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Eatymology: Coconut Cake

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Eatymology: Coconut Cake
Written by Emily Storrow | Photo by Stephen DeVries

Coconut Cake

[kō-kə-nət kāk]

n: A Southern sweet layered with coconut and lore

Like other trademarks of the tropics, coconuts found their way to the American South aboard ships that docked at port cities like Charleston, South Carolina. In the eighteenth century, the hard little globes traveled well over choppy seas. While initially used for candy, coconuts were being baked into cakes in Charleston and New Orleans in the early 1800s, reports food writer Anne Byrn in American Cake (Rodale, 2016). Working with fresh coconut—cracking its shell, scraping its flesh—was labor-intensive, and often relegated to the enslaved. The layered cake recognizable to generations of Southerners first appeared in 1881 in What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (one of the first cookbooks by an African American author).

Coconut cake has held court in the decades since; one could arguably call it the official cake of Southern celebrations. Dolester “Dol” Miles, Frank Stitt’s pastry chef of thirty years, has baked her fair share of the icon. While she oversees dessert for Stitt’s four restaurants in Birmingham, Alabama, Miles learned to cook at the elbow of her mom and aunt in nearby Bessemer. When it came time to craft a coconut cake for Bottega, she drew inspiration from a different coconut-laced cake: german chocolate. “I grew up on it,” she says. “I wanted to do a version of that—so I took the chocolate out.” The result is a moist, sweet cake studded with pecans. Of course, it has plenty of coconut too, Miles affirms. “It’s got coconut milk, cream of coconut, coconut extract, and actual coconut,” she laughs. “You have to be a coconut lover to like it.”

Coconut Pecan Cake