Lightened Up Coconut Cake

This Lightened  Up Coconut Cake is inspired by the infamous Charleston Peninsula Grill’s coconut cake, but made healthier. Lightened Up Coconut Cake |

Having been born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, you would assume I would know everything about the city. Nope. I actually only knew the inside and out of Mount Pleasant, the town on the other side of the bridge, having only occasionally visited Charleston. The only part of Charleston I ever knew was the building my father worked in at the College of Charleston.

I knew that the peanut M&M bowl was located in my dad’s office. I knew where the scary professor that liked to take my hair bows was down the hall. I knew where the giant ladies’ restroom was, oh, and the water fountain. I knew where the classrooms, full of desks floating on ‘hot lava’ were. I also knew where the printer paper and the most massive office supply shelf was located, for my many works of art.

That was my Charleston.

Lightened Up Coconut Cake |

You see, we actually lived in Charleston when I was first growing up and I attended a private school my 1st grade year (hated it!) until my parent’s moved us to Mount Pleasant (the schools in Mount Pleasant rock!). While in 1st grade, my dad would walk from work to pick me up from school. We’d then walk back to his office until he was done working for the day. There, I had a blast exploring my dad’s office building at CofC.

Fast forward a decade and I was introduced to my future husband in high school and faced deciding on a college (follow the boy to college or go to CofC?). The answer was clear and I attended The College of Charleston, despite the 5 years of a long distance relationship ahead.

Lightened Up Coconut Cake |

I absolutely loved being immersed into the city that was far enough away from home, yet close enough to get a hug from my mommy.

Funny story, the campus housing I stayed in my freshman year (a historic Charlestonian house) happened to be directly across from my father’s office building. Even more ironic was that my bedroom window was directly across from my father’s office window. He still claims this as coincidence. But, yes, we’d put messages in the window like, “run today?” or “laundry is here”.

It was perfect.

Lightened Up Coconut Cake |

While at CofC, I would take long runs (to work off the infinite soft serve ice cream cones from the cafeteria) and explore a new street of the historic Charleston everyday. It was the dream.

I love Charleston.

Lightened Up Coconut Cake |

That said, lets move on to this Charleston inspired cake.

Having made it ‘lighter’, it’s not as decadent as the sky-high Peninsula Grill coconut cake, but it’s equally as delicious. The toasted coconut on the outside is such a beautiful contrast to the soft and fluffy cake inside.

It’s coconuty heaven.

Lightened Up Coconut Cake |

Lightened Up Coconut Cake

cake adapted from and frosting adapted from Completely Delicious


  • 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups sugar (or 1 cup sugar and 1 cup date paste)
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sifted white whole wheat flour
  • 5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup light coconut milk, shaken
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon coconut extract
  • (Topping) 3 cups shredded unsweetened coconut, divided
  • (Frosting) 8 ounces reduced fat cream cheese, room temperature
  • (Frosting) 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • (Frosting) 4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • (Frosting) 1 teaspoon coconut extract
  • (Frosting) 1-3 tablespoons light coconut milk, you may not need it
  • (Filling) 1 cup heavy whipping cream


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour three 8-inch cake pans.
  2. Beat the butter with an electric mixer until fluffy. Beat in the sugar and date paste for 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.
  4. Beat in the flour mixture and coconut milk, alternating, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Beat in the vanilla until just mixed.
  5. Evenly pour the batter into the prepared cake pans and evenly spread it out.
  6. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for 5 minutes before turning out onto cooling racks to cool completely.
  7. (TOPPING) While your oven is still on, evenly spread 2 cups of the shredded coconut onto a baking sheet. Bake until lightly toasted. Scoop out 1 cup of the toasted coconut and place in a bowl to cool. Continue to bake the remaining cup of coconut until it becomes a darker toasted color. Pour that remaining darker toasted coconut in a separate bowl to cool. Pour your last cup of coconut that has not been toasted in another bowl. Set aside for decoration and turn off your oven.
  8. (FROSTING) Beat the cream cheese and butter together until combined and fluffy (about 1 minutes). Beat in the powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time until combined. Beat in the coconut extract and (only add milk if your frosting is too thick) milk.
  9. (FILLING) Reserve 1 cup of the frosting and beat with the heavy whipping cream. Divide the filling in half and spread half on the first cake layer. Place the second layer on top and spread out the remaining filling. Top with the last cake layer.
  10. Frost the outside of your cake with the frosting and gently layer the toasted coconut cake on the entire cake, creating an ombre effect. I began with the darker coconut on the bottom and worked my way up to the un-toasted coconut on the top.
  11. Refrigerate the cake until ready to serve.
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  1. My dad was a college professor and I remember running around campus with my friends and visiting his office where he’d take us down to the lab and demo physics experiments. Loved reading your memories, too. Plus your cake looks amazing!

  2. I love both the light and dark shots of the cake! I’m such a fan of your crisp white background pictures. Do you have any tips for achieving these shots? (When I try to attempt this, my white turns out to have hints of blue or gray).

  3. YUM! We tried this cake for the first time I think last spring. I thought it was good, but not mind blowing- I actually think yours looks tastier 🙂 What a pretty cake!

  4. Gorgeous ~ Would love to see this submitted at Food Foto so I can share with all my foodie friends 😉

  5. We visited Charleston for the first time last summer and on the advice of a friend, we went to the Peninsula Grill for a slice of their coconut cake. As huge coconut lovers, this was heaven for us!! The slices were HUGE, but we managed to finish it all!!! Thanks so much for posting this recipe – I will be making this for Easter dessert.

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