Coconut lovers, stand up and be counted!

Last week in this location PJ confessed to her birthday vice: Pepperidge Farm Coconut cake. Well, today is PJ’s birthday, and I took advantage of her being out of the office last week to create my version of that cake so we could have it on hand as we serenade her properly on this momentous occasion. It had to be square, it had to be coconutty and moist, and in this case, it’s coming out of the freezer (where it’s been hiding) just like it does in the store!

I originally designed this cake for Easter; I made round layers, split, filled, and stacked them. Then I colored some coconut with food coloring to look like Easter grass, sprinkled it around and topped it with jelly beans for Jelly Bean cake. Here’s what the cake looked like on the cover:


But for PJ’s birthday, we needed a classic, square, luscious Coconut Cake .

All cakes benefit from having room temperature ingredients. Here I’ve measured out my mise en place (everything in place) for the recipe. It’s easier to separate eggs when they’re cold, so I did that first, and let the whites come up to room temperature while I measured everything else. Getting the milk to room temperature was easy: a quick 45 seconds in the microwave did it.


For assembly, the recipe begins like most white cake recipes do: with butter and sugar creamed until light.


This may seem like old news, but it can’t be said enough. Bakers MUST SCRAPE the bottom and sides of the mixing bowl. This is the place where a lot of people who SAY they can’t bake cakes get into trouble. This mixture of butter, sugar and air is the foundation for the cake’s texture, and if you don’t get all of each ingredient involved, things get blotchy and streaky.


Now add 1/4 of the dry ingredients. You’re trying to make a stable emulsion that can accept the liquid without separating or getting grainy.


Combine all of the wet ingredients with the vanilla and coconut flavoring.


Add 1/3 of the wet to the mixing bowl, and mix until it’s incorporated. Add another 1/4 of the dry, mix, and continue back and forth until everything is added. And SCRAPE. At least twice. The reason for going back and forth is to keep the texture of the batter down the middle: not too juicy that the butter separates out and the batter looks “broken”; not too dry so that the liquid is too difficult to incorporate and the sides of the mixing bowl look like they’ve been stuccoed.


Once the batter is mixed, it should look like this.


The pans should be spritzed with non-stick spray, then lined with parchment paper and sprayed again.


Here’s another reason baking scales are so wonderful. We want to bake two layers with this batter, and we want them to be the same height. How to make sure the dough is divided evenly? Here’s what professional bakeries do:


Place an empty mixing bowl on top of the scale, and tare it out (reset it to zero). I happen to have a spare mixer bowl at my station, and it’s a tremendous convenience. If you like to bake, put a spare bowl for your mixer on your Christmas list.


Now put the bowl with the finished batter on the scale. As you can see, this batter weighs 3 pounds, 5 ounces and change. That means each layer should weigh about 1 pound, 10 ounces.

So I put my prepared pan on the scale, zero it out, and add enough batter to hit my target.


Then I smooth it out with an offset spatula.


The remaining batter goes in the other pan, and in to the oven they go. The recipe calls for a water bath or cake strips, but it’s not a deal breaker. I find round layers to be more susceptible to doming than square ones, so I didn’t use them here.

Halfway through baking, this is what they look like:


Now the layers are done. They need to cool completely before coming out of the pan.


Then I split them in half. Pepperidge Farm makes its coconut cake in 3 layers, but for the sake of symmetry I went with 4. Plus, who doesn’t want more frosting?


After stacking and filling, I gave the cake a very thin, almost transparent layer of frosting. This is called a crumb coat, and it’s another secret weapon for cake makers. Once you’ve coated the cake, refrigerate it for an hour until the icing sets, and you can touch it without leaving a fingerprint. This makes any stray crumbs stay put, and firms up the cake so you can give it a finished look without building on quicksand.


Now you can finish frosting the cake. I used a low-tech technique, dabbing frosting on the sides with the back of a spoon, for a shaggy look. Then I put a layer of frosting on top, and sprinkled it with grated sweetened coconut.


And there it is, a snowy-white, moist, irresistible cake. Happy Birthday, PJ!


Susan Reid

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.


