What is more dreamy than a high altitude Coconut Cake? It’s light and white and fluffy as a cloud, frosted with sweet buttercream and covered in coconut flakes. With its snowy white appearance, it makes a gorgeous Christmas cake or winter party cake. And while it’s simple to decorate, it looks so incredibly beautiful and elegant. Since coconut cake is a Southern classic, and having been raised in the South (although Colorado has been my home for longer), I had to include it in my lineup of Classic Cakes Recipes I’ve been working through this year.
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Why You’ll Love This Cake
So Much Coconut Flavor. Making a delicious, from-scratch coconut cake doesn’t mean you need to bring home a whole coconut and try to figure out how to open it and how to get all the meat out. I’ve done it before, and never again. It’s just not worth the hassle. But your coconut cake should contain as much coconut as possible, and not just be a plain white or vanilla cake with a little coconut sprinkled on the frosting. In my high altitude recipe, I use coconut milk in the cake and coconut cream in the buttercream. And of course, I cover the whole cake in crunchy coconut flakes.
Fluffy White Cake. The cake is so soft, light, fluffy and moist, you’ll fall in love with it.
Coconut Milk in the Cake
A coconut cake should begin with white cake, so I adapted my beloved White Velvet Cake recipe to use a whole can of coconut milk. Coconut milk is creamy and rich, with a delicate sweetness and a really lovely flavor that’s perfect for cakes. I’ve often used it in many other cake recipes, just because I like the texture it gives the cake. To boost the flavor a little more, I also added some coconut extract to the batter, in addition to vanilla bean paste. The cake is so soft, moist, tender and rich, and perfectly flavored with coconut.
Coconut Cream in the Buttercream
For the frosting, I whipped coconut cream into buttercream, which made the silkiest, fluffiest buttercream imaginable. Coconut cream is a great ingredient, and can also be used for making coconut whip or vegan whipped cream.
Finish with Coconut Flakes
Covering a coconut cake with shredded coconut is a classic and beautiful way to decorate a coconut cake. Sweetened shredded coconut is easy and convenient, but it can be excessively sweet. A much better option is natural, unsweetened coconut which has a pure coconut flavor and a really great crunch. You should be able to find it on the baking aisle in most well-stocked grocery stores, but natural coconut is also available on Amazon.
I don’t usually toast the coconut for my coconut cakes, because I like the pure white look of the untoasted coconut. But toasting brings out a bit more flavor and more crunch. If you decide to toast your coconut, spread it out onto a baking sheet and toast at 325F for about 3-5 minutes, just until lightly golden in a few places. Just be sure to keep a careful watch that it doesn’t burn or get too brown.
- Cake Flour. With a lower percentage of protein than all-purpose cake, cake flour is ideal for white cakes and coconut cakes, making a lighter, fluffier, more tender cake.
- Baking Powder. Leavens the cake and makes it rise.
- Salt. Balances the sweetness. I use coarse Kosher salt in all my baking.
- Unsalted Butter. Adds richness, flavor and moisture. When creamed together with the sugar, it creates a light and fluffy cake crumb.
- Granulated Sugar. Sweetness and moisture.
- Egg Whites. The egg whites add structure and protein, which the cake needs to hold the batter together as it rises. Using just egg whites, rather than both the white and the yolk, keeps the cake nice and white.
- Buttermilk. Buttermilk is fantastic for baking. It adds flavor, acidity and richness, and creates a very tender cake.
- Coconut Milk. Use canned, unsweetened coconut milk from the ethnic food aisle, not the coconut milk that you can find in the dairy section. Canned coconut milk is high in fat, and makes up for the fat that we lose in eliminating the egg yolks. Also, flavor.
- Vanilla Bean Paste or Extract. For the best flavor, I love using vanilla bean paste in this cake, or the seeds scraped from a vanilla bean. I’ve been buying these Tahitian vanilla beans on Amazon, and they’re very affordable right now, in spite of the current expense of good-quality vanilla extract.
