Today I'm sharing a recipe for this classic Southern recipe, Italian cream cake. The name itself is a bit of a misnomer, since there is nothing Italian about the cake. I grew up eating this coconut and pecan flavored cake every year for my Grandma's birthday.
My Grandma was the baker in our family and she always made a homemade cake for each persons birthday. On her birthday, all she wanted was for one of us to make this Italian cream cake for her. It's a deliciously moist vanilla cake filled with toasted coconut and toasted pecans and topped off with cream cheese frosting. Being that today would have been my Grandma's 93rd birthday, I decided to create a gluten free and dairy free version - and it was just as delicious as I remember!
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What is Italian Cream Cake?
There isn't actually anything Italian about this cake. There is an Italian cake which shares the same name but it doesn't have all that much in common with this recipe - it uses ricotta cheese, lemon, maybe a little alcohol. My recipe is based off the Southern classic, which came about sometime in the mid-1900s. No one really knows for sure where it originated, but it is delicious none the less.
- Gluten Free Flour Blend - I used Bob's Red Mill 1-to1 flour for this recipe. You can use the gluten free flour blend you prefer, but ensure it contains xanthan gum or a similar binder. Using another brand of flour may result in a different outcome in your bake as all gluten free flour blends are a little different in their makeup.
- Baking Powder - this leavening agent helps the cake rise and creates a light texture.
- Baking Soda - this leavening agent reacts with the sour cream to create air bubbles to lighten the cake texture.
- Salt - This crucial ingredient helps to balance the flavors of this dessert. Don't be tempted to skip it.
- Sugar - White sugar is the base of this vanilla flavored cake.
- Vegan Butter - I used Country Crock plant butter for this recipe. Any stick type vegan butter will work. If you're not dairy free, use regular unsalted butter in the same measure.
- Oil - I used extra light olive oil, but any light flavored cooking oil will do. Don't be tempted to switch out butter for the oil - the combination of the two fats helps the cake to be more moist.
- Vanilla Extract & Almond Extract - Provides complexity and sweetness to the flavor of the cake.
- Eggs - Since this cake requires 5 eggs, I would not try an egg substitute here.
- Vegan Sour Cream - The original recipe for Italian cream cake uses buttermilk. You could make your own buttermilk by combining milk with vinegar. I chose to use sour cream to give the acid needed to react with the baking soda as well as to temper the sweetness of the cake.
- Non-Dairy Milk - Use your favorite unsweetened non-dairy milk. If you're not dairy free, use regular milk in the same measure.
- Pecans & Coconut - These mix ins are the star of the cake. You can use them raw or toast them for more flavor.
See recipe card for full ingredient list and quantities.
Substitutions & Variations
- Not Dairy Free - use dairy butter, sour cream and milk in the same measure.
- Fruit Infusion - Add 1 cup of your favorite berries to the cake batter - blueberries would be delicious!
- Chocolate Lover - Add 1 cup of mini chocolate chips to the cake batter for a chocolate twist.
- Make it Nut Free - Omit the pecans. You can replace them with sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds or just leave the nuts out completely.
- Citrus - Add the zest of a lemon or orange to the cake batter for a little citrus flavor.
How to Make an Italian Cream Cake
STEP 2: In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine sugar, butter and oil. Beat on medium speed for 3 minutes.
STEP 3: Add the vanilla and almond extract to the creamed mixture. Mix for 30 seconds more.
STEP 4: Then add the eggs one at a time, mixing for 60 seconds between each addition.
STEP 5: With the mixer on the lowest speed, add half of the dry ingredients followed by half of the milk and sour cream. Then repeat with the remaining ingredients.
STEP 6: Add the coconut and pecans to the cake batter. Fold them in by hand with a spatula.
STEP 7: Add the egg whites to the bowl of your stand mixer. Start at a medium low speed, then gradually increase the speed until stiff peaks form. It will take 6-8 minutes.
STEP 8: Add the beaten egg whites to the cake batter. Gently fold them in with a spatula until they are completely incorporated.
STEP 9: Divide the cake batter equally between three 9-inch cake pans and bake.
Once the cake is cool - prepare your frosting, assemble your cake, and decorate.
This cake is better served the day after baking. Store in the refrigerator overnight prior to serving.
How to store leftover cake
This cake must be refrigerated. You can keep this cake in an airtight container, like a cake keeper, for up to 4 days.
