • 1 recipe seven-minute frosting, below
  • 1 cup (or more) shredded coconut


Cream the butter until light, then add the sugar and cream them together until light and fluffy. Stir in the vanilla. Whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Stir this mixture into the butter and sugar, alternating with the coconut milk. Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks (don’t overbeat; they should still be wet and a little glossy), then fold them into the batter.

Bake in greased and floured 9-inch cake pans. Beard recommends 25 to 35 minutes at 350°F; my convection oven needed 20 minutes at 340°F. When done, the center should spring back when lightly touched and a cake tester should come out clean. Cool the pans on racks for about 10 minutes, then turn the cakes out onto the racks to cool completely.

While the cake cooks, make the custard (below).

When cool, trim the tops of the layers, if you like, for neatness. Place one layer on a serving platter and spread the custard evenly over it. Place the second layer on top.

Now, and only now, make the seven-minute frosting. If you do it earlier, it will set up and be hard to spread. Frost the cake — you do not have to do this perfectly, because the coconut will hide your flaws — and then gently press the shredded coconut to the top and sides.

Admire it as long as you can stand it, and then cut it into slices entirely too large and eat it. Or, if propriety requires that you wait until after dinner, refrigerate until ready to serve.

Recipe: Coconut custard

Adapted from Baking with Julia (William Morrow and Company, 1993), p. 193.

This is just pastry cream with coconut milk substituted for the milk. (It’s fabulous in cream puffs, with chocolate drizzled over top.) In this case, use whatever coconut milk is left in the can, then spell it out with regular milk. If you have a favorite recipe for pastry cream, use that. Otherwise:


  • 1 cup coconut milk, or part coconut milk and part milk
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract


Combine the milk, sugar, salt, egg yolks, and cornstarch in a good-sized saucepan. Whisk to blend, set over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil, whisking continuously. Let it boil for half a minute or so — the egg yolks must cook, or else the enzymes in them will break down the starch in the custard, and your leftover cake will be watery tomorrow. The starch will keep the yolks from curdling badly, though.

When the custard is thick so that the whisk leaves tracks, remove it from the heat, whisk in the vanilla, then scrape it into another bowl through a strainer. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap against the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming, and refrigerate until cool.

Recipe: Seven-minute frosting

Adapted from James Beard’s American Cookery (Little, Brown and Company, 1972), pp. 661–662.


  • 3 egg whites
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1/3 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla


Beard calls for a double boiler here, as do most authors, but I find a bain-marie easier for whisking, because the bowl has a round bottom: Simply find a metal bowl that nestles into a pot in the bottom of which you can boil water, bring the water to a boil, and do your business in the bowl set over top. In the top, combine all ingredients except the vanilla, and whisk or beat continuously and vigorously until the egg whites form soft peaks. This will take, as you might have guessed, about seven minutes. If you have a handheld mixer, by all means use it, but a good wire whip and a little arm strength will do fine.

You’ll want to stop when it’s just thick enough to spread, not at all stiff, because it will thicken further as it cools. When the frosting is thick, whisk in the vanilla, and frost your cake immediately, working as quickly as you can.