  1. PJ Hamel

    Awwww, you shouldn’t have… But on second thought—we’re all going to have a nice coconut cake feed VERY SOON. So THANKS, Susan. Wish all of you out there could be here to share. – PJ

  2. Kate

    Thanks for the tip about the crumb coat. Makes sense, just never thought of it. I’ll have to remember that next time.

  3. Mike T.

    Mmmmmmm Coconut! Doesn’t matter whether it’s cake, or whatever, but as I’m done with my diet this weekend, can you figure out what I’ll be doing??? 😉

    Happy B-day PJ!

    Thanks, Mike – the cake was goooooooood! – PJ

  4. Eric

    Well, there goes *my* evening…..I didn’t really have baking on the schedule….

    But wait! I KNEW IT! It can’t be done without chlorination! It’s not possible to make layers that light and fluffy, even with low-protein unchlorinated flours!

    Could we see a picture of the cake cut, revealing the crumb as baked with cake flour? And if you *REALLY* loved us, you’d take a pic made with your lowest-protein unbleached flour…

    (I recognize that since Guinevere doesn’t make it out to retail, most of us are probably going to be using The Other Guys’ cake flour, but I’m extremely interested in how to preserve the flavor of my other ingredients through unbleached flours)

    Happy Birthday, PJ! I hope they made some cake for the others. ;0)

    HAHA, Eric. I was very good. One small slice. An end slice, of course, with lots of frosting… – PJH

  5. Susan Reid

    Hi, Eric. I’m working right now on my favorite substitute for cake flour: an all-purpose and cornstarch blend. It’s better-tasting than cake flour, no chemicals, performs equally well in high-ratio (lots of fat and sugar) cakes. Try 1 1/2 tablespoons of cornstarch to 4 ounces of all-purpose. (I put about a pound and a half of this together, whisk it well, and just measure out of the bowl).
    I’ve tried combining unbleached pastry flour with cornstarch, but the cake layers didn’t hold themselves up all the way across the top, and the texture was a LITTLE bit gummy. AP turned out to be the champion.
    Light and fluffy is more about creaming than anything else; the flour is holding it together, but the texture is from the sugar and mmmmmmbutter!
    Susan Reid

  6. Eric

    OK, attention turns to the frosting….

    Why not skip the butter and use coconut oil? The foofy expeller-pressed stuff might be better than the more industrial, but you’d get that slightly waxy texture and maybe a slightly different dimension of coconut flavor. . .


  7. Sue

    Mmmmm. I would love a slice of that!! This is a great entry with lots of good tips. Slicing those cakes in half looks like a bit of a trick.

    Happy Birthday PJ!!

    Thanks, Sue. Slicing the cake isn’t hard – be sure to use a long serrated knife, like a bread knife, and you’ll be fine. – PJH

  8. grace

    oh, how i adore coconut cake. you should probably count me twice, as i tend to eat enough of it to satisfy at least two people. 🙂

  9. Susan

    Happy birthday PJ!

    That cake looks absolutely delicious.

    A quick question. I’ve made lots of bread but no so many cakes. Is there a trick to getting the whole cake layer out of the pan whole? It looks like you use the parchment only on the bottom of the pan without any overlap (so you don’t pull it up using any overlap from the parchment). How do you get the cake out of the pan without it breaking into pieces?

    I’m new to this blog and enjoying it thoroughly.

    Thanks, Susan – I’ve found the secret to getting cakes out intact is to grease the bottom AND SIDES of the pan (I use Everbake spray – it’s a good non-stick vegetable oil spray we sell in the catalogue, one that doesn’t discolor your pans). Then line the bottom with parchment (no overlap necessary), and grease the parchment (Everbake again). When the cake is cool enough – maybe 10 minutes after it’s out of the oven? – put a cooling rack over the top, and flip the whole thing upside down. The cake and parchment should flop out (gently) onto the rack. Then you just peel off the parchment. Really, it works slick – pun intended! – PJH

  10. Merav

    Happy birthday! Hope you had a great day! That cake looks amazing!

