This recipe is absolutely one of my most highly prized and has earned innumerable friend and family raves at countless love-and-laughter laden gatherings in the years since it was passed to me as a personal gift from my former mother-in-law in the final days of my marriage to her son.
Mama Kathryn had given me an antique wooden butter mold that had been passed down to the wife of the eldest son beginning in Scotland before the family’s American patriarch immigrated to the Americas in the 1700s–or so the story went. It had been passed to her as the wife of their generation’s eldest son and it had survived the innumerable transfers and moves over the course of my former father-in-law, R.J.’s, military career as a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger before it was placed in my hands.
I cannot attempt to describe the sadness that I felt when I removed it from the shelf in my kitchen all those years ago, turned it over in my hands, and understood I was no longer it’s steward and it was no longer mine to pass on. After all was said and done, there existed no precedent for “ex-wife” in the generations past and as the great grandchild of immigrant ancestors I had come to sincerely appreciate the true spirit of Kathryn’s gift. Like my former husband and millions more in America, my immigrant ancestors were poor and rarely carried more than one or two treasured material goods “across the water.” The price of passage for our ancestors most often represented years of deprivation for an entire family in order for them to send that single representative of their bloodline in pursuit of the American Dream.
Over the course of my years with her son it had become one of my true treasures and I did not part with it lightly. Mama had not asked for it’s return–that’s not how she rolls. But I knew and understood that since I was no longer the “wife” of the first born son–it was no longer mine to hold and pass on.
I remember the day I returned the mold to her. We were in her kitchen at their little beach house on the inland waterway just north of Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina–a home that held countless memories of family gatherings filled with love, family, laughter, tears and the occasional melodramatic meltdown–family is family, after all! (They used to tell me that I should write a book about their larger-than-life personalities and hilarious shenanigans and I used to respond that I just might–once they have all passed away and the most “colorful” among them can no longer sue me!)
When I returned it to her she quietly accepted it and then offered to give me something in return–allowing me to choose a treasure that belonged to her specifically with no ancestral ties to tradition or legacy. Without hesitation I requested her “Secret 3-day Coconut Cake Recipe” and without hesitation she gave it to me.
In that moment I simply did not recognize that any assumptions I had continued to entertain regarding the certainty of any future get-togethers would inexorably slip into only pieces of memories and almost everyone of those memories would remain tied to the food and gatherings so lovingly shared by Mama and R.J. with this girl of the Dakotas.
The once foreign food that my Southern Lowlander family shared is now so dear and has remained so central to my cooking and entertaining. Oh, the simple and utter bliss of freshly picked and shelled speckled butter beans, newly dug new potatoes and Silver Queen white sweet corn smothered in butter and popping with salt and black pepper, the smoked salty chew of country ham, fat spicy sausages packed and stored in homemade rendered lard, whole mullet fried to crispy perfection and crackling with Southern-imbued umami in an ancient black cast iron skillet, the candy sweet and tiny shrimp of the Inland Waterway tumbled straight from R.J.’s nets, and, of course, the palate changing and absolutely life changing oysters of the Carolina Coast!
There is simply no better banquet on earth than those huge clusters of sweet, briny, silken oysters–smoke roasted over a wood fire on a red hot steel plate and chased by a slush-cold beer pulled from the crushed ice tub churned out by R.J.’s commercial-grade ice machine–purchased and installed in a specially constructed extension of the porch (i.e. temple) facing the water and used solely for that most sacred and cherished purpose!
Menfolk in the family did all the heavy lifting when it came to the roasting and shucking. Each of them competing to offer their respective wives the biggest and juiciest of the family’s bivalve feast with disputes settled by uproarious laughter or a quiet but deadly “hush” from R.J. and then as hard-fought, hard-won oyster satiation began to settle in, the evening would inevitably turn to the telling of stories. Stories so very fundamental and so very necessary, I came to understand, as a fireside initiation of their children to their fierce watermen’s love and respect for the ocean and her waterways and instilling an enduring future for their way of life.
The end of the star kissed evening–as little heads began to nod and the wash of the water began to override the dying crack of the fire–was nearly always signaled by the slap of the porch’s screen door as Mama led the way into the beach house’s cool interior for that last little bit of “sugar” before bedtime. As final bed assignments were made, reluctant baths taken (or pretended), ears scrubbed and butts tapped in some kind of “course correction,” Mama raided her fridge or freezer for ice cream bars, popsicles or (prayers answered) her blueberry ice cream, pig pickin’ cake or the revered “Secret 3-Day Coconut Cake.”
We circled the table and filled her tiny kitchen in a spoon-sucking salute to the end of a day spent together beside “the river” and reassured small upturned faces that the promise made by their fathers and grandfather of a boat ride on the morrow to visit the remote marshes harboring the gray, weathered ruins of their great grandfather’s oyster house was as certain as the memories made that evening–and all that had come before–as their own beginnings for a life well spent and…waterside.
My last weekend as their daughter-in-law was spent during the Easter holiday celebration and, sure enough, a quick peak in the fridge righted the somber hours of driving with my former husband and our three children from Georgia to the Carolina Coast like nothing else could have done. For there it was tucked into the bottom shelf of the fridge just waiting for the next day’s Sunday feast–made just that much more special because Mama alone had known the reason for our visit and in her way let me know that “it’s all gonna be all right.”
