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Few things are more welcoming than a gorgeous, frosted layer cake during the holidays. Should you choose to go this route, you can challenge yourself by going crazy-authentic-but-worth-it Southern vintage. Or you can go vintage-made-simple. Either way, you’ll give friends and family a to-die-for cake.
Lane, Caramel, Hummingbird cakes: These classic Southern confections define the holidays south of the Mason Dixon. Southern culinary traditions run deep and to Southerners these cakes are more than calibrations of sugar and flour. They reveal history and identity. “Somebody’s cake,” explains Rebecca Lang, “is tied to who they are.”
“I keep grandmother’s handwritten recipes in my safety deposit box,” says Lang, author of Southern Living Around the Southern Table. “I don’t even keep my wedding pictures there,” she laughs. These recipes were passed down through generations and it’s important that they’re not forgotten, she says, because that cake “let’s my children know where they came from.”
People may not always have a cake on the counter like in my grandmother’s day, says chef Virginia Willis (a recent contestant on The Food Network’s Chopped). But the South, she says, is a cake culture. Pies are for Thanksgiving, cakes for Christmas. She remembers the shelves in her grandmother’s tiny screened-off porch at Christmas filled with cakes in Tupperware domes.
Southerners “bring out the show at the holidays,” says Willis, which is why many cakes are filled with sugar, nuts and coconut, historically expensive ingredients. Fruitcakes were--and still are--popular but they’re not layer cakes. Layer cakes are about elegance, graciousness and hospitality. They’re hard work, says Willis author of Bon Appetit, Y’All (Ten Speed Press), “which is kind of the point.”
Burnt Caramel Cake was a family favorite. Its three layers (often six, sometimes more) are filled and covered with a texture-y caramel made from sugar, butter, heavy cream and vanilla. (Older recipes use evaporated milk because cream was pricey.) It’s not creamy. “It’s more like praline without the nuts,” says Willis, “not quite that firm, but almost.” A word to the wise: sugar is a temperamental ingredient and caramel frosting can be tricky. Be patient, attentive and have enough ingredients for two batches.
Lane Cake and Hummingbird Cake call the South "home," says Lang. When you see and taste a southern cake you realize that they can be from nowhere else. Southerners like that. Many recipes have pedigrees that started at state fair contests, back when people had more time and more interest in the kitchen.
The iconic Lane Cake was the winning entry of a person named “Lane” at the Alabama State Fair in the late 1800s, says Lang. It’s a typical southern holiday cake—extravagant and eye-catching. It’s a light, airy layer cake (sifted five, yes five, times) filled and topped with a “rich, ooey-gooey” egg-yolk-thickened coconut, walnut, and rum-soaked raisin mixture that drips off the top and down the sides. It’s not quick and easy says Lang, “but no southern cake is.” Newer versions (“new in the south means sixty-years,” she quips) cover the sides in white frosting but Lang prefers the classic.
Hummingbird Cake is another southern “cake-with-a-name.”
“Names shows history as compared to ‘chocolate layer cake’ or ‘pound cake,’” says Lang. Invented in 1978, it’s a holiday staple. The spiced, nut- and fruit-filled cake enrobed in a rich cream cheese frosting is Southern Living’s most requested recipe ever. Lang also likes green and red Raspberry-Lime Coconut Cake (no sifting required). The coconut-milk infused cake has a layer of lime curd and coconut flake, another of red raspberry jam and coconut flake, and is slathered in snowy-white coconut frosting.
Getting the look and taste of old-time confections is within reach, even if baking isn’t your thing, says baker Julie Richardson. Her Vintage Cakes (Ten Speed Press) makes old-fashioned cakes approachable with updated directions and modern ingredients.
Vintage, for her,is a feeling, reflecting an era when people had the time to bake chiffon cakes, assemble icebox cakes (refrigerated “cakes” made with cookies and whipped cream) and invent “cup cakes,” individual cakes baked in tea cups.
Richardson, who is based in Portland, Oregon, layers homemade wafer-thin gingerbread with mascarpone-enriched whipped cream for a Gingerbread Icebox Cake with Mascarpone Mousse. (Find the thinnest gingerbread cookies available if you go store-bought.) Another plus, it must be made a day in advance.
It takes time, but you can serve Coffee Crunch Spiral as an American version of the French holiday cake, Bûche de Noël, is a cream-filled chocolate jellyroll. She rolls hers in espresso and Kahlua whipped cream and tops with coffee candy crunch. Kentucky Bourbon Cake, a 1963 Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest winner, gets a Richardson makeover with additional buttermilk and bourbon, a butter-bourbon glaze and a Nordic Ware Heritage bundt pan.
Don’t stress over holiday cakes. The point is: If your grandmother didn’t leave recipes, just borrow recipes from someone else’s grandmother.