A short story that proves this is the perfect coconut cake. It’s so perfect, it’s practically miraculous. (Not that I see the face of Jesus in the frosting, but damn near as surprising.)

The One has been a lifelong coconut hater. Whenever I suggest whipping up a batch of coconut blondies, a coconut cream pie, or some coconut pops, he rolls his eyes and says one word. “Chocolate.”

All this month, our friend Nora has been visiting us from Uruguay. She is, as she puts it, “cuckoo for coconut cake.” As a result, I’ve made this beauty three times.

The first time, The One nibbled a bit on his slice and then reached for the blueberry slab pie.

The second time, he muttered, “Not too bad,” and had a few more mouth fulls. The third time, he demanded I divvy the cake into thirds so he could stake his claim. Now he wants it in regulation summer rotation.

I drew inspiration from the Magnolia Bakery’s coconut cake recipe. As much as I love their cake, I wanted more coconut flavor and a moister texture, and I didn’t want to fiddle with two types of flour (self-rising and all-purpose). I wanted what the name suggest: an old fashion coconut cake.

After testing and tweaking and retesting, I settled on coconut milk and coconut cream for sweetness and moisture. I added coconut to the batter, and real coconut extract gave it that extra punch of flavor. I settled on just plain ole all-purpose flour.

Dare I say it restored my faith in, um, the power of dessert?

david caricature

Why Our Testers Loved This

Tester Ayanna Fews struggled to find the right words to describe how much she and her goddaughter adored this vintage coconut cake. She loved that it was “moist, sweet, rich, and just pure decadence.”

What You’ll Need to Make This

The ingredients for old-fashioned coconut cake, including bowls of coconut, butter, flour, sugar, coconut milk, and coconut cream.
  • Sweetened shredded coconut–This adds texture to the cake batter and filling as well as an attractive garnish to the finished cake.
  • Coconut milk and sweetened coconut cream–To create a rich cake batter with lots of coconut flavor, I use a mix of coconut milk and coconut cream. Use the canned versions, not the boxed variety.
  • Coconut extract–This delivers an extra boost of coconut flavor. Avoid the fake stuff; use real coconut extract for the best results.
  • Cream of tartar–This is critical for stabilizing your meringue frosting. Don’t skip it.

How to Make This Recipe

A person greasing cake pans; a close-up of butter in a stand mixer.
  1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour three 8-inch cake pans.
  2. Beat the butter in a stand mixer until smooth.
A mixer with butter and sugar mixed together; an egg being added to the butter-sugar mixture.
  1. Dump in the coconut and gradually beat in the sugar.
  2. Plop in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Flour being scooped in butter on a stand mixer; the same mixer with coconut milk poured in.
  1. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the coconut cream, coconut milk, vanilla, and coconut extract. Add one-quarter of the dry ingredients to the mixer while it is running.
  2. Pour in one-third of the coconut milk mixture and blend well. Alternate adding the remaining dry and wet mixtures.
A person spreading cake batter into a cake pan; A hand with a whisk stirring a mixture in a pot on an induction burner.
  1. Divvy the batter between the cake pans. Bake until a tester comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 15 minutes, then remove and cool completely on a wire rack.
  2. To make the filling, whisk the coconut milk, sugar, and flour in a saucepan until smooth. Cook until thickened and bubbly.
A hand with a spatula stirring coconut into a pot; an unfrosted three-layer old-fashioned coconut cake with coconut filling.
  1. Stir in coconut and vanilla, then cool.
  2. Spread half of the cooled filling between the first two layers of the cake, then spread the remaining half between the second and third layers.
A bowl of a stand mixer filled with fluffy 7-minute frosting.
  1. Prepare the Italian meringue and beat until it’s silky with stiff peaks.
  2. Frost the cake immediately, then sprinkle with coconut.
A white old-fashioned coconut cake with 7-minute frosting topped with shredded coconut on a glass cake stand. A slice in front.

Common Questions

How do I STORE coconut cake?

This cake is best served the day it’s filled and frosted. But if I’m honest, The One and I have had sliced 48 hours, and it was perfectly fine. To keep the cake in fighting shape, it’s best to store it under a cake dome. It keeps the meringue frosting fresher.

What if I don’t have three 8-inch cake pans?

Fear not. If you don’t have three 8-inch pans, you can bake the cake in batches. Just be sure not to let the batter sit too long because it could affect the cake’s rise. You could also use two 9-inch pans and reduce the baking time to 25 to 30 minutes.

Can I freeze this coconut cake?

Yes, but with caveats. You can freeze the unfrosted cake layers for up to 4 months. Simply wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, then, for extra safety, in aluminum foil or in airtight freezer bags.

