Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream

This coconut cake is a total showstopper at any gathering. With lemon curd filling and vanilla buttercream frosting. Make-ahead options; keeps well.

Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
Sally Vargas

If you love coconut, then this cake is for you. The cake is moist, the lemon curd filling is tart and bright, and the vanilla icing is silky smooth.

This coconut cake pulls out all the stops. It is the best dessert for any special occasion.

Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
Sally Vargas

If I learned anything from my days as a pastry chef, it is that in baking, you can often play around with timing and make most recipes work on your schedule.

This is because pastry making is all about components. At the restaurant, we made many of our building blocks throughout the week: puff pastry, pastry cream, pie dough, even buttercream, could all be made ahead at separate times and then combined in different ways depending on the particular dessert we needed to make.

The same holds for this cake. It’s a big bite to take all in one day, unless you have an entire morning for the job. Instead, spread out the tasks over a few days.

Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
Sally Vargas

Here's what I do: Make the cake, and while it is baking, make the lemon curd (which is pretty quick and easy). Wrap the cake in foil and pack the curd into a storage container, and refrigerate both. Now you have done the lion’s share of work!

On the following day, make the buttercream, and then fill, ice and decorate the cake. Or refrigerate the buttercream for another day (or up to three days); let it come to room temperature before decorating the cake.

Once decorated, cover the cake with a cake dome or an inverted mixing bowl, and it can sit on the counter for several hours until serving. You can also refrigerate the covered cake for a few days before serving (up to 3 days).

Before you know it, your pièce de résistance is ready for its grand entrance at the dinner party, without too much fluster!

Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream

Prep Time 60 mins
Cook Time 0 mins
Total Time 90 mins
Servings 10 to 12 servings

The coconut oil in the ingredient list should be solid; it sometimes liquefies at room temperature. If it has liquefied, measure what you need and then let it solidify in the fridge.

Cream of coconut is different than coconut milk or coconut cream, so read labels carefully when shopping. My favorite brand is Coco Lopez. If you don’t see it in your supermarket, look for it at the liquor store since it is also a component for pina coladas.

You won't need the full can of cream of coconut. The leftover is great drizzled over morning oatmeal or made into a cocktail.


  • For the cake:
  • Butter (for the cake pans)
  • Flour (for the cake pans)
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil (solidified, not liquidy)
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup canned cream of coconut, such as Coco Lopez
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • Pinch of salt
  • For the lemon curd filling:
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice (from 3 to 4 lemons)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in small cubes
  • For the buttercream:
  • 3/4 pound (3 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • To finish the cake:
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted
  • 1 cup lemon curd
  • 1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut


MAKE THE CAKE (Makes two 9-inch cake rounds)

  1. Prepare the pans and preheat the oven

    Heat the oven to 350F. Butter two 9-inch circular layer cake pans. Dust each pan with flour, and tap out the excess. Line the bottom of each pan with a circle of parchment paper.

  2. Combine the dry ingredients

    In a bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt to blend them.

  3. Separate the eggs

    Place the egg yolks in one bowl and the egg whites in another. Refrigerate the egg whites until needed.

  4. Make the batter

    In an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and coconut oil on medium speed for 3 minutes. Add the sugar and beat for 2 minutes. (This beating action will aerate the cake and make it lighter.)

    Switch to low speed, and beat in the eggs yolks, one at a time, mixing only until incorporated. Blend in the cream of coconut and vanilla.

    With the mixer on its lowest speed, add a third of the dry ingredients (from step 2) followed by half of the buttermilk. Mix just until blended and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add another third of the dry ingredients, followed by the remaining buttermilk. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the remaining third of the dry ingredients.

    Remove the bowl from the mixer stand and scrape it into a large bowl.

  5. Beat the egg whites

    Wash out the mixing bowl with dish soap, being careful to wipe away all traces of fat. Dry thoroughly.

    In the clean bowl with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and salt on medium high speed until stiff but not dry. They should look creamy and hold their peaks; if they start to look crumbly, stop immediately and continue with the recipe.

  6. Fold the egg whites with the batter

    Scoop a third of the beaten egg whites on top of the cake batter and mix gently to lighten the batter. Scoop the remaining egg whites on top of the batter and gently fold them together. (To "fold," just scoop deep into the bowl with your spatula, lift up, and gently turn the batter over on top of itself. Rotate the bowl slightly and repeat. Continue until you see no more streaks of egg white.)

    Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
    Sally Vargas
  7. Divide the batter evenly between the cake pans.

    Smooth the tops with the back of a spoon.

  8. Bake the cakes

    Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. The baked cake should pull slightly away from the sides of the pan.

  9. Cool the cakes

    Set the pans on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Carefully invert onto another rack, then invert again so the layers stand right-side up. Leave to cool completely. Peel off the parchment paper and assemble the cake.

