Cooking Up History: Coco(a)nut Cake (1888) | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Cooking Up History: Coco(a)nut Cake (1888)

Cooking Up History: Coco(a)nut Cake (1888) | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeWood County Reporter July 12 1888


The first thing we noticed when coming across this 1888 coconut cake recipe in the Wood County Reporter was the spelling of the exotic fruit. Although both spellings can be found in 19th-century publications, “cocoanut” was used much more frequently than “coconut.” That changed in the early 20th century, possibly to avoid confusion with cocoa.

EnlargeManitowoc Pilot


The 1888 recipe in the Wood County Reporter was not the first mention of a “cocoanut cake” in Wisconsin newspapers. The Mineral Point Tribune printed a recipe as early as 1869 and a search for the phrase “cocoanut cake” in Chronicling America reveals 61 results in Wisconsin newspapers before 1900. With a climate far from ideal for growing coconuts, how did the fruit make it into a Wisconsinite’s cake? The Iowa County Democrat addressed the origin of the coconut in the 1881 article “Where Cocoanuts Come From” describing the import of the fruit from the West Indies and Central America.


EnlargeManitowoc Pilot 2


The Wood County Reporter also shed light on the coconut trade in 1886, detailing the sale of copra, the dried meat of the coconut, from Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji to San Francisco where the oil was extracted. Whole coconuts arrived in New Orleans from where they would be shipped to St. Louis for desiccation.

EnlargeIngredients for coconut cake


According to the Manitowoc Pilot, this was also around the same time when growing coconut trees was becoming more popular in Florida. However, it is more likely coconuts made their way to Wisconsin via New Orleans. Once in the state, you would have been able to buy one at a local grocer such as Plumb & Nelson, who advertised coconuts for $0.05 each in the Manitowoc Pilot.

EnlargeMixing Ingredients - coconut cake


On to the recipe. The cake is a simple sponge cake with a meringue frosting. The coconut is only added to the frosting, not the cake batter. Sugar and butter are to be creamed together, but 1 tablespoon of butter is hardly enough to be creamed with 1 cup of sugar. The sugar was only slightly sticky when we added the milk and eggs. Finally, the flour and baking powder turned the batter into a very dense mass. As the recipe does not include any baking instructions, we decided to bake it at 350°F for 30 minutes, which seemed to do the trick. Once cooled, we topped it off with the frosting – two egg whites whipped and mixed with sugar and coconut.

EnlargeBaked Coconut cake


The cake turned out slightly dry and very dense. The texture resembled a bread rather than a sponge cake and the flavor came from the coconut in the frosting alone. We suggest adding more butter, some vanilla, and perhaps a pinch of salt. If you’d prefer sticking to the original recipe, give it a try paired with a slice of grilled pineapple and a cup of coffee – or better yet a 1915 Hongkong Cooler.

EnlargeCoconut Cake


The Recipe in 2020


  • 1 Tbs. butter (suggested for improvement: ½ cup butter)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • Suggested for improvement: 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Suggested for improvement: 1 pinch of salt


  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup grated coconut

Cream together butter and sugar, add eggs and milk (and vanilla) and mix well. In a separate bowl, mix flour and baking powder (and salt) first before adding the dry ingredients to the wet. Mix well and pour into a greased cake or springform pan. Bake at 350°F for about 30 minutes. Let cool.

For the frosting, whip two egg whites slowly adding the powdered sugar and coconut.