The History Dish: My Grandma’s Coconut Cake

Orange and Almond Cake with Meringue Frosting and Fresh Coconut.

I have very few taste memories from my grandmother.  By the time I was born, most of what she cooked came from boxes and cans, and there was an endless supply of Twinkies in the cabinet.  But when my mother was a little girl, my grandmother would cook, and bake, from scratch.

My mother always talks about a cake that her mother made once a year, at Easter.  A coconut cake.  “It was so good,”  my mother said. “It tasted

Boyfriend Brian bangs the nut.


best right after the frosting went on and the coconut was sprinkled on top.  My mother made it from a real coconut.  We had to grate it by hand. It was horrible.

“I think my mom would have used the recipe for yellow cake and white mountain frosting (I think it’s also called 7-minute frosting) from the Settlement Cookbook.  Preparing a coconut is a bitch. I’m sure you’ll find directions on the Food Network website.  Basically, you puncture the eyes with a hammer and nail, and then bake the whole coconut in the oven (I don’t know at what temperature and for how long) until the shell cracks, and then you wrap it in a towel and hit it with a hammer until it breaks in pieces, and then you pry the shell off the pieces, and then you peel the tough outer skin off the coconut meat, and then you grate it.  I would have (roommate) Jeff do all that!

“The coconut goes on while the frosting is wet (she kind of swirled the frosting on). And you have to do it pretty fast because the frosting crusts over quickly.  The cake lasts a long time, but the frosting starts to–I don’t know–dissolve after a couple of days.”

One day, a coconut just appeared on the kitchen table in my apartment.  I asked Roommate Jeff where it came from. “I dunno. I found it.” was his response.

I took it as a sign: coconut cake would happen this Easter.

I started tonight, by attacking the coconut.  Mom was right, directions can be found on the Food Network website here (Thanks, Alton Brown!).  Preparing the coconut was somehow both extremely laborious and not as difficult as I has expected.  It took about three hours and tasted no different that pre-shredded coconut from a bag.

I have my grandmother’s copy of  the Settlement Cookbook (the way to a man’s heart!), and I paged through it, unable to find a yellow cake recipe, unsure if this was the right book at all.  I stumbled upon a recipe for coconut layer cake that suggested using the white cake recipe on page 424.  On 424, I found this:

That’s my grandmother’s handwriting.  I love little notations in the margins of cookbooks–marks of personal preference and improved recipes.  But usually I find these notes amongst the books and recipes of strangers, unearthed at flea markets and garage sales.  Never had I seen such a cherished notation in my grandmother’s hand.

Who did she write it for? Surely she could remember that she preferred orange zest, not lemon.  Did she write it for my mom?  For the future? For me?

I zested an orange.  I beat the egg whites to soft peaks and set them aside, then sifted together Swan Cake Flour (a very old brand, still available) and baking powder, and set it aside, too.  I creamed butter and sugar; then, with the mixer on low, I added the flour and milk, alternating between the two.  I mixed until the batter was smooth, then added the almond flavoring and the orange zest; last, I folded in the egg whites.

My mother distinctly remembers this cake being baked in a plain square pan.  My grandmother would frost it right there in the pan; simple, easy and delicious.  I realized too late that I needed to double the recipe for my square pan; so instead, I baked it in a round, 9-inch pan. 375 degrees, for 20-25 minutes.  It came out of the oven looking perfect, despite the fact that I was tired and forgot to set a timer.

Here’s the frosting:

I made the frosting a little different: I cooked the first four ingredients in a metal mixing bowl over a double boiler until the sugar was dissolved and the liquid was hot to the touch.  Then I removed it from the heat and used my upright mixer to whip it until stiff peaks formed.  I gently mixed in the vanilla last.  After you frost the cake, sprinkle it with coconut immediately, before the frosting firms up.

The cake was a huge hit: despite the bounty of our Easter potluck, everyone managed to find room to cram in a slice of cake.  It was fluffy and not too sweet and the orange and the almond was a great flavor combo.  Guests were eating leftover frosting by the spoonful it was so good. The coconut was fine.  Get it from a bag.


16 thoughts on “The History Dish: My Grandma’s Coconut Cake

  1. My fondest memories are of the easter lamb at my gram’s house. Although she could bake like an angel, for some reason she always bought that cocoanut covered cake. I loved it ever so much and always got the head… the odd shape gave it the most frosting per sq inch…. loved it! Your cake looks awesome. Here’s to grams!!!

