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Moist layers of German Chocolate Cake slathered with the best homemade coconut pecan frosting ever are the hallmarks of this classic dessert! It’s always best made from-scratch with real German sweet chocolate!

An image of a sliced three-layer German chocolate cake with homemade coconut pecan frosting.  

Everybody has a favorite birthday dessert, don’t they? In my family, my mom, aunt, and brother each always requested German chocolate cake each year for as their traditional birthday cake. And it was ALWAYS made from scratch, never from a box mix or a can of frosting. 

This German chocolate cake recipe is an amazing way to celebrate a birthday, or to serve at any holiday gathering or dinner party. Of course, you don’t need any special reason to enjoy this rich and wonderful dessert!

When you scoop up a huge forkful of moist German chocolate cake and place it in your mouth, you’ll discover the sweet, savory, rich, chocolate and sour notes all blending together to create a harmonious balance that you will have you craving more. I’m craving it, just writing about it!

What is German chocolate cake?

Despite the name, German chocolate cake is not actually a German dessert. German chocolate cake was actually created in America in 1852 and named for Samuel German, the inventor of a type of sweetened chocolate that bears his name and is a key ingredient in this cake.

My recipe is based on the one on the back of the package of Baker’s German chocolate, which is what we grew up using to make this family favorite recipe. It’s a classic German chocolate cake recipe and I didn’t want to stray too far from the original, since we love it so much!

Besides, so many German chocolate cake recipes that I see these days are really just a regular chocolate cake made with unsweetened cocoa powder rather than using actual German’s chocolate. I’m sorry, but slathering coconut pecan frosting on a regular chocolate cake and calling it German chocolate doesn’t count! I don’t mean to offend, but I have strong feeling about this.

  An image of a naked German Chocolate Layer Cake on a cake stand with coconut pecan frosting.  An image of a slice of homemade German Chocolate Cake on a white plate.

How to make German chocolate cake

  1. Melt chocolate. Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl and pour the boiling hot water over the top. Stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth, then set aside to cool slightly. 
  2. Cream butter and sugar. In a large bowl, cream your butter and sugar together until light, about 4 minutes.
  3. Add egg yolks to the butter and sugar. Separate egg whites from the yolks, reserving the whites in a separate bowl. Add the egg yolks, one at a time.
  4. Stir in the melted chocolate and vanilla.
  5. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk.
  6. Beat the reserved egg whites and fold into the batter. Be careful not to overmix which will deflate the egg whites.
  7. Pour into pans & bake. Divide your batter between three 9-inch round cake pans and bake for 24-28 minutes at 350 degrees F (until a toothpick comes out with just a few crumbs on it).
  8. Cool completely, then assemble. Cool layers completely on a wire rack, then layer with coconut pecan frosting between each layer and on top.

A collage of images showing how to make German chocolate cake batter with step-by-step photos. An image of chocolate cake batter in 9-inch round cake pans. An image of a layer of chocolate cake with coconut pecan frosting.

What is the difference between chocolate cake and German chocolate cake?

A German chocolate cake is made using German sweet baking chocolate, whereas normal chocolate cakes typically uses unsweetened cocoa powder or unsweetened baking chocolate. German baking chocolate is normally sweeter and not as intensely chocolaty as other baking chocolate. 

What is a good substitute for German chocolate?

If you are absolutely dying for German chocolate cake but don’t have real German chocolate on hand, you can try mixing one tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder with one tablespoon + one teaspoon of sugar and one teaspoon of vegetable shortening. Do this for each ounce of German chocolate called for in a recipe.

While this is a decent substitute, it may still not taste quite the same as using actual German chocolate.

How do you frost a German chocolate cake?

Sometimes you will see German chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream frosting around the outside, especially at restaurants.

But personally, I not only prefer the look of a “naked cake” where you can see the coconut pecan filling between the layers, I also like the taste better without the extra chocolate frosting fighting with an otherwise perfect balance of moist and light German chocolate cake layers and coconut pecan frosting.

A third option, and the one my family usually chose when I was growing up, is to double the batch of coconut pecan frosting so that there is enough to cover the outside of the cake entirely. Frankly, it gets a little messy and the presentation isn’t always the prettiest, but if German chocolate cake frosting is your favorite part about this dessert, then I say go for it!

An image looking down on the top off a German chocolate cake covered in coconut pecan frosting. An image of a sliced German chocolate cake with slices on plates next to the rest of the cake.

How to Make Coconut Pecan Frosting for German Chocolate Cake

  1. Heat sugar, milk, butter and egg yolks in a saucepan over medium heat until it thickens and turns golden brown. This takes about 5 minutes and you want to be sure to stir constantly so as not to scramble the egg yolks! 
  2. Remove from heat and stir in the coconut, pecans, and vanilla.
  3. Cool for at least 30 minutes, until it’s thick enough to spread on your cake layers. The frosting will continue to thicken as it cools and can be made a day in advance and refrigerated until you are ready to assemble the cake.

An image of a pot medium saucepan with the ingredients for coconut pecan frosting in it. An image of a saucepan filled with homemade coconut pecan frosting for German chocolate cake. 

Does German chocolate cake need to be refrigerated?

