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Mom’s Japanese Fruitcake: Traditional Southern Layer Cake

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Rose Mary's mother and all of her aunts are great southern cooks. She likes to think she's not so bad herself.

Japanese fruitcake with alternating light and dark layers with lemon coconut filling

Japanese fruitcake with alternating light and dark layers with lemon coconut filling

My Mother Was Known for Her Cakes

Among members of our extended family, my mother’s love of sweets is legendary—and I’m not talking candy bars. Mom always had homemade sweets in the house. At family dinners, everyone always wanted to know what my mom had made for dessert. While she sometimes baked pies, she was known for her cakes. Japanese fruitcake was one of her holiday specialties; she made it only around Thanksgiving or Christmas.

This Cake Grew on Me (and Now I Love It!)

As a child and teen, I didn’t really appreciate this cake. It took me many years to learn to like raisins. When I was young, they were an annoyance to be picked out of food; I didn’t like the texture. And to me, fruitcake was the Christmas version with nuts, candied cherries, and pineapple, and yes, those pesky raisins. I actually preferred the much-maligned traditional Christmas version.

If you’re looking for something a little different for the holidays this year, give this recipe a try. If you can’t trust a certified sweet tooth for a cake recipe, who can you trust?

What Is Japanese Fruitcake?

Japanese fruitcake is a traditional Southern layer cake consisting of two plain or “light” layers alternating with two “dark” layers that feature spices, nuts, and raisins. Each layer is topped with a delicious lemon coconut filling, and the sides of the cake are left bare so you can see the beautiful layers.

This cake is very different from a traditional Christmas fruitcake, which is loaded with chopped fruit and nuts, usually made in a loaf or pound cake pan, and does not include frosting. You can find a traditional fruitcake recipe in an article I wrote on Christmas treats.

Why Is It Called Japanese Fruitcake?

There's nothing Japanese about this cake, so where does the name come from? The answer, unfortunately, seems to have been lost. According to Bill Neal’s classic Southern cookbook, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie, “Japanese fruitcake is an exotically named, typically Southern dessert cake, especially popular in the 20th century. This same cake was once called Oriental cake, but there is nothing of the Far East about it, except the spices, none of which is Japanese in origin.”

Step 1: Make the Light Layers


  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 cups flour (I use Pillsbury Softasilk cake flour, unsifted)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup milk
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  1. Cream the butter and sugar together with your mixer.
  2. Add the eggs one at a time and mix well.
  3. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and soda. Mix well.
  4. Add vanilla to milk. Alternate adding flour mixture and milk-vanilla mixture to the butter, sugar, and eggs.
  5. Divide the batter in half. Pour the first half into two greased and floured layer cake pans.
Two light and two dark layers

Two light and two dark layers

Step 2: Make the Dark Layers


  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cloves


  1. To the second half of the plain batter, add the above ingredients and mix well.
  2. Divide the raisin-nut batter into two more greased and floured layer cake pans.
  3. Bake all four layers for 25 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Step 3: Make the Lemon Coconut Filling


  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 large package frozen coconut, fine flake
  • Grated peel of 1 lemon
  • 2 cups water


  1. In a bowl, combine the flour and sugar. Add the coconut and grated lemon peel. Mix well.
  2. Transfer the mixture to a pot, add water, and boil briefly on low heat.

Step 4: Assemble the Cake

  1. When the cakes have cooled completely, begin by placing one dark layer on a cake plate. Spread the lemon coconut filling on top.
  2. Carefully place a light layer on top of the filling, and now top this layer with filling.
  3. Alternate with the second dark layer and the second light layer, spreading the filling in between each layer.
  4. Spread the remaining filling on top of the fourth layer.
Serving of Japanese fruitcake

Serving of Japanese fruitcake

More Delightful Christmas Desserts

© 2011 rmcrayne

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