This layered and spiced Japanese fruit cake gets a citrusy lift from lemony coconut icing

Belinda Smith-Sullivan
Japanese fruit cake from "Southern Sugar" by Belinda Smith-Sullivan. (Courtesy of Gibbs Smith)

About the recipe

The details are vague on where this cake originates and, more specifically, how it got its name. But the one thing everyone agrees on is that this is the cake that most South Carolinians know, grew up eating, and love to enjoy! It is traditionally a four-layer cake in which two layers are plain and the other two are laced with warming spices, raisins, and nuts. But what makes it even more unique is the citrusy coconut icing distributed between the layers

The icing stops short of covering the sides, revealing the true beauty of this mysterious cake.

From the 2021 cookbook "Southern Sugar" (Gibbs Smith) by Belinda Smith-Sullivan.

Serves: 8 to 10


3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup chopped currants or raisins

1 cup chopped pecans

1 1⁄2 teaspoons cardamom

1 1⁄2 teaspoons ground cloves

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup milk

Citrus coconut icing

1 1⁄2 cups water, divided

2 cups sugar

1⁄4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

3 1⁄2 cups grated coconut

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 lemon, thinly sliced (optional)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 4 (8-inch) round cake pans with nonstick spray and line with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl, combine raisins, pecans, cardamom, and cloves. Cream butter in the bowl of a stand mixer, and then add sugar and mix well. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each. Stir vanilla into the milk. Lower mixer speed and alternately add flour mixture and milk, beating until just combined.

Divide half of the batter between two pans. Stir the raisin, pecan, and spice mixture into the remaining batter, and then divide this mixture between the remaining two pans. Bake for 20–25 minutes until the cake is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, remove parchment paper, and cool completely on racks, top side up.

Citrus coconut icing

In a medium saucepan, bring 1 cup of water to boil over medium heat. Stir in sugar, lemon juice, zest, and coconut. Bring to a boil and lower heat slightly to maintain a gentle boil for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix cornstarch with remaining water and stir into the pan. Let simmer for an additional 3 minutes, stirring, until thickened. Remove from heat and place pan into a larger saucepan filled with water and ice to cool. Stir occasionally.

Place one plain cake layer, top side down, onto a cake plate and, using a skewer, poke holes into the cake to allow some of the icing to penetrate. Apply approximately 1⁄4 of the icing and spread to the edge of the layer. Repeat same process with a spiced layer, then another plain layer, and finally the remaining spiced layer on top, top side up. If any icing remains, pour it over the top and let cascade down the sides.

Let cake stand for several hours, and then cover and refrigerate. Remove from refrigerator for an hour before serving. Garnish with lemon slices, if desired.

Recipe and photo courtesy of Gibbs Smith.