Or if you have a lot of leftover cake, you can freeze some for later. Slice individual servings and wrap them in plastic wrap. Place the wrapped slices inside a freezer bag or container and freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw in the refrigerator before serving.
No, this cake originated in the Southern US. There is an Italian cream cake (same name) that uses different ingredients.
Yes, coconut is one of the primary flavor ingredients. You can omit if you want, leaving a vanilla and pecan cake.
Yes, because of the cream cheese in the frosting this cake does need to be refrigerated. You can let it sit out for up to an hour to bring it to room temperature before serving. Any leftover cake should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Other cake recipes to consider:
If you try this recipe, please leave a 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 star rating and let me know how you liked it in the comments below.
Italian Cream Cake (Coconut and Pecan)
For the cake:
- 2 ½ Cups Gluten Free 1-to-1 Flour Blend
- 1 teaspoon Baking Powder
- ½ teaspoon Baking Soda
- ½ teaspoon Salt
- ½ Cup Vegan Butter room temperature
- ½ Cup Olive Oil or other light flavored oil
- 2 Cups Sugar
- 5 Eggs separated
- 2 teaspoon Vanilla
- ½ teaspoon Almond Extract
- 1 Cup Non Dairy Milk
- ½ Cup Vegan Sour Cream
- 1 Cup Sweetened Shredded Coconut
- 1 Cup Pecans chopped into small pieces
For the cake
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease three 9-inch cake rounds and line the bottoms with parchment paper.
- Combine the gluten free flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a small mixing bowl. Whisk well and set aside.2 ½ Cups Gluten Free 1-to-1 Flour Blend, 1 teaspoon Baking Powder, ½ teaspoon Baking Soda, ½ teaspoon Salt
- Add the sugar, butter and oil to the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed for 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl.½ Cup Vegan Butter, ½ Cup Olive Oil, 2 Cups Sugar
- Add the vanilla and almond extract and beat for 30 seconds more.2 teaspoon Vanilla, ½ teaspoon Almond Extract
- Add the egg yolks (only yolks) one at a time, beating for 60 seconds between each addition. Scrape down the bowl.5 Eggs
- Set the mixer to low speed. Add half of the dry ingredients following by half of the sour cream and milk. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.1 Cup Non Dairy Milk, ½ Cup Vegan Sour Cream
- Remove the bowl from the mixer. Add the coconut and pecans and fold them into the cake batter with a spatula.1 Cup Sweetened Shredded Coconut, 1 Cup Pecans
- Add the egg whites to a mixing bowl and begin beating on medium low speed. Gradually increase the speed until the egg whites reach stiff peaks. It will take 6-8 minutes.
- Fold the beaten egg whites into the cake batter with a spatula.
- Divide the batter evenly between your three prepared cake pans.
- Bake on the center rack of a preheated oven for about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes in the cake pans before turning out on a wire rack to cool completely.
For the frosting:
- Add butter and cream cheese to the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed for 2-3 minutes until smooth and creamy.½ Cup Vegan Butter, 8 ounces Vegan Cream Cheese
- Add the vanilla and beat for 30 seconds more.1 teaspoon Vanilla
- Add half of the powdered sugar and stir on low until incorporated. Repeat with the remaining sugar. Once the dry ingredients are mixed in, move the mixer to medium high speed and beat for about 5 minutes until it's really fluffy.4 cups Powdered Sugar
- Spread the coconut and pecans on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Allow the nuts to cool, then chop them into small pieces.1 Cup Sweetened Shredded Coconut, 1 Cup Pecans
- Place one cake layer on a plate with the top of the cake facing down. Spread ¼ of the frosting over the cake. Sprinkle with pecan pieces.
- Repeat with the second layer, topping with frosting and pecan pieces.
- Place the final layer on the cake. Add ½ of the remaining frosting and spread it over the tops and sides of the cake in a thin layer. Make it as smooth as possible. Place the cake in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.
- Remove the chilled cake and top with the remaining frosting. Decorate the cake with the remaining pecans and coconut.
- Serve immediately or store the finished cake in the refrigerator. Note: This cake slices best if it is made a day ahead of time.
Tiffany is the recipe developer, stylist and food photographer behind Well Fed Baker. As a lifelong baker who had to go gluten free and dairy free in 2016, Tiffany strives to share allergen friendly recipes that never feel like they are free from anything.