    The cake WAS amazing (notice I say WAS,since it disappeared quickly) and I did have a great day! Thanks, Merav. -PJH

  11. Emilie

    I can’t wait to try this! I’ve always made a coconut cake with frozen coconut and—I hate to say it—butter cake mix and cool whip— and sour cream, and sugar, etc. You put it in the fridge for 3 days and my family loves it. Of course I always think scratch is better, so I’m hoping I can convince them too with this recipe. One question, I really like those square layers rather than round. Are they 8″ or 9″ pans? Thanks.

    Emilie, those are 8″ square pans, 2″ deep. An 8″ square is the equivalent of a 9″ round, if you feel like making a square rather than round layer cake. – PJH

  12. Kathy Hunter

    I cannot find the powdered coconut milk in the King Arthur online store. Is there a secret code?

    Sorry, Kathy – it’s on back order and they’re having trouble getting any. Something about the coconut crop… I’ll ask Susan about a possible substitution. – PJH

  13. Susan Reid

    Hi, Kathy, and all other coconut hounds. I was absolutely dismayed that the market for palm oil has taken off so much that our coconut milk powder supply is now suffering. I have seen coconut milk powder in the Thai section of coop food stores (green box) and oriental grocery stores. If you don’t have access to such a place, do this:
    Buy a can of unsweetened coconut milk (look for a dusty one that hasn’t moved for a while on the shelf, and don’t shake it too much on the way home). When you get there, open the can. It should have a chunk of waxy looking, very thick coconut milk (usually on top) that you can spoon off, with coconut water underneath. Use 1/2 to 2/3 cup of this instead of the coconut milk powder in the recipe, and decrease the milk to 1 cup from 1 1/2. That should do it. Susan

  14. Jennifer

    So, of course, this gets posted not only after I just placed a big ole order with King Arthur Flour, but at the same time a co-worker suggested we do a “King Arthur Flour Recipe” vs. “Grandma’s Recipe” coconut cake bake off. And the only thing I needed were the coconut milk powder and the coconut flavor!

    I think I found the coconut milk powder in one of my local international grocery stores (I live in Northern Virginia where the Asian population is high and such things are not uncommon). I found a green box of Chao Thai brand coconut cream powder. Is that the green box referred to? I also got some Chaokoh Brand Coconut Milk Powder, which is sold in little 2 oz. silver and brown foil envelopes as well as little cans the size of tuna fish cans. Is there a difference between “coconut cream powder” and “coconut milk powder”?

    The ingredients, that I can read, are as such:
    coconut cream powder: fresh coconut cream (85.2%), glucose syrup (11.8%), sodium caseinate (2%), silicon dioxide (0.5%), dipotassium phosphate (0.5%)

    coconut milk powder: coconut milk (90%), dextrin (8%), sodium caseinate (2%)

    I’m not really sure what that means, other than 4.8% difference in coconut cream/milk.

    Also, I couldn’t find coconut flavor locally (well, I did at Whole Foods but they were out) so if I use imitation coconut extract, I’m assuming I use the amount I would if I was just using vanilla extract and not what you guys sell as strong coconut flavor?

    Thanks for the recipe! We shall see who prevails…KAF or Grandma. 😉

    Dear Jennifer: I’ve used both of the coconut milk powders you describe; I’ve found the Chao Thai (yes, that’s the green box) to be slightly grainier in consistency than the Chaokoh brand (I first bought it by mistake; it was in a small tin that looked like curry paste). Either will work without making any adjustments or substitutions.
    Generally extracts are a little bit less potent than the Lorann flavorings we carry; I used about 4 or 5 drops of the flavoring, but for an extract I’d start with 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon. True confession: I taste the batter, and adjust it if I think it needs a little “encouragement” in the coconut flavor department. Have fun with the taste-off! I’m looking forward to hearing the results. Susan

  15. Kat DeFonce

    PJ – A Belated Happy Birthday!!!

    Sue – This looks wonderful! Does KA carry yor metal 8″ sq. pans? I really do prefer metal over crockery as I tend to break every one I handle! I could not find one on your website.

