When I was a child, my family would go to my paternal grandparents’ humble farmhouse outside Grenada, Mississippi, every Christmas Eve for a celebration with my father’s three siblings and their families. We would eat snacks early in the evening (cocktail weenies in a sauce made from grape jelly and mustard were my grandfather’s favorite), move on to a traditional dinner with turkey and ham as the centerpieces, and then open presents by the fire, where each kid would at some point become momentarily hypnotized by the brilliant hues the flames took on as we tossed in the colorful wrapping paper. Almost as exciting as the exchange of presents, though—and far more pervasive in my memory—was the annual gift of my grandmother’s coconut cake.She’d present it with great aplomb somewhere during the flurry of gift-opening. It was always a three-tiered affair, which she would have stashed away in the extra fridge in the storage room behind the kitchen, so that no one could steal a sneak peek. It was glorious—a towering stack covered in pristine white coconut flakes, with layers so delicate that each slice would fall apart before the serrated knife got through it. Didn’t matter; we all adored it. Her secret to the tender, moist layers was the “poke cake” method: When the cake layers came out of the oven, she poked holes all over them and then spread sweetened condensed milk over the top to soak in. The effect was decadent, rich, and absolutely irresistible.Now that I’m grown up, Christmas gatherings are smaller, nine-person affairs that include my own family of four, my parents, and my brother, his wife, and their son. Towering layer cakes are just a bit too much for our small group, so I’ve created a more manageable homage to my grandmother’s coconut cake. It’s a coconut cake roll, which to me is just as special and oooh- and ahhh-inspiring as the layer cake upon which it’s based.I’m pretty sure my grandmother’s cake included some coconut extract, but my version uses coconut products with no artificial flavors. Mine is also a poke cake, but with sweetened condensed coconut milk (a game-changing ingredient) adding richness to a simple sheet cake with a whiff of nutty essence from coconut water. The frosting includes a combination of butter and coconut cream, and lightly salted toasted coconut chips are pressed in for a gorgeous finish and equally beautiful taste.It took me several tries to nail the texture and flavor that I remember from my childhood, but when I made this final version, I knew I had it right. One bite brought back a flurry of Christmas Eve memories—the letter board my brother got one year, my fancy fur hat and patent leather hat box, and Grandmama, every bit as stately as her cake and beaming with pride at what she’d made.


Credit: Jennifer Causey

Recipe Summary

2 hrs
35 mins
9 or 10


Ingredient Checklist


Instructions Checklist
  • Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a 15- x 10- x 1-inch jelly roll pan with parchment paper, folding creases firmly so paper lies against edges of pan and has some overhang. Coat parchment with cooking spray. Cut another large sheet of parchment paper, and set aside on a work surface.

  • Place eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer; beat at medium-high speed with paddle attachment until slightly thickened, about 4 minutes. Beating at high speed, gradually add granulated sugar; beat until pale and slightly thick, about 3 minutes. Add coconut water and 1 teaspoon vanilla; beat at low speed just until combined.

  • Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Add flour mixture to egg mixture; beat at low speed until well combined. (Batter will be thin.) Pour batter into prepared pan, spreading to edges. Bake in preheated oven until cake springs back when lightly touched in center, 12 to 14 minutes. (Surface of cake will look porous.) Meanwhile, clean bowl of stand mixer.

  • Working quickly, remove cake from pan by holding onto parchment paper. Invert onto sheet of parchment paper on work surface; peel off and discard parchment from cake. Quickly turn cake over so porous side is facing up. Poke holes all over surface of hot cake with a fork; spread sweetened condensed coconut milk evenly over cake. Starting with one of the short sides, roll up the cake tightly but gently in the parchment paper. Let cool on a wire rack, seam side down, until completely cool, about 1 hour.

  • Place heavy cream and 3 tablespoons powdered sugar in cleaned bowl of stand mixer; beat with whisk attachment at high speed until stiff, firm peaks form. Carefully unroll cake (it will be sticky), gently prying with fingers if it sticks to paper. Spread whipped cream evenly over entire surface of cake. Reroll cake; arrange on a platter, seam side down. Place in refrigerator.

  • Scoop out 1/2 cup solidified coconut cream, and place in bowl of stand mixer (no need to rinse it out); reserve remaining coconut cream and liquid for another use. Add butter to bowl; beat with cleaned paddle attachment at medium speed until well combined, about 1 minute. (It’s OK if it clumps up slightly.) Add remaining 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar; beat at low speed, increasing speed to medium-low, until smooth and creamy. Beat in remaining 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Spread frosting evenly over top, sides, and ends of cake. Gently press coconut chips into frosting. Serve immediately, or chill until ready to serve.