There’s no Southern belle quite like a Southern cake, whether it’s a vintage Lane cake or a timeless favorite like red velvet. Southern bakers are renowned for their superb, hospitality-style baking exemplified by statuesque, fussy cakes of every description. Even if a cake originates from elsewhere, such as California carrot cake or New York brownstone front, when a stellar recipe falls into the hands of a Southern baker, they adopt it like family.
Southern cookbook author Nathalie Dupree told HuffPost that the Southern cake baking rep is due to their soft, winter flours which, says Dupree, “are great for cakes” and she touts hallowed brands such as White Lily and Martha White.
Gossamer flour is just one part of the Southern baking equation. Sugar cane was a regional crop in Louisiana around the time of the Civil War, adding to the shiploads of Caribbean sugar pumped through Southern ports, offering a steady supply of cake’s main ingredient and promoting an exponential sweet tooth. The predominantly agricultural bent of the region meant there were always plenty of baking ingredients such as pecans, sorghum, molasses, sweet potatoes, sweet butter, eggs and buttermilk.
Southern bakers of the 1800s were also adept at using up that farm buttermilk which made for exceptional, tender-crumbed cakes. Then, a pivotal moment came in the 1850s with the invention of modern baking powder. Now bakers no longer had to rely on whipped egg whites for a cake’s loft. Baking powder enabled bakers to be extra creative and they rose to the occasion with bigger, prettier fairy-tale cakes.
In addition, slaves carried their own experience with ingredients such as sugar cane, bananas and coconut to Southern plantation kitchens. “They brought a creativity to cooking and much hard work,” Anne Byrn, author of “American Cake,” told NPR in 2016.
Aside from these reasons explaining Southern baking mastery, two socioeconomic conditions were also at play. The historical reality of the plantation way of life enabled households with a number of unpaid slaves or low-wage household workers to bake, cook and entertain at a level that, let’s say, a pioneer woman on the Oregon trail could not. There was also an influx of British gentlewomen to the South, which brought a class of women for whom manners and gender roles were entrenched. These women were perhaps a touch more traditional than their northern settler sisters. In this decidedly ladylike value system, food wasn’t just about sustenance. Being a great baker, excelling in the domestic arts and hostessing gave women a platform on which to shine and bring honor to their husbands and families. This was somewhat true for all women of a certain era, but it was so vital in the South that it was unofficially part of the value system that is in no small part the backbone of Southern food-ways.
According to Byrn’s “American Cake,” most familiar Southern layer cakes came into popularity at the end of the 19th century through the new millennium, coinciding with the popularity of 20th-century cookbooks, print food features in ladies magazines, newspaper food sections and then the internet. Over time, recipes became more widespread and picked up traction along the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s not too difficult to trace the Southern cake genealogy via their numerous citings in blogs, cookbooks, food features, and church and community bake sales.
Although certain cake recipes come up frequently, every Southern baker worth their salt has their own blue-ribbon version of these recipes. Bragging rights are as much a part of the charm of a great Southern layer cake as is the generous use of butter and sugar. It doesn’t hurt that these cakes are also good keepers, i.e., they keep fresh and moist for days. Here are some knock-out examples garnered from some of the best Southern baking bloggers.
Lane cake is unanimously attributed to the 1898 recipe named after Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama. The cake is honored by its mention in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which cements its place in Southern culinary history. Typically, Lane cakes are tender white sponge layer cakes, held together with a snowy-white meringue frosting and featuring coconut, raisins and pecans. Lane cakes get top honors at holiday time and these days some bakers swap the raisins with dried sour cherries.
Hummingbird Carrot Cake
This cake is a fabulous and moist cake, originally called Dr. Bird Cake. It landed in America via the 1979 efforts of the Jamaican Tourist Board. Iconic Southern Living magazine published the recipe in its 1978 issue and by 1990 it had earned the title of most requested recipe in Southern Living’s history.
Little Layer Cake
According to Southern bloggers and cookbooks such as