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Feb 17, 2007 02:19 PM

Classic Coconut Layer Cake

I have to make a cake to take to a Mardi Gras dinner tomorrow. This should be a classic traditional Southern cake so it's going to be Coconut Layer Cake. Lots of Southerners at this party so it has to be right.

The Washington Post this week had a recipe from a new book: Soul Food Desserts & Memories by Patti Pinner that has a recipe that sounds absolutely perfect. The author described the recipes as ones she collected from the "Queens of Soul Food."
The cake of my dreams? Like the ones my relatives made? That I ate at Church picnics?
There's a quickie version using a boxed mix and Cool Whip but I ain't goin' there. Can't use buttercream or cream cheese - not traditional.

I haven't made a boiled frosting in forever. Has anybody made this? Any tips? Does this sound as good to you as it does to me? No time to mess up here...

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  1. This recipe sounds like the real deal to me. And don't be scared of boiled frosting... it's actually easier than you think. It's all about temperature. So if you don't have a candy thermometer, go out and get one. It's essential.

    I would also like to appauld your decision on going traditional. Cool Whip is vile. Please report back and let us know how it went. Good luck!

    1. I've been terrified of that whole boiled sugar/meringue deal for decades since I used to get pressed into service to help my husband's grandmother with the obligatory Southern Christmas Divinity Fudge. We had to wait until the exact day that she deemed the humidity to be proper, no small deal in Louisiana, then run to the store to get the fresh eggs, etc. She was getting way up in years so all that boiling sugar was truly frightening. I haven't attempted it since she died, God love her.
      Maybe this will get me over the phobia.

      Don't you love those old Southern cakes? If I can do this, I'm on to Lady Baltimore! And a real Caramel Cake!

      6 Replies
      1. re: MakingSense

        Let me know when you're ready for the caramel cake. I've got my Texas grandmas recipe. Once made an old southern lady cry with nostalgia when she ate a piece. No shit.

        1. re: bryan

          Could you post that now, please? I would love to try it!

          1. re: bryan

            Were you able to find your Texas Grandma's caramel cake recipe? My Texas Grandma made a caramel cake that we would fight over. Unfortunately, my copy of her recipe was lost when Hurricane Ike went thru Houston. I haven't been able to find anything yet that comes close to the caramel icing she used on her wonderful 3 layer "Caramel Cake". I think losing my Grandma's recipes was the biggest loss of all for my my family.

            She also passed down to us a recipe for sugar cookies that she refrigerated in a big bowl, and then rolled out to cut and bake. I haven't been able to replicate that one either. Here's hoping that you found the recipe and wouldn't mind reposting and sharing it.

            1. re: mtgmom

              mtgmom, sorry to say, but "bryan" hasn't posted in exactly three years to this very day.

              i'll hunt around for a caramel cake recipe, but if i were you, i'd do a search on chowhound for it. If you are unsuccessful in finding the recipe, you can post a new thread to seek your desired recipe. just a thought.

              1. re: mtgmom

                Check out this thread:

                Here is an Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake. The recipe is from Dallas, circa 1947.

                And here's Gigi's Fabulous Caramel Cake from "Southern Cakes" by Nancie McDermott.

          2. Decided to make the cake tonight and the icing tomorrow.
            Got to thinking as I had the stuff laid out on the island. From those identical staples + the bag of coconut that you could get at a country store, it is possible to make that fancy cake I'm attempting as well as coconut cream pie, coconut macaroon, coconut cookies, the coconut pies my aunts make (like turnovers), and probably things I haven't even thought of.
            Run out of coconut and just keep going to custard of all sorts and caramel cakes, plain cookies and goodness only knows where you would stop.
            If you had a pecan tree in the yard, you were really set.
            The simple desserts and creativity of our grandmothers were amazing. Of course they required the greatest luxury of all which is time. And the skill they acquired from practice.

            You'll have to start a great thread on that Caramel Cake. Lots of CHs will want that one.

            1. The recipe is a definite Keeper!!! Goes into my permanent file of the ones I go to when I want THE best version of a classic.
              Any deficiency in the finished product was due to my failings as a baker. I'm not that good and am trying to polish my skills while still fitting into my wardrobe.

              The cake was beautiful. More than fit for any church supper or Southern table. Heck, I'd take it anywhere! About 6 inches high and pure white. The flavor was wonderful, not too sweet despite the boiled sugar icing. I think I overbeat the egg whites for both the cake (which was more the texture of a genoise) and the icing which was a little stickier than I like. But there were no complaints and the guests at the party I took it to loved it.
              I've got a little left which I will spread around to some elderly neighbors tomorrow so that I don't eat it all.