    Make-ahead: The cakes can be made a day or two ahead of assembly. Cool completely, wrap in aluminum foil, and refrigerate until needed.


  1. Set a strainer over a bowl and place it next to the stove

    Have this ready before you start the lemon curd.

  2. Mix all ingredients

    In a heavy bottomed medium saucepan, whisk the lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, eggs, egg yolks, and salt. Add the butter pieces.

    Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
    Sally Vargas
  3. Cook the lemon curd

    Set the pan on the stove over medium heat. Stirring constantly with a spatula, cook the mixture for 5 to 6 minutes, or until it thickens and comes just to a boil around the edges (170F on a thermometer).

  4. Strain and cool

    Quickly remove the pan from the heat and scrape the curd into the strainer. Strain, using your spatula to press the curd through the strainer. Chill in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours, or until cold.

    Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
    Sally Vargas

    Make-ahead: Once prepared, the lemon curd can be kept refrigerated for several days. (This recipe makes slightly more than you'll need; use any leftover on toast or sandwich between cookies.

MAKE THE BUTTERCREAM (Makes about 4 cups, enough for the sides and top of a 9-inch layer cake)

  1. Beat the cool butter until smooth

    This is a Swiss meringue buttercream, and it's incredibly creamy and light. You will be adding smooth butter to the whipped egg whites (meringue); the butter should be creamy but not too warm when you add it to the meringue.

    To do this, remove the butter from the refrigerator, cut it into pieces and let stand for 10 minutes, or until slightly softened but still cool to the touch. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat until creamy and smooth. Scrape into a separate bowl.

    The butter should stay cool and smooth until needed. It should be fine at room temperature, but if your kitchen is very warm, refrigerate briefly while doing the next step and remove before the butter becomes too hard.

  2. Warm the egg whites and sugar

    Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer. Meanwhile, thoroughly wash the mixer bowl used for the butter in hot soapy water to remove all traces of butter and dry thoroughly.

    Combine the egg whites and sugar in the mixer bowl. Set the bowl over the simmering water and whisk constantly until the mixture is very warm to the touch and the sugar is dissolved (110F). Dip your finger into the mixture and rub it against your thumb. It should feel completely smooth, not gritty.

  3. Make the meringue

    Set the bowl on the stand mixer and beat on medium high-speed with a whisk attachment for about 5 minutes, or until stiff peaks form. Set the speed on low and continue to beat the meringue for 15 minutes longer, or until cool.

    Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
    Sally Vargas
  4. Add the butter

    On low speed, beat in butter, a heaping tablespoon at a time, until it is all incorporated and the buttercream is smooth. Beat in the vanilla extract.

    If the mixture looks slightly grainy or curdled, it may be that the butter is too cool. Simply set the bowl of buttercream over simmering water for a few seconds to warm it. If the buttercream becomes soupy, it is probably too warm. Chill for 20 minutes or so, and try mixing again.

    Make-ahead: You can refrigerate this buttercream for up to 3 days. Allow it to come to room temperature and beat with a paddle attachment to bring it to spreading consistency. If necessary, warm it carefully over simmering water.

Assemble the Cake

  1. Toast the coconut

    Heat the oven to 350°F. On a baking sheet, spread the coconut flakes (not the shredded coconut). Bake for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the coconut is golden. Watch carefully, since it burns easily. Cool on the baking sheet.

  2. Prepare the cake for decorating

    Cut 4 parchment paper strips that are about 3 inches wide. If the cake has domed in the oven, shave off the domed peaks with a serrated knife to make the layers flat and even.

    On a flat surface or a flat cake stand, place the bottom layer, trimmed side down. Slip the parchment strips partially under the cake. Brush off any excess crumbs.

  3. Spread 1 cup of lemon curd on top of the cake

    Place the second layer on top, trimmed side down. (You will have leftover lemon curd; this will keep in the fridge for at least a week and can be spread on toast or sandwiched between cookies.)

  4. Spread a "crumb coating" of frosting over the cake

    Spread about 1/3 of the buttercream on top and around the sides of the cake in a thin coating. Refrigerate for 20 minutes, or until the buttercream is firm. This step helps to both minimize crumbs and to firm up the lemon curd so that it does not ooze into the icing.

    Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
    Sally Vargas
    Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
    Sally Vargas
  5. Frost the cake and coat with coconut

    Spread the remainder of the buttercream over the top and sides of the cake. With a cupped hand and the aid of a spatula, cover the cake with the shredded coconut.

    Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
    Sally Vargas
    Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
    Sally Vargas
  6. Finish the cake

    Remove the strips of parchment from under the cake and brush off the coconut that is around the bottom of the cake. Decorate the top with the toasted coconut flakes.

    Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
    Sally Vargas
Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
Sally Vargas