- Coconut Extract. A little coconut extract just helps to boost the flavor of the coconut milk.
- Unsalted Butter. What’s buttercream without butter? Everyone loves my buttercream, because it’s very different from most American buttercream frosting recipes you’ll find on the internet. To read all about my buttercream, and for tips on making the best American buttercream, please read my comprehensive post all about buttercream.
- Coconut Cream. You can buy canned coconut cream (it should be right next to the canned coconut milk), but it’s not always available. So what you do is first refrigerate a can of full-fat, unsweetened coconut milk (not “lite” coconut milk). Chill the can for at least 6-8 hours, or overnight. The cream and the water will separate, so when you open the can, you can drain off the water and use just the solid cream in your buttercream. So much delicious coconut flavor right there!
- Powdered Sugar. The powdered sugar sweetens and thickens the buttercream to the correct consistency. I whip my buttercream for 4-5 minutes to make it very light and fluffy.
- Meringue Powder. This isn’t a common ingredient in American buttercream, but once I started using it in mine, it make all the difference. Just a tablespoon stabilizes the buttercream and improves the consistency.
- Vanilla Bean Paste or Extract. Again, vanilla bean paste is great in the buttercream, or you can use a good-quality vanilla extract.
- Coconut Extract. A little extra coconut flavor.
- Natural Unsweetened Coconut Flakes. To decorate your cake, you’ll be pressing coconut all over the frosting. It’s such an easy, but beautiful way to present a coconut cake.
Cream the Butter and Sugar.
I use the traditional creaming method for this coconut cake recipe. First, I cream together the butter and sugar for a full 10 minutes. This incorporates air and volume into the batter, for a light and fluffy cake. And it also lightens the color of the butter for a pretty white cake.
Beat in the Egg Whites.
Next, beat in the egg whites one at a time. This allows them to emulsify correctly, rather than dumping them in all at once.
Mix in the Dry and Liquid Ingredients.
You’ll be sifting together your dry ingredients separately, and whisking together the liquid ingredients separately. Then with the mixer on low,add the dry ingredients, alternating with the liquid. This allows all the ingredients to be properly absorbed into the batter, without over-mixing.
Bake, Cool and Frost the Cake.
Your house will smell fantastic while your cake is baking. It’s important to let the cakes cool completely before you frost them. Whip up your buttercream, slather it onto the cake, and cover the whole thing in coconut. You won’t be able to wait to cut that first piece and taste this dreamy coconut cake.
Be sure to read all of my BAKING FAQs where I discuss ingredients, substitutions and common questions with cake making, so that you can be successful in your own baking! I also suggest reading my comprehensive posts on making Perfect American Buttercream and How to Stack, Fill, Crumb Coat and Frost Layer Cakes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is coconut cream the same as coconut milk?
Canned coconut milk is similar in consistency to whole milk, and is made from one part coconut and one part water. It’s delicious in curry dishes and soups, giving them a rich, creamy consistency. It’s also wonderful for baking. Coconut cream is richer and thicker, made from four parts coconut and one part water.
Should I use natural coconut or sweetened coconut to cover the cake?
Personally, I love using natural, unsweetened coconut flakes, although it’s a little more expensive than sweetened shredded coconut. Natural coconut has great flavor and crunch, without adding excessive sweetness.
What if I don’t have cake flour?
Cake flour makes the lightest, softest, fluffiest cakes, since it has a lower percentage of protein than all-purpose flour. If you can’t find cake flour at your local grocery store or Walmart, you can also buy cake flour online. In a pinch, you can make your own cake flour. Measure out 1 cup of all-purpose flour using the spoon and sweep method. Remove 2 tablespoons of flour, and replace with 2 tablespoons of corn starch. Whisk together until thoroughly combined.
Where is the recipe for the blueberry coconut cake I saw on Pinterest?
While that cake no longer has its own separate post on my site, this is the same coconut cake recipe. You can make a blueberry coconut cake by folding 2 cups fresh blueberries into the cake batter. Another delicious option would be to spread some good-quality blueberry jam in between the cake layers.
