The secret to an award-winning coconut cake: Grate your own fresh coconut. (

We’re not that cruel, really.

When we spent the afternoon in the kitchen with Decoyise Brown, our featured player in today’s Washington Cooks, she had decided to challenge herself and try a chocolate cake she’d never made before. But her winning coconut cake was the reason I sought her out in first place; starting Memorial Day, you’ll be able to order a slice at Eatonville Restaurant. It’s everything the judges said it was: classic, fresh-tasting — and although the lemon filling has been deemed optional, we think otherwise. Make it, too.

The online story was posted before we’d had a chance to finish testing the recipe, so here it is, just in case you missed the link:

Coconut Cake With Lemon Filling and Cream Cheese Frosting

16 servings

If you make the lemon filling, you'll have 1 cup left over. Coconut emulsion, a professional-strength flavoring, is available on and, on occasion, at Ross stores. You’ll have about 1 1 / 2 cups of frosting left over, which can be frozen for future cupcakes.

MAKE AHEAD: The lemon filling can be made and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days. The coconut can be grated and refrigerated a day in advance, and the frosting can be refrigerated up to 2 days in advance.

For the cake

1 tablespoon vegetable shortening, for the cake pans

3 cups cake flour, plus more for the cake pans

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 3/4 cups sugar

1 cup cream of coconut (not coconut milk or coconut cream)

5 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

2 teaspoons coconut emulsion, such as LorAnn Coconut Bakery emulsion (see headnote: may substitute vanilla extract)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, such as Morton's

1 1/2 cups regular or low-fat buttermilk

For the lemon filling (optional)

1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin, such as Knox brand

Finely grated zest and freshly squeezed juice from 4 or 5 lemons (1 tablespoon zest and 1 cup plus 2 teaspoons of juice)

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

4 extra-large eggs, plus 6 extra-large egg yolks (reserve whites for another purpose)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces

For the frosting

2 or 3 small coconuts (shake to make sure there is liquid inside)

Two 8-ounce packages regular or low-fat cream cheese, at room temperature (do not use nonfat)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup cream of coconut (not coconut milk)

2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Use the vegetable shortening and enough flour to grease, then thoroughly dust, two 9-inch cake pans. Shake out any excess flour.

Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on low speed, then on medium-high speed for about 5 minutes or until lightened and fluffy. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the cream of coconut and beat on low speed until well incorporated.

Meanwhile, separate the egg yolks and egg whites, reserving the latter.Add the first egg yolk to the butter mixture; beat on medium speed to incorporate, then add the remaining yolks one at a time, incorporating after each addition. Then beat for at least 5 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the coconut emulsion and beat until well combined. Remove the bowl from the mixer.

Meanwhile, sift the 3 cups of flour together with the baking powder, baking soda and sea salt. Beat the egg whites in a clean separate bowl on high speed to form stiff peaks.Stir one-third of the flour mixture into the butter-egg mixture, then add one-third of the buttermilk; once the mixture is smooth, repeat with another third of the flour mixture and the buttermilk, then with what remains of each, forming a smooth batter.

Fold in the egg whites, gently yet thoroughly.

Divide the batter evenly between the cake pans; use an offset spatula to make the surface even and smooth. Bake on the middle oven rack for about 45 to 47 minutes or until the sides of the cake have pulled away slightly from the pans, the cake tops spring back when gently pressed and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer the pans to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then place the cake layers directly on the rack to cool completely.

While the cake is cooling, make the filling, if desired: Stir together the gelatin and 2 teaspoons of lemon juice in a small bowl so the gelatin softens.Heat the remaining cup of lemon juice, sugar and sea salt in a medium nonreactive saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring for about 2 minutes, until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Remove from the heat.

Use a whisk to combine the 4 whole eggs and 6 egg yolks in a medium mixing bowl, beating until the mixture is slightly frothy. Gradually whisk in the lemon-sugar mixture (making sure not to cook the eggs), then whisk in the softened gelatin-juice mixture and lemon zest.

Whisk in 1 tablespoon of the butter at a time; increase the heat to medium and keep whisking so the mixture thickens for about 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium-low to keep the mixture from scorching and cook for about 7 minutes; a spoon pulled through the filling should leave a ribbony trail. Remove from the heat; strain through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any solids, pushing the filling through with a flexible spatula. Transfer to a container to cool, or refrigerate until ready to use.

For the frosting: Use a screwdriver and hammer to pierce one of the eyes of 2 coconuts and crack their shells open over a bowl placed in the sink. Drain their milk into a bowl, reserving it for later use. Find the seam that runs between the eyes, which should lead to each coconut's equator; use a blunt side of a meat cleaver or very heavy knife to tap firmly around the equator as you turn each coconut in your hand. Continue to tap until the coconut splits open, making sure it's over the bowl in the sink. Discard the brown skin, then cut the coconuts into large chunks. Use a spoon to scrape out or dislodge the flesh, preferably in chunks.

Transfer them to a food processor fitted with a fine shredding attachment, or use a box grater to grate them. The yield should be 3 cups; if not, repeat with the third coconut. Transfer the grated coconut to a resealable plastic food storage bag; use some of the reserved coconut liquid to moisten the flesh. Seal and refrigerate until ready to use, up to 2 days.

Combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. Beat on medium speed until well combined. Add the vanilla extract and the cream of coconut; beat for about 4 minutes, until light and fluffy.

Reduce the speed to low; add the confectioners’ sugar in 1/2 cup increments and beat each addition until thoroughly incorporated, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use, or up to 2 days.

When ready to assemble, invert one of the cooled cake layers on a serving plate. Spread the filling, if using, or some of the frosting almost to the edges of the cake. Scatter about one-fourth of the grated coconut over the filling or frosting. Place the remaining layer, top side up, squarely on top. Spread the frosting generously on the top and sides of the cake.Working with handfuls of the grated coconut at a time, gently press it against the sides of the cake and scatter it generously over the top. Refrigerate uncovered for 20 minutes before serving. For longer storage, cover the cake in plastic wrap.