When you’re ready to use them, let them thaw completely at room temperature before filling and frosting. Here’s the caveat: The filling and frosting don’t freeze well, so you’ll have to make them as the cake defrosts. No biggie.

Helpful Tips

  • You can make the cake layers a day ahead of time and the filling and frosting the day it’s to be served.
  • Whenever I bake cakes, I use cake strips (those gray spirals in step #1). You wet them and wrap them around the outside of the cake pan. It prevents the cake from doming.
  • For a more complex flavor, you toast the decorating coconut in a dry skillet over low heat. Stir constantly until the coconut is evenly colored. Immediately spoon it into a bowl to stop the cooking. It adds dramatic color to the top of the cake.
A slice of a three-layer coconut cake with white frosting on a gray plate.

More Superb Cake Recipes

Write a Review

If you make this recipe, or any dish on LC, consider leaving a review, a star rating, and your best photo in the comments below. I love hearing from you.–David

This is the best cake ever! I really enjoyed preparing it. I have been baking for years and am quite good at it. But this is a very different cake mix and a pleasure to create.

diana s.
A white old-fashioned coconut cake with 7-minute frosting topped sprinkled with shredded coconut on a glass cake stand.

Old-Fashioned Coconut Cake

4.84 / 30 votes
This traditional coconut layer cake is made up of delicate, moist vanilla cake layers, creamy coconut filling, and a fluffy meringue frosting. On top is a sprinkling of shredded coconut. An excellent cake for any celebration.
David Leite
Servings12 servings
Calories632 kcal
Prep Time45 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Total Time1 hour 15 minutes


For the cake

  • 2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut, plus more for sprinkling
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 3/4 cup sweetened coconut cream, (I use Coco Lopez)
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon pure coconut extract, none of that blechy fake stuff

For the filling

  • 3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • One (7-ounce) package sweetened shredded coconut
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the Italian meringue

  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon coconut extract
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar


Make the coconut layer cake

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Butter and lightly flour three 8-by-2-inch round cake pans, then line the bottoms with parchment paper.
  • Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer until smooth. Dump in the coconut.
  • Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. 
  • Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt In a medium bowl. In another bowl, whisk together the coconut milk, coconut cream, and extracts.
  • Spoon the flour mixture into the creamed butter in 4 additions, alternating with the coconut milk mixture, beating well after each addition. Divide the batter among the cake pans.
  • Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center of a cake comes out clean.


    Resist overbaking the cake. it will be unpleasantly dry and crumbly.
  • Let the cakes cool in the pans for 15 minutes. Remove from the pans and cool completely on a wire rack.

Make the coconut filling

  • Whisk the coconut milk, sugar, and flour in a medium saucepan until smooth.
  • Cook, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat until thickened and bubbly, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, then stir in the coconut flakes and vanilla extract. Cool to room temperature.
  • Spread half of the cooled filling between the first two layers of cake, then the other half between the second and third layers.

Make the Italian meringue

  • Add the egg whites and coconut extract to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high until foamy, about 1 minute.
  • Combine the water, sugar, cream of tartar In a medium saucepan over high heat.
  • As the mixture begins to bubble around the edges, stir once to make sure the sugar is dissolved completely. Let it come to a rolling boil, 2 to 3 minutes. Immediately remove from the heat.
  • Turn the mixer to medium-high, and pour the sugar syrup CAREFULLY into the beaten egg whites in a thin, steady stream. Continue beating for about 7 minutes or until stiff peaks form, but the frosting is still silky.
  • Frost the top and sides of the cake immediately, being generous with your swoops, swirls, and flourishes. Generously sprinkle the top of the cake with shredded coconut.


  1. Make ahead–The cake layers can be made a day ahead of time, and the filling and frosting the day it’s to be served.
  2. Use cake strips–Cake strips prevent doming. They’re indispensable.
  3. Toast the coconut–For a more complex flavor, toast the decorating coconut in a dry skillet over low heat. Stir constantly until the coconut is evenly colored. Immediately spoon it into a bowl to stop the cooking. 


Serving: 1 portionCalories: 632 kcalCarbohydrates: 100 gProtein: 8 gFat: 24 gSaturated Fat: 16 gMonounsaturated Fat: 5 gTrans Fat: 1 gCholesterol: 104 mgSodium: 232 mgFiber: 2 gSugar: 76 g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2023 David Leite. Photos © 2023 David Leite. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

It’s a fabulous cake! Tender and moist. Just lovely.

The coconut cream I bought was unsweetened and the cake turned out so perfectly. I honestly would not have liked the cake any sweeter. The marshmallow-y coconut frosting was sugary enough for me and my family, who agreed that the cake was just right.