  2. A few paragraphs in, I remembered how I saw an Alton Brown episode on making the elusive coconut cake. I don’t watch much food television and it’s the only exposure I have to him – he made a big deal about making your own coconut milk AND coconut cream, &it sounded difficult. Sure enough, you linked to that recipe!

    I baked one coconut last year, and to get it open was ridiculous. The instructions “open with ice pick” are helpful, but only if you have an ice pick (I don’t). I was certain I was going to rip a hole in the floor as well as forever damage the nerves of my fellow-apartment-building-tenants.

    • Toootaly! The coconut prep was really laborious; and in the end, I felt it tasted exactly like a bag or pre shredded coconut! I say it’s a huge timesaver, that flavor-wise, doesn’t make a lick of difference.

      • I have to respectfully, and totally, disagree. You cannot compare fresh coconut to that crap in a bag; but, there is a much easier way of opening and shredding it. Make sure to use white, young coconuts; use a drill in two of the eyes and drain fluid, if you wish; soak the coconut in water for a minute or so; take a butcher knife (or hammer if knife isn’t available) and while holding the coconut in your palm, strike the coconut in the middle hard, along the vertical seams (there are about 3 of them), until it starts to crack open; just keep rotating it in your hand, it will open up right along the middle and fall in half. Then use a knife with a curve on the end (like a utility/carpet knife) and cut the meat out, drawing the hook end towards you. It only takes a couple of minutes once you get the hang of it! :-)

  3. I am still interested in how this turns out. the cake & frosting recipes sound delightful. I hope it turned out moist and light.

  4. Oh, it turned out great!

    I would enjoy going through the coconut prep again if only to make my own milk and cream. But, I would definitely take it outside and prop it against some concrete or something… And I would recruit some man strength like you did.

    Yum, orange and almond. I’ll give it a try!

  5. We made coconut cake for Easter too, using James Beard’s recipe, which calls for coconut milk in the batter. And I used the shredded coconut from the bag, because I’ve done one whole coconut in my life, and I figure that’s enough… but I’m still glad to hear you say it didn’t make a difference; that was my feeling too, the one time I bothered.

    I love your grandmother’s notation, by the way — I have to admit that I’ve done the same thing, frequently, and no, I really don’t remember half the time without the note, especially on a holiday. But it’s good to find those things from family.

  6. Here are my tips for dealing with fresh coconut; after reading Alton Brown’s instructions I couldn’t suppress an eyeroll – it’s way easier than that:

    I use a drill, a saw, and a hammer to open the coconut. Drill two holes, one through one of the 3 holes in one end, and one in the other end. I drain it into a glass, then use the saw to score it all the way around, and then take a hammer to split it along the scoring.

    As for grating, if you can find an Indian grocery nearby, you may very well be able to find this wonderful tool, a coconut grater. It’s basically a suction mounted tool with a spiky spherical grater mounted on a hand crank.

  7. I have been looking and looking for my own Grandma’s recipe for White Mountain Coconut Cake. The family memory is only of Grandpa with his hammer cracking the coconut for every family reunion. I would like to use your recipe and experience on my web site…after I bake the Cake with some DAisy Pastry Flour….which is about the only local & pastry (soft wheat) flour that still exists….the Southern flours, on which many of these similar recipes were based, have been bought by large processing flour corporations. Anyhow, when did your grandmother live and bake? WHAT DATE would you assign to this recipe? Roller mills were only invented about 1900 so these authentic, early recipes were abundant between 1900 and 1931 (when Wonder Bread was invented). If you like, I will send you some DAisy Pastry Flour…but mostly I want to try your recipe. OK/

  8. Try it! And Let me know how it goes! And it’d love to try some flour.

    I’d say my grandmother was baking this recipes in the mid-1950s. I know she used the recipe from her addition of The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man’s Heart, which she received as a wedding present in the mid-1940s,

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  10. OMG…this is my ultimate favorite cake! I’m turning 70 on the 30th (of June 2017) and I am making THIS cake! I remember my grandmother made this and my mother, too, [who died the April after my 7th birthday]. I came across a friend in Massachusetts who also had this recipe and made the cake for a Pig Roast. Thank you for posting BOTH recipes [cake and icing].

  11. Pingback: Coconut Cake Recipes: A Guide to Fluffy & Moist Cakes - GourmetFlavors

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