Years ago, I developed a brown sugar-scented play on the classic American 2-egg /1 bowl cake known as Lightning Cake (because it only takes 15 minutes to throw together). Buttery, tender, and fragrant, its deliciousness and fine texture belies its ease. On a pretty plate and dusted with powdered sugar, it looks like the lovely plain cakes you’d find in France: a fine dessert until itself.

Even better, the cake can be split and filled or frosted with various creamy icings and fillings to make a simple sensational layer cake like the one I made last weekend for a friend’s seventieth birthday:it was filled with crème fraiche and a quick uncooked lemon jam and topped with crème fraiche and sweetened coconut.

Vivienne Chen
Vivienne Chen

I wasn’t sure until the last minute IF or WHAT I would fill the center with. Creamy caramel like dulce de leche or cajeta would have been spectacular and lemon curd is lovely with coconut.  I hadn’t the time to make either and couldn’t find them locally. (Commercial lemon curd can be easily doctored by adding fresh lemon juice). Although I knew the cake is fabulous layered with crème fraiche and coconut like a classic Coconut Layer Cake, I decided to whip up a version of a lemon jam I learned from Mario Batali years ago. Little more than a sliced lemon pureed in a food processor with some sugar and oil, Mario added herbs to make it work with savory foods like grilled fish and veal. Made sweeter, it has a pleasing bitterness from the peel that offsets rich cream, perfect in many desserts. (Stay-tuned for a special post on that incredibly versatile jam.)

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

My improvised layer cake was a big hit (Who gets homemade cake anymore?) It may have been even better the next day…

Vivienne Chen
Vivienne Chen

The recipe for the Brown Sugar Lightening cake follows my basic lazy-dog approach to layer cake:

Coconut Layer Cake Method

Prepare Brown Sugar Lightening cake (recipe below). One cake will make two ½-inch layers. For a tall, four-layer cake, double the recipe and filling.

When the cake is cool, invert onto a platter or cookie sheet. Use a long, thin knife (a salmon slicer works well) to split the cake horizontally in half.

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

Carefully lift off the top layer. I do this by inserting a thin metal tart tin bottom into the cut and under the top layer…

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

…to move it easily without breaking it…

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

Since I wasn’t sure how far in advance I could ice the cake without it becoming soggy, the tart bottom allowed me to have the cake split and ready to fill. I simply wrapped the stacked layers well in plastic wrap.  The cake can reasonably be filled and iced about an hour ahead if filled with whipped cream, or before you eat start dinner if pure creme fraiche or a non-cream filling.

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

Figure about 1 cup filling/icing per 9-inch layer. Spread the bottom layer with any of the following:

—about 1 cup of whipped cream into which you’ve folded a little sour cream OR

—straight crème fraiche stirred until spreadable AND/OR

—a thin layer of lemon curd or jam, or dulce to leche


—a scatter of sweetened shredded coconut or chopped toasted nuts…

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

Replace the top.  You can simply sift confectioner’s sugar over the cake OR ice the top (here I used thick creme fraiche)…

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

…and sprinkle liberally with sweetned coconut…

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

Recipe: Essential Brown Sugar Lightening Cake

The cake itself can be flavored in endless ways: bourbon, rum, almond extract (it’s strong, use sparingly), rosewater, orange flower water and so on. Grated fruit zests – lemon, orange, tangerine, Meyer lemon – can be used alone or in tandem with other flavorings to make citrus-scented cakes. Lace the cake with sweet spices – nutmeg, mace, allspice, cinnamon, clove, coriander, fennel seed, cardamom, even black pepper – or herbs; any of the thymes and rosemary used sparingly, can add a lovely counterpoint of flavor. Old-fashioned pound cakes were often baked with leaf of rose geranium in the bottom of the pan before the batter was poured in to gently scent the cake.

Makes one 9-inch cake, 8 servings


8 tablespoons unsalted butter (one 4-ounce stick), melted

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup buttermilk OR 1/4 cup whole milk mixed with 1/4 cup plain yogurt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract OR 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1 teaspoon bourbon

Confectioner’s sugar

Prepare the pan. Preheat the oven to 350’. Brush the inside of a 9-inch straight-sided cake pan with a little of the melted butter. Spoon a teaspoon or two flour into the pan and tilt it until it is completely coated. Invert and tap to release excess flour.

Sift together dry ingredients. Place a sifter or a strainer over a bowl and sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir again with a fork and set aside.

Beat the eggs with the sugar. Crack the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk until blended and frothy. Whisk in the sugar and beat until well blended, 1 minute.

Mix in dry and wet ingredients. Whisk in the flour using as few strokes as possible until mostly incorporated. Then, whisk in the milk, melted butter and flavorings. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake and cool the cake. Bake the cake 35 to 40 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake on a rack 5 minutes, then invert onto the rack. Cool completely and invert onto a platter. Sift some confectioner’s sugar over the top.

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

If you’ve found illumination, joy, or inspiration in this post, please consider supporting Improvised Life. It only takes a minute to make a secure donation that helps pay our many costs. A little goes a long way towards helping Improvised Life continue to live ad-free in the world.

Support Improvised Life ♥

10 replies on “Brown Sugar Coconut Layer Cake with Lemon or Dulce de Leche

  1. Looking forward to the lemon jam recipe! This sounds lovely, pinned this cake to make for a birthday (or the next occasion I can come up with) 🙂

  2. Have you ever combined whipped cream and lemon curd? Alice Waters is my source. It’s divine like a lemon cloud. Cake looks yummy.

  3. I did a lot of riffs on that essential jam and promise to post for next Friday’s recipe/method.

  4. Looks fabulous! A good cake recipe can change your life – here is my nan’s simplicity cake, which is super-simple and can be adapted with almost any flavour. My mission is to spread it as far as possible to promote the unrivalled joy of a home-made cake : )

  5. Thank you. I especially love the many variations.
    Spreading an easy cake recipe around: what a lovely mission of peace!

  6. Oh, I love this lightning cake recipe of yours! It changed me from a pie baker to a cake baker (most of the time now) when I discovered it in your Improvisational Cook book.

  7. Yeah, that recipe changed me into a cake baker as well. It’s root go way back into American cookery, where they needed simple, practical recipes. Tried and true and endlessly improvisable.

  8. Hi,
    I was digging through my cache of cookbooks for a simple cake recipe and found “The Improvisational Cook” on my shelf with this recipe. Hoping to try it soon. The cookbook shows “1 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted” and this online version has “8 tablespoons unsalted butter”…can you clarify (no pun intended) the quantity of butter?

  9. Well, you CAUGHT the typo in the original The Improvisational Cook. I have a post it on my beat up kitchen copy that says “Correction! 1 stick = 8 tablespoons.
    THAT is what it should be, no matter what fat you use: 8 Tablespoons which is half cup, and a 4 ounce stick of butter. Thank you for asking! And sorry for the confusion. A typo or two is one of the unfortunate and terrifying realities of being an author.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *