German Chocolate Cake Frosting (Icing)


I could write this post about semantics. Frosting. Icing. Icing. Frosting. When do you use which term? There is no clear cut answer, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how ridiculously fantastic this German Chocolate frosting (icing) is.

Everyone knows I’m not a baker. You have to measure things. You have to perform techniques — creaming…. folding…. ribbon-stage…. so, no. Baking is not my style. But last weekend, I offered to bake a cake for a good friend’s birthday. He asked for German Chocolate Cake.

I looked at lots of recipes online, including this rather spectacular-sounding “inside out” number from It called for “baking” the evaporated milk in a pie pan to caramelize it in the oven and I didn’t have that much time (confidence? desire?).


Don’t judge, but I copped to a cake mix from my Aunt Betty. You may know her as Betty Crocker. It worked because cake mixes are Gwen-proof — dump mix, beat in water, eggs, and oil, and call it a day.

I did get a little nerdy and weighed the batter so that my two 9-inch pans had equal amounts. I DID NOT add the 2 extra tablespoons of flour recommended for high altitude baking that I noticed at the bottom of the box after the cakes were in the oven. The cakes turned out fine.

But back to the icing (frosting) — now that was an area where I felt I could excel. Sure, there were some exact measurements, but not many. German Chocolate Cake is also my brother’s favorite cake. Mom made one every year for his birthday. I’m fairly certain she used not only a box cake mix, but possibly an accompanying can of frosting. She had a full time job and baking wasn’t her thing either. I can assure you, we didn’t judge her — we just dug in.


I started with The Joy of Cooking recipe for the frosting (icing). You can hardly go wrong with one of the classic cookbooks. I made a couple tweaks. I swapped brown sugar for granulated white sugar (using less, too). I used sweetened condensed milk instead of evaporated milk.

Confession: that was a mistake. I meant to use evaporated milk but picked up sweetened condensed milk instead. After I realized my mistake (the next day, after serving the cake, I was so bummed that I went back to the store and got all the ingredients again, this time picking up the “right” milk. You know what? I didn’t care for that version at all. It seemed bland — dare I say weak? — compared to the first version I made. So yes, I traipsed back to the store a third time and decided I’d make the “mistake” version again, just to be sure I’ve tested it thoroughly before posting here.

Besides the milk “mistake,” which, turns out, isn’t a mistake at all, I made a few other adjustments. I increased the amount of  pecans and the coconut and toasted both of them for more flavor before mixing them into the cooked sweet milk and egg yolks. I saved a handful of each to sprinkle on top, too, just for a fancier presentation.

I also added a good dose of salt — like enough to make it borderline salted caramel. I also doubled the recipe, because seriously, the best part of a German Chocolate Cake is the frosting (icing), and why be stingy with the best part?


I did one other nerdy kitchen geek step. I strained the cooked icing before adding the pecans and coconut. You don’t have to do this. I’m not sure anyone would notice (except maybe a pastry chef) but there will be a few caramelized and/or curdled egg bits after cooking the custard. There will be LOTS if you don’t stir CONSTANTLY, I can promise you.

The best way to get the thick custard out of the strainer is to tap it on the edge with a wooden spoon or spatula (see left photo, and gracious thanks to Barbara Pool Fenzl for that tip, who credits her friend, Jacques Pépin, for the tip.)


The cake was a hit at the party. Or at least it seemed that way when everyone was bouncing off the walls 15 minutes later from the sugar rush.


But it was even better the third time, because I switched the German Chocolate cake mix (above) out for the more chocolaty Devil’s Food cake mix (below.)


So whether you want to call it frosting or icing, that’s up to you. But call me when you finish icing (frosting) it. I’ll be there in a flash with my fork.


German Chocolate Cake Frosting

Elevate the old-school German Chocolate Cake Frosting (Icing) to the next level with toasted pecans, coconut, and a good dose of salt. The best way to describe it is, take a salty, coconut and pecan candy bar and melt it over the top of a chocolate cake.

  • Author: Gwen Ashley Walters
  • Yield: 10 to 12 1x
  • Category: Dessert


  • 2 (14 ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk
  • 11/2 cups lightly packed light brown sugar
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 10 ounces (~ 2 3/4 cups) toasted, chopped pecan halves
  • 7 ounces (~ 3 cups sweetened flaked coconut), toasted (see note)


  1. Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Stir in the brown sugar, yolks, salt and vanilla. Whisk until completely smooth. (Do this before you turn on the heat.)
  2. Turn heat to medium and stir frequently until the mixture almost comes to a boil (but do not let it boil or the yolks will curdle).
  3. After 5 minutes, turn heat to medium-low and stir nearly constantly, until mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spatula and not run when you drag a spoon through it (don’t use your finger because this mixture is hot and will burn you). It should take about 6 to 8 minutes more, from the time you turned the heat down to reach the right consistency. It will thicken more later, when it cools.
  4. Remove from heat.
  5. Set aside about 1/4 cup each of the toasted pecans and coconut to garnish the top, and stir the rest into the custard. Let cool a few minutes, but frost the completely cooled cake layers while the frosting is still warm (see note).


To toast coconut, spread thinly on a sheet pan and place in a heated 350 degree F oven. After 4 to 5 minutes, remove and toss with a fork. Return to the oven and toast another 3 minutes. Remove and toss with a fork. By now it will be toasted on the edges. Return to oven for another 2 to 3 minutes. It will be mottled, with some shreds darker than others. Be very careful at the end not to burn it. It can happen quick. It’s better to under toast than over toast. I use a toaster oven and it takes 12-14 minutes total. It may take you a few minutes less or more depending on your oven.

There is enough frosting to cover a 3 layer (8-inch rounds) or 2 layer (9-inch rounds) in a thin layer, but I like to just fill the layers and cover the top, leaving the sides bare. You might have 1/2 cup or so left over (and wouldn’t you know, it makes an excellent topping for waffles and pancakes.)

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14 replies
  1. Denise Coon
    Denise Coon says:

    This was my first time making frosting from scratch and this recipe turned out fantastic! I used almonds instead of pecans (as the birthday girl doesn’t like pecans) and mostly organic ingredients. I picked this recipe in particular because of the “mistake” that wasnt, and the easy to follow instructions. I highly recommend this recipe and will be using it again!


    I did almost the exact same thing. Bought the “wrong” milk (sweeten condensed) and made a much better frosting than the one with evaporated milk. Then decided to try Devil’s Food cake which was delicious. I made a triple layer and used chocolate frosting on the edge of the round cake and GC frosting between layers and on top…and I added more pecans and coconut (quite a bit more) and it was delicious. Highly recommend making at least 1.5 x the recipes out there…or 2xs if you want extra for some cupcakes or to eat by the spoonful…lol.

  3. Lisa Murphy
    Lisa Murphy says:

    I did the same thing the first time I made a german chocolate frosting…mistakenly used condensed milk instead of evaporated – it’s way better – better flavor, better texture! I’ll be sure to add some salt this time. Can’t wait!!!

  4. Marie Rice
    Marie Rice says:

    I am a fairly experienced baker however I have never made “German Chocolate Cake Frosting”, and one of my friends requested this for her birthday. I was excited to get home from work to make this “frosting” because of the new experience. The frosting looked and tasted incredible when I tried it while it was cooling, I spread it on the cake once it cooled, covered it and put it in the fridge overnight (covered). The next day the frosting hardened and had the consistency of a candy bar, and it was no longer moist or shiny. I don’t know or understand where I screwed up but I was so upset, disappointed and embarrassed even though everyone raved how good it was “like having a candy bar on top of a chocolate cake”. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps I cooked it too long?

    • Gwen Ashley Walters
      Gwen Ashley Walters says:

      Hi Marie… oh dear…. so I’ve never refrigerated it. I’ve only made it the day I was serving it. I’ve made it probably 7 or 8 times (couple friends who have birthdays always request it). It is possible that you cooked it a little longer. I am so sorry you had a bad experience with it. Yikes. Now I feel terrible. Next time I make it, I’ll re-time the cooking time. But yes, it is candy like, and so refrigerating it will make it harden. But it should relax if it is allow to come back to room temperature.

    • Carla
      Carla says:

      Thanks for posting your experience. I just stuck mine in the refrigerator for the next day. Sat down and read your post. I hurried to get it out. Thanks again.
      And thank you for this wonderful recipe. Will get the reaction tomorrow.

  5. Angela
    Angela says:

    This is a great recipe and I’m very glad I found it. I have made it several times because of requests. I have tweaked it however. Instead of regular sweetened condensed milk, I use the cans of dulce de leche. You can find them on the Hispanic foods aisle. Eagle brand actually made it at one point and that is my favorite but, it’s hard to find lately. Anyway, if you use the dulce de leche, you omit the brown sugar from the recipe and reduce the cooking time. Also, if you want a real show stopper cake, use a devil’s food or triple chocolate box mix. Mix cake according to instructions and just before putting it in the oven, stir in a can of store bought coconut pecan frosting. Pour into a large, floured bundt pan. Reduce temp to 325 and make sure to put a cookie sheet under your bundt pan just in case there’s a bit of overspill. Mine never has spilled over but, you will think it might because it will be close! Cool on a wire rack for 10 mins or so and turn out onto your platter. You can actually wait until it’s completely cooled to start your frosting. I cover the entire cake with frosting, even using my hands to mold the finished look. People rave over this cake and constantly request it.

  6. Della
    Della says:

    I was out of butter. So I chose this recipe. I agree with all the comments about the frosting hardening up like candy and being too stiff. Other recipes have butter in them. I think the problems with this recipe is because it’s missing butter. Tasty for sure though! But I’m going to try it with some butter and see … thank you

    • Sandra Ussery
      Sandra Ussery says:

      Missing butter? Mine has a half of cup of butter. I’m sure that has to be a mistake. Butter makes everything better!

  7. Della
    Della says:

    I’m the person who talked about adding butter above. Sure was tasty even without butter. I ended up putting mine on brownies and oh my goodness! Brownies will never again be complete for me without German chocolate icing. Hey did anyone try the recipe with butter yet?

  8. Susan
    Susan says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this recipe! Had a lot of cans of condensed milk, so I was eager to use this recipe. Just made this and put it in the fridge, so don’t know how it will turn out tomorrow. Omygoodness! This is so good! I’m thinking another reason this may turn out like candy is that there is so much sugar in it between the condensed milk and brown sugar. I made a double batch, and I substituted evaporated milk for ONE of the 4 cans of condensed milk. I also was careful not to overcook it because we know hard boil stage turns into lollipops. I cooked it until it was about like pudding and it turned out great so far. I also waited until later in the process to add the yolks so I wouldn’t have curdles, BUT you have to temper them by adding the hot ingredients a little at a time to the yolks until they are warm too. I also added the vanilla right before the pecans and coconut to preserve the vanilla flavor so it wouldn’t cook out. We’ll see how it is tomorrow, but I will just warm it up and maybe add some butter if it is too hard. Thanks so much for sharing this recipe!


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