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High Altitude Coconut Cake
All recipes on Curly Girl Kitchen are developed for high altitude at 5,280 feet.
- Stand Mixer
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 6 egg whites, room temperature
- 3 ¼ cups cake flour, spooned and leveled, then sifted
- 3 ½ tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp coarse Kosher salt (if using table salt, use half the amount)
- ¾ cup whole buttermilk, room temperature
- 1 can (14 oz) full-fat, unsweetened coconut milk (such as Thai Kitchen)
- 2 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract (or the seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean)
- 2 tsp coconut extract
- 1 ½ cups unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 3-4 tbsp coconut cream (see note)
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 1 tbsp meringue powder
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- 1 – 1 ½ tsp coconut extract
- 1 bag (10 oz) natural, unsweetened coconut flakes
- Preheat the oven to 350 F, and line the bottoms of three 8-inch cake pans with circles of parchment paper, then spray the paper lightly with non-stick spray.
- In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed for 10 minutes, scraping the bowl occasionally, until very light and fluffy and lightened in color.
- Beat in the egg whites, one at a time, beating each for 10 seconds before adding the next. Scrape the bowl down and beat for 10 more seconds.
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, coconut milk, vanilla bean/extract and coconut extract.
- With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the liquid ingredients, starting and ending with the flour. Use a spatula to scrape the bowl well and incorporate any stray bits of flour.
- Divide the batter between the pans. Bake on the center oven rack for about 25-30 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.
- Set the pans on a wire rack, cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel, and cool completely before frosting.
- In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter for 1 minute until smooth. Beat in the coconut cream.
- With the mixer on low, add the powdered sugar, meringue powder and salt and mix until combined.
- Add the vanilla and coconut extracts, increase the speed to medium high and whip for 4-5 minutes, scraping the bowl occasionally, until very light and fluffy. Add more coconut cream, a tablespoon at a time, if needed to reach the right consistency.
- Remove the cooled cakes from the pans. Set one cake, bottom side up, on a cake board or cake pedestal, and peel off the parchment paper.
- Frost, fill and stack all three layers of cake, then frost the cake with a thin crumb coat of buttercream. Chill the cake in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- Finish frosting the cake with a final layer of buttercream, and smooth it out, but no need to make it perfect.
- Set the cake over a clean baking sheet to catch the coconut, then press handfuls of coconut up the sides of the cake and over the top, too, if you like, until completely covered. You can scoop up any coconut that falls and put it back in the bag.
- As with everything I bake, my cakes are baked at high altitude (I live in Denver), and to achieve your own perfect results, you may need to make a few slight adjustments if you live at a lower altitude or sea level. Please read this post and this post for all of my baking FAQs. There are many articles online that can offer advice on how to adjust your flour, sugar and leavening for various altitudes.
- As noted in the recipe below, it’s important for the egg whites, buttermilk and butter to be at room temperature.
- Cake flour is best in this cake. It makes a much lighter cake than all-purpose flour does. Be sure to sift the cake flour after measuring.
- Natural, unsweetened coconut is preferable to sweetened, shredded coconut.
- The cakes are sticky to the touch when removed from the pans. You must line the baking pans with parchment paper for easy release.
- To make the coconut cream used in the buttercream, place a can of full-fat unsweetened coconut milk (do NOT shake the can) in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours, or overnight – the cream and the water will separate, allowing you to drain the water and just use the cream. Take the chilled can, turn it upside down, and remove the bottom of the can. Drain off the coconut water, saving it for another recipe if you like. The can should be about 1/2 – 2/3 full of solid coconut cream. Let the can sit out at room temperature for several hours to let the cream soften up again, before adding to your buttercream. Whatever cream you don’t use, you can save for another recipe, or use it in a vegan coconut whipped cream.
- Leftover cake should be stored in an airtight container or cake carrier at room temperature, for up to 3 days.