Reading through the recipe, one would think this classic cake should be a multi-day endeavor. I suppose it could be, but it came together much more quickly than I thought it would.

The Italian meringue is FABULOUS, and the directions are spot on. My icing reached the stiff peak stage in about 4 minutes using my 30+-year-old bowl lift Kitchenaid. These types of icings have been somewhat of a nemesis to me over the years, sometimes turning out perfectly, other times looking like soup (or worse, hardening like divinity candy).

I’m still not all in on the coconut IN the cake. It seems to make for a messy cut. The hubs is happy, though. It’s a solid cake. And a huge one.

It’s hard to put into words just how incredible this old-fashioned coconut cake is. It’s moist, sweet, rich, and just pure decadence. I shared a slice with my goddaughter, and she said, “It’s so good that it doesn’t make sense!” It really is!

The filling was amazing, and the frosting tasted SO good. (And I will admit that I sampled quite a bit of the frosting before it made it onto the cake!)

You make the frosting like you would an Italian meringue, except you don’t add any butter. It tastes like the best marshmallow you have ever tasted! The recipe was spot on as written; the only deviation I made was to toast the coconut before putting it on the cake, giving it a somewhat nutty taste that was well received.

I always use a little of the batter to make a single cupcake so that I can taste the cake without having to cut into it, and I can tell you this recipe makes an adorable cupcake, too. I added a small layer of the filling to the top of the cupcake, then I added the frosting and the toasted coconut, which turned out really cute!

I can’t wait for another reason to make this old-timey cake again, as this is the kind of cake you need to make with the intent to share. Otherwise, you could definitely eat this entire cake by yourself.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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Recipe Rating


  1. 4 stars
    Another fantastic recipe from this site. My first cake (maybe second), and wow, was it complicated. Totally worth it though, as it was delicious, and reminded me (and others) of the coconut cake my grandmother used to make back in the 80’s (1980’s…:P). While I loved the end product, it left me wondering if next time I shouldn’t try a “modern” version of the cake, which might take less than 4 days, trips to several stores, and every item in my kitchen to make. 😛

    Two comments:
    1. Do NOT overcook the cakes…at all. See below for more.
    2. Make SURE the mixing bowl for the final step (frosting) is absolutely pristine…i.e. no residue from previous mixing, especially any kind of fat residue…butter, coconut, etc. This will kill your frosting before it gets a chance. Can’t stress this enough. Ask me how I know. 😀

    Dry cakes:
    My cakes were a bit dry, and although I removed them well earlier than what the recipe stated, since I was using convection, it was still a little gooey/jiggly in the middles, so I put them back for a bit longer. Mistake. Should have kept them out. With this cake in particular, I think better slightly gooey (esp if only in the middle) than even slightly overdone. Since the texture in general has so much goo (the filling, the icing), a bit more of that texture probably would not have been as noticeable. Note that no one else that tried the cake thought it was dry (liars! :D).

    Clean bowl
    I actually had houseguests (family, so not a big deal) waiting on me to finish the cake (which I had started the previous night), before leaving, and as I approached the final steps, I thought I would save a little time and dishwasher space and just re-use the same stand mixer bowl I had used for a previous step…even rinsed it out a bit maybe. Using my last eggs in the house, I dutifully followed the recipe (water, egg whites, cream of tartar, etc) and got nuthin’. Turned up the mixer. A bit of foam. CHILLED the mixture in the fridge for 20m, and retried. Finally, a bit more foam forming, volume increasing…..Nope. As a last ditch effort, even added corn starch…nope.

    Pretty sure no egg whites in history were so severely beaten as those particular ones, the poor bastards. I kept getting alternating dirty and questioning looks from family members at my quite lengthy (and loud) mixing as they were trying to talk, watch, TV, etc.

    Sorry for the rambling: use a clean bowl, folks! 😀 After a trip to the store to buy more eggs, and using a clean bowl, the frosting came out perfectly.

    Highly recommend this recipe…just know that it’s quite…lengthy. Not going to say complex, but there are a tons of steps and tons of ingredients. I would make it again…when I’m retired. 😛

    1. Thanks so much for all these details, Bruce. They’re very helpful for our other readers. It is a bit of a project, but as you say, totally worth it.

  2. 5 stars
    This cake is a coconut lovers dream. OMGosh It took three hrs all told but worth every minute.
    I used my Italian merinque recipe much easier. I took a big hunk of this cake to work and a coworker wanted me to make one for family get together. This cake is a BIG hit!!!

  3. 4 stars
    Fabulous cake with a billowy cloud-like frosting! I subbed unsweetened coconut cream and it was perfection. Made the loveliest cake to celebrate our July birthdays!