While this cake can be stored for a day or two at room temperature, I would keep it in the fridge for any longer than that. Just be sure to store the leftover cake in an airtight container or covered with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out.

Can I freeze German chocolate cake?

You can definitely make the cake layers in advance and freeze them for up to 1 month. Just let them cool completely, then wrap each layer individually in plastic wrap and lay them flat on a baking sheet to freeze. Once frozen, store the layers in freezer-safe ziploc bags for extra protection.

You can assemble the cake without bothering to thaw the layers, which is actually helpful if you are trying to avoid getting crumbs in your frosting! Just be sure to leave enough time for the cake to thaw before serving if you take this approach.

I do not recommend freezing this cake once it has been assembled and frosted. The results are okay, and while the thawed cake tastes alright, the presentation is usually not great. 

An image of a German chocolate cake on a white marble cake stand. An image of a German chocolate cake on a white marble cake stand. An overhead image of a slice of German chocolate cake laying on its side.

Tips for Making German Chocolate Cake

  • Always use room temperature ingredients. It actually does make a difference in how well the cake mixes together and results in a lighter, moister cake. If you are like me and tend to forget to pull ingredients out ahead of time, I often stick the eggs in a bowl and cover them with hot tap water for a few minutes and microwave the butter for 10-12 seconds while I’m pulling the other ingredients out.
  • Don’t overmix. Definitely go ahead and cream the butter and sugar, but once you start adding the flour and dry ingredients to the wet ingredients you only want to mix until combined. And with this particular cake, the last step is to just fold in fluffy egg whites for an extra light texture.
  • Don’t overbake. A common problem a lot of bakers experience when making a cake from scratch is that it turns out dry. This can be avoided by making sure not to overbake your cake layers. Test with a toothpick and remove the cake layers when the toothpick comes out with just a few crumbs sticking to it. If it comes out completely clean, chances are the cake may already be a bit overdone.
  • Make the frosting in advance. The coconut pecan frosting will thicken as it cools, so it’s a good idea to make it ahead of time. If you try frosting the cake while your frosting is still warm, chances are your layers are going to slide all over the place.
  • Buttermilk substitution: If you don’t have buttermilk, add 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice to a 1 cup measuring cup, then fill the rest of the way with whole milk. Stir and let sit for 5 minutes before using in place of the buttermilk in the recipe.

An image of a partial German chocolate cake made from scratch.

More Homemade Cake Recipes You Need in Your Baking Repertoire

Best Homemade German Chocolate Cake
Yield: 14 servings

Best Homemade German Chocolate Cake

Moist layers of German Chocolate Cake slathered with the best homemade coconut pecan frosting ever are the hallmarks of this classic dessert!

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 24 minutes
Total Time 39 minutes

Ingredients

Cake

  • 4 ounces German sweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1/2 cup boiling hot water
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Frosting

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 5 large egg yolks, room temperature, beaten
  • 3 cups shredded sweetened coconut
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Instructions

  1. Add the chopped chocolate to a medium bowl, then pour the water over it and stir gently until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.
  2. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together using a stand mixer or electric mixer for about 4 minutes until light.
  3. Separate egg whites from yolks, reserving the egg whites in a medium bowl. Add the yolks one at a time to the butter and sugar, mixing after each addition.
  4. Add the melted chocolate and vanilla, and mix until combined. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and mix again.
  5. Add the flour, baking soda, and salt alternately with the buttermilk. Mix just until combined after each addition, making sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. I have found that if I start by adding about 3/4 cup of the flour along with all of the baking soda and salt, then about 1/3 cup of the buttermilk, then more of the flour and buttermilk and so on, I don't need to sift the dry ingredients together beforehand and dirty an extra bowl.
  6. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form, then gently fold into the batter.
  7. Divide the cake batter evenly between three 9-inch round cake pans and bake 24-28 minutes at 350 degrees F until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out with just a few crumbs on it. Cool completely on wire racks.
  8. For the frosting, heat the granulated sugar, brown sugar, evaporated milk, butter, and egg yolks in a medium saucepan over medium heat until thick and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Be sure to stir constantly so as not to scramble the eggs. Remove from the heat and add coconut, pecans, and vanilla. The frosting will continue to thicken as it cools. Cool for at least 30 minutes until thick enough to spread before assembling the cake.
  9. To assemble the cake, set the first cake layer on a cake plate and frost just the top with 1/3 of the frosting. Repeat with the next two layers, leaving the sides of the cake bare. If you want to frost the outside of the cake, you will need to make a double batch of the frosting.

Notes

If you don't have buttermilk, add 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice to a 1 cup measuring cup, then fill the rest of the way with whole milk. Stir and let sit for 5 minutes before using in place of the buttermilk in the recipe.

Recipe adapted from Taste of Home.

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Nutrition Information:

Yield:

14

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving:Calories: 738 Total Fat: 43g Saturated Fat: 23g Trans Fat: 1g Unsaturated Fat: 17g Cholesterol: 197mg Sodium: 492mg Carbohydrates: 82g Net Carbohydrates: 0g Fiber: 4g Sugar: 58g Sugar Alcohols: 0g Protein: 9g