Recipe: James Beard Award winner Dolester Miles’s famous coconut cake

The two-layer showstopper is a descendent of her mother’s German chocolate cake, minus the chocolate
Coconut pecan cake from Highlands Bar & Grill

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

Serves 12–14

Dolester Miles grew up in Bessemer, Alabama, making Southern layer cakes with her mother and aunt using only a hand mixer. In 1982, she began her career working with Birmingham wünderchef Frank Stitt, helping him open his elegant Parisian-style restaurant, Highlands Bar & Grill. Today, Miles is one of America’s best bakers: In 2018, she won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Read more about her coconut cake here, and make it yourself with Miles’s own recipe:


For the cake:
1 cup firmly packed sweetened shredded coconut
¾ cup pecan halves, toasted
2 cups granulated sugar
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans
1 tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup unsalted butter (about 1.5 sticks), softened, plus more for the pans
¼ cup cream of coconut
4 large eggs
¼ teaspoon coconut extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened coconut milk

For the filling and simple syrup:
2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
¾ cup sweetened condensed milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon cream of coconut
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
½ cup granulated sugar

For the icing:
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon coconut extract
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut, toasted


  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each with parchment paper. Grease the parchment paper, then dust with flour, tapping out excess.
  2. Finely grind the coconut in a food processor, then transfer to a bowl. Add pecans to the food processor, along with 2 tablespoons sugar, and finely grind them.
  3. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir in coconut and pecans.
  4. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter, cream of coconut, and the remaining sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the bowl as necessary, then beat in coconut extract.
  5. Add the flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the coconut milk, starting and ending with flour mixture. Divide batter between the pans and smooth the top of each with a spatula. Bake until cakes are golden and a tester comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cakes cool in the pans on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of each cake, invert onto rack, and remove the parchment. Let cool completely.
  6. Meanwhile, make the filling: Place egg yolks in a small heatproof bowl and set aside. In a saucepan, combine condensed milk, butter, and cream of coconut, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until hot, about 4 minutes. Whisk 1/3 of the hot milk into the egg yolks. Transfer egg mixture to the saucepan of milk and whisk constantly over medium-low heat until mixture has the consistency of pudding, about 4 minutes. Do not let the custard get too thick. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the shredded coconut. Let cool completely.
  7. Make the simple syrup: In a saucepan, heat sugar and 1/2 cup water, stirring occasionally until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat.
  8. Assemble the layer cake in a pan: Cut each cake in half horizontally. Place one layer in the bottom of a 9-inch cake pan, moisten the top with 2 to 3 tablespoons simple syrup, and spread 1/2 cup of the coconut filling in a thin, even layer with an offset spatula. Repeat to make 2 more layers of cake and filling, then place the last layer on top. Refrigerate cake for about 1 hour. To unmold, run a spatula around the edges, invert a cake plate over the top, and flip the cake over onto the plate.
  9. Make the icing: Whip the cream with the confectioners’ sugar and coconut extract until stiff peaks form. Spread on the top and sides of the cake, and sprinkle with toasted coconut. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

This cake appears on the cover of the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Southbound.