Ambrosia Layer Cake

March 27, 2011

This afternoon was our church’s monthly potluck luncheon, and as I missed last month’s luncheon due to work, I wanted to make something extra-adventurous! The recipe for this cake in Gourmet Today caught my eye because I’ve always loved ambrosia fruit salad (traditionally made with mandarin oranges, pineapple, coconut flakes, and often marshmallows), and I was feeling ambitious enough to tackle a 4-layer cake. Because the cake and the filling can be made the day ahead, all I had to do this morning was make the frosting and perform the final assembly.

The frosting’s texture is very marshmallow-like, and the toasted coconut adds a nice crunch on the outside. The cake itself is light but not overly lean. The predominant flavor is orange in both the cake and custard filling, but if I make it again sometime I may experiment with adding pineapple somehow as well – perhaps by substituting pineapple juice for the orange juice in the filling. Overall it was a highly successful experiment: there were zero pieces left for us to take home at the end of the luncheon!

Ambrosia layer cake

For making ahead: The cake layers (not split) can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. The filling can be refrigerated for up to 8 hours; stir before using. The frosting can be made up to 4 hours ahead and refrigerated, covered. The cake can be assembled up to 2 hours ahead. (I also toasted the coconut a day ahead and kept it in a sealed container to keep it crisp.)

Serves 10 to 12

Requires two 9 by 2-inch round cake pans


For cake layers:

  • 2 3/4  cups sifted cake flour (not self-rising; sift before measuring)
  • 2 1/2  teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2  teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2  sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2  cups sugar
  • 4  large eggs, left at room temperature for 30 minutes
  • 1  tablespoon finely grated orange zest
  • 1 1/2  teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1  cup whole milk

For filling:

  • 2  large eggs
  • 3/4  cup sugar
  • 1/4  cup cornstarch
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3/4  cup water
  • 1/2  cup fresh orange juice (from about 1 1/2 oranges; grate zest first)
  • 1/4  cup fresh lemon juice
  • 3  tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2  teaspoons finely grated orange zest

For frosting:

  • 1  (7-ounce) bag (2 2/3 cups) sweetened flaked coconut
  • 2  large egg whites
  • 1  cup sugar
  • 1/4  cup water
  • 2  teaspoons light corn syrup
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1  teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1  teaspoon fresh lemon juice


Make the cake layers:

  1. Put a rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour cake pans, knocking out excess flour.
  2. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.
  3. Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer (fitted with paddle attachment if using a stand mixer) at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in zest and vanilla and continue beating for 5 minutes more. At low speed, add flour mixture and milk alternately in 4 batches, beginning with flour mixture and mixing until batter is just smooth.
  4. Divide batter between cake pans, spreading it evenly. Bake until a wooden toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean and cakes are beginning to pull away from sides of pans, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around sides of pans, invert cake layers onto racks, and cool completely (leave oven on for toasting coconut).

Make the filling:

  1. Whisk together eggs in a medium heatproof bowl until well combined. Whisk together sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a 1 1/2- to 2-quart heavy saucepan, then whisk in water and juices until smooth. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, whisking, then reduce heat and cook at a bare simmer, whisking constantly for 2 minutes (mixture will be thick).
  2. Add half of hot juice mixture to eggs in a slow stream, whisking. Whisk egg mixture into juice in saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, whisking, just until it reaches a boil. Remove pan from heat and add butter and zest, whisking until butter is melted.
  3. Refrigerate filling, its surface covered with a buttered round of wax paper (buttered side down), until cold, about 30 minutes.

Make the frosting:

  1. Spread coconut on a baking sheet and toast in oven, stirring occasionally, until golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  2. Beat together egg whites, sugar, water, corn syrup, and salt in a large metal bowl with a handheld electric mixer until combined. Set bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and beat mixture at high speed until it holds stiff, glossy peaks, 5 to 7 minutes. (Humid weather may require additional beating time.)
  3. Remove bowl from heat, add vanilla and lemon juice, and continue beating until frosting is cooled and very thick, 6 to 10 minutes.

Assemble the cake:

  1. Halve each cake horizontally with a long serrated knife.
  2. Put 1 layer cut side up on a cake stand or large plate. Spread with about 3/4 cup filling. Stack a second cake layer over filling, cut side down. Spread with about 3/4 cup filling. Top with third layer, cut side up, and spread with remaining filling. Top with remaining cake layer, cut side down.
  3. Spread top and sides of cake with frosting and coat cake with coconut, pressing gently to help it adhere.

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