              Thanks for encouraging me, Bryan. You were right. The boiled frosting wasn't nearly as intimidating as I had feared.
              Now about that Caramel Cake of your Grandma's?

              7 Replies
              1. re: MakingSense

                So happy to see your cake was a success. Am chasing down the carmel cake recipe... it's hiding from me wherever I stashed it for safety. D'oh. With luck I'll find it this week.

                Once again, glad that it worked out so well for you.

                1. re: MakingSense

                  I'm sorry I didn't see this until today. So glad your cake turned out well. I note that the cake is a basic 1-2-3-4 cake, which is what I use to make coconut cake. I was also happy to see no canned coconut cream crap in the recipe. There have been a lot of foul coconut cake recipes floating around w/ that stuff and cream cheese frosting, if not cool whip...gag me.

                  Anyhow, You might want to try to find a boiled frosting recipe that you make in a double boiler w/ a hand mixer. Once I discovered that method, I have never done the pour-hot-syrup-in-the-mixer version again. The double boiler method is much more fool proof, at least to me.

                  Finally, next time you make it, you might consider trying frozen unsweetened coconut. It mimics fresh reasonably well and keeps the frosting from being too sweet. Should you ever get the urge to grate a fresh coconut, save the water from the coconut, strain it, and then sprinkle over each cake layer for extra moisture and flavor.

                  1. re: danna

                    Thanks for the input. The recipe is a keeper. I'm sick to death of all those recent cream cheese frostings. I'm ready to write a letter to Southern Living and tell them to cease and desist! With all the worries about no-fat/low-fat, why load it on, when you can use beautiful boiled frostings? I probably will try that the next time because it is quicker than the sugar syrup.
                    I was surprised that the cake turned out less sweet than I expected, even using the sweetened flaked coconut. I used the entire 14 oz. bag (minus what I snacked on) and it was fine.
                    I love coconut. This recipe has good coconut flavor and I'm happy to skip that coconut cream crap too. It always tastes artificial to me.

                    1. re: danna

                      And don't take the task of grating fresh coconut lightly - it can bring on tears. Remember those coconuts survive ocean journeys. Packaged is easier if you can get something that approximates the fresh taste.

                      1. re: Cinnamon

                        Yep! At my house the opening/grating of the coconut was a task assigned to my Dad. I think my Mom classified it as more of a "basement workshop" job rather than a kitchen job whenever there were hammers and nails invovled.

                        1. re: danna

                          Mine, too! I remember my Dad would take hammer & nail and crack it open and sometimes even got bloody fingers while grating. ouch! Then my husband and I got the task and eventually we cheated using packaged coconut.However, then you didn't have the coconut "milk" to put in the toothpick holes in each layer making it extra moist.
                          Coconut cake and a dessert called Charlotte (anyone heard of it?) were our family special Christmas tradition. Now, we just do the Charlotte as our kids and their kids don't eat the cake.

                          1. re: valrieM

                            Don't eat cake? I couldn't be more shocked if you told me they don't wear clothes: please don't let me have grandchildren that don't eat cake...what is a Charlotte?

                  2. Looks like it's worth a try. Has anyone tried what we call at home the "Edna Lewis Cake?" It's a coconut cake layered with lemon curd. The cake part is a bit touchy, but the combination of flavors is out of this world. I think I got it out of the NY Times many years ago and probably still have a copy somewhere at home. I think I need to go make that one again soon.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: rockycat

                      Wouldn't that be a Lane Cake? It has burbon in it as well, I've been wanting to make that for a while now.

                      1. re: Ida Red

                        No, very different. This is just a coconut layer cake filled with lemon curd. I don't remember if it has a boiled icing or what but the outside is covered in coconut. No nuts, raisins, alcohol or anything else that would suggest Lane Cake.

                        1. re: Ida Red

                          Lane Cake has a filling using coconut, raisins, and pecans. Also generally bourbon, unless you were taking it to church. A boiled frosting, garnished with coconut.
                          There's a Lane Cake recipe from Candy, always a good source for this type of traditional food, at

                        2. re: rockycat

                          There's a beautiful cake, worthy of a wedding, from the Heritage Southern Cookbook called White Trillium Cake, that has a pineapple filling. Divine!
                          Lots of combinations and permutations.
                          These incredible cakes were the prides of Southern bakers. There were variations using lemon, coconut, pineapple, and pecans which were the easily available items at hand or in local stores. Bourbon, except at church. Boiled frostings since it was too hot for buttercreams. Too hot for chocolate which was an expensive import anyway. Less elegant but delicious nonetheless were sweetpotato cakes and such which open up another entire genre.