    Unfortunately, no, we don’t carry metal 8″ square pans. We’ve never had much luck selling basic metal pans – maybe they’re too widely available elsewhere? We’ve tried a lot of different ones over the years. Currently we’re carrying the Chicago Metallic round cake pans, jelly pan, and of course the half-sheet pans in aluminum- PJH

  16. steph (whisk/spoon)

    what a great birthday cake! i think pepperidge farm cakes are probably a gulity pleasure for a lot of people (i had a weakness for their Boston Creme, which i never see anymore), but a homemade version is probably much tastier!

  17. Nicole Shugars

    Kind of off the subject but the picture of Baking Sheet that you reference early in the Blog shows a crunchy, tender Cinnamon Cake (on page two) — I tried searching the recipes for “Cinnamon Cake” but nothing came up. Help? Also, will you post it somewhere when the coconut milk powder becomes available again?

    The Baking Sheet’s recipes aren’t published online except for those on its web page , because it’s a paid, subscription newsletter. I’ll email you the recipe, and I hope you’ll putThe Baking Sheet on your gift wish list! We’ll do our best to let you know when the coconut milk powder is back in the house. I feel your pain! Susan Reid

  18. Randi

    is the coconut powder the same as coconut flour?

    My mom, sis and I all love that peppridge farm coconut cake. Its soooooo bad for you, filled with all kinds of unpronouncable things. This one looks so much better and tastier.

    Randi, I don’t think so? Read up through these comments and you’ll find a discussion of coconut powder and where tofind it or what to substitute. Good luck with your cake! – PJH

  19. Jennifer

    Just thought I’d let you know that the coconut cake bake-off was held today.

    Grandma’s recipe: 16
    KAF’s recipe: 5

    I didn’t ask them to write down why they chose one over the other, but people told me they liked both, but they had to choose.

  20. Kitty Howlett

    Okay, so, I’m from Canada & have never heard of coconut milk (or cream) POWDER before & have been unable to find any in my local shops. Is there any way to use canned coconut cream (or milk) instead & if so, what would you suggest in order to keep the liquid/consistency levels right?I have seen coconut milk powder in the Thai section of coop food stores (green box) and oriental grocery stores. If you don’t have access to such a place, do this:
    Buy a can of unsweetened coconut milk (look for a dusty one that hasn’t moved for a while on the shelf, and don’t shake it too much on the way home). When you get there, open the can. It should have a chunk of waxy looking, very thick coconut milk (usually on top) that you can spoon off, with coconut water underneath. Use 1/2 to 2/3 cup of this instead of the coconut milk powder in the recipe, and decrease the milk to 1 cup from 1 1/2. That should do it. Have fun with it. Mary @ King Arthur Flour.

  21. Cathy

    I love this coconut cake, but on my web there is no frosting recipe for the cocunut cream frosting. Can you help with that for Christmas?

    Many thanks,

    I believe I can. You can get there one of two ways. When I get back to the office on Monday I’ll put these on the website.
    Coconut Frosting
    1 (14 ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
    1/2 cup (4 ounces) butter
    3 1/2 cups (22 ounces) confectioners’ sugar, divided
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/8 teaspoon strong coconut flavoring
    Set a fine-mesh strainer or colader over a bowl and line it with a clean linen towel. Pour the coconut milk into the lined strainer and let the coconut water drain for up to 2 hours, until you have a thick lump of coconut cream. (If you’re lucky, the can’s been sitting on the shelf a while and has already separated; that’s the best case scenario.)
    Cream the butter with 2 cups of the confectioners sugar. Beat in the salt and flavoring until the mixture is smooth. Add the coconut cream and mix, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl Add the remaining confectioners’ sugar until you have a smooth, spreadable frosting. cover and hold at room temperature until ready to use.

    You can also make your your favorite white frosting, and add 1/2 cup of coconut milk powder to it and some coconut flavor for good measure. The powder acts like a wonderful stabilizer in a classic buttercream; if you’re making a confectioner’s sugar frosting with soft butter, put the coconut milk powder through the sifter or strainer while you’re getting the lumps out of the sugar. That ought to do it. Susan


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