Please know that the recipe that I am sharing with all of you is not her “Secret 3-Day Coconut Cake” recipe–that’s a secret given and a secret kept. This version of that recipe has its roots firmly in the recipe gifted to me but also now carries with it some of my own touches–as with any inheritance, I have found, over time it comes to reflect the wear of the many hands that have held it and loved it.
A real memory maker recipe and a gift certainly well worth that trade of a treasured antique butter mold all those years ago. It is so very perfect for any gathering of family and friends and this is the one dessert recipe most requested by my loved ones! You’ll be glad to hear that it doesn’t take 3 days to make (only about 8 hours including time in the fridge) but Mama’s didn’t either– a truly gifted and masterful cook and baker she always had a way of simplifying things to ensure more time with family and friends and less time “hoverin'” in her kitchen!
It is my sincere hope that you find my recipe for “Carolina Coast Coconut Cake” worthy enough to be “passed down” to your family and friends–I promise you it will be makin’ memories wherever it goes!
Carolina Coast Coconut Cake
1 pkg. Butter Recipe Yellow Cake Mix (I use only “Duncan Hines” Classic Butter Golden)
3 jumbo eggs
1/2 cup water
8 Tablespoons butter, unsalted and room temperature
Filling and Topping:
1-14 oz package of flaked, sweetened coconut ( I use “Baker’s Angel Flake” brand)
1-24 oz container of sour cream
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (homemade, if you have it)
2 8-inch round cake pans
“Baker’s Joy” Spray (a combination oil and flour prep spray—look for it with other cooking oil sprays like “Pam”)
Wilton Decorate Smart Small Cake Leveler
Wilton White Cake Sparkles
Mix together coconut, sour cream, sugar and vanilla and refrigerate overnight (or for at least 4 hours).
Follow package instructions using changes to ingredient quantities as provided above in the ingredients list.
Spray bottom and sides of baking pans with flour/oil prep spray.
Preheat oven to 350° for metal and glass pans or 325° for dark or coated pans.
Blend together the cake mix, butter and eggs in a large bowl with your mixer on low until well moistened (around 30 seconds) and then beat on medium/high for 4 minutes. Evenly pour batter into prepared pans (oil and flour sprayed) and bake immediately using middle oven rack.
Bake 26-30 minutes (or more as needed) in metal and glass pans or 3 to 5 minutes longer in dark or coated pans. Your cakes are done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Please note the progress of the cakes doneness carefully–the golden caramel color of the cake when perfectly done is critical to the appearance of this cake when assembled.
Cool cakes in their pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes before removing from the pans and then cool completely.
Once cool, split both cakes in half horizontally for a total of four layers.
I have tried a multitude of ways to horizontally split cake layers over the course of the years and found nothing is as easy to use as a Wilton Decorate Smart Small Cake Leveler to split the two prepared layers into the necessary four layers for assembly.
Split the chilled–at least 4 hours and, optimally, overnight–topping into four equal quantities.
I always use a grease proof doily as the base for a layer cake. I have found it to provide that lovely finished look I want for my cakes.
Place four strips of 2″-3″ wide wax paper forming a square on top of the doily and on the outside rim of the cake plate–this will protect the doily and cake plate from drips of topping/frosting and can be easily removed once you are finished.
Once you have split the two cakes into four layers you will see that each layer now has a golden smooth crust side–the exterior or “crusty” side of the former single cake layer and a crumb side–the interior or “crumby” side of the single cake layer. Beginning with the crust side down place the first layer–Layer One–in the center of your prepared cake plate and then frost with 1/4th of the topping. It’s important to avoid just dumping the topping onto the cake and then trying to spread it! It’s luxuriously thick and heavy compared to the airiness of the cake and so, unless you are very gentle, you may drag crumb from the cake up into the topping or much worse–break the cake!
Carefully drop 6 to 8 big spoonfuls of the topping around the entire top of the layer and then using the tip of a small spoon or fork gently join them together and level the topping until evenly spread across the entire top of the layer. Once the topping has been evenly spread across the top of the layer you will need to take the tip of a spoon and gently pull a little of the topping all the way around and at the very edge of the layer so that some will peek out between each layer as you assemble. Level the topping one last time using the back of a spoon.
Layer Two is crumb down and centered on the first. Take a little time to go around the outside of the second layer once placed and gently push the edge of the cake back until it is straight and the little peek of topping is visible–then frost using 1/4 of the topping just as you did that first layer.
Layer Three is crust down/crumb up–and is completed following the steps outlined in Layers One and Two. The very top of the cake is Layer Four and it is added to the other layers crumb down/crust up. Top with the remaining 1/4 of the topping and dust with white sparkles (I use Wilton White Cake Sparkles–the are transparent flakes not sugars and give the cake a beautiful finish with a pretty glow to it!) I often add a big ripe strawberry sliced lengthwise almost–but not quite–through the leaf cap and then fanned out in my hand before placing on the cake. A tumble of raspberries or other in season berries also provide that special “ooohs & aaahs” as a finishing touch!
Please know that the following items are brands and products that I genuinely use. In most cases I have used them for many years and have found them to be quality products that do what they are designed to do without giving me issue.
They are listed simply as a convenience to my subscribers and are not listed because I have been paid to endorse them. However, in the spirit of full disclosure I am an Amazon Associate and do receive a nominal (a very nominal) amount for click through purchases made by right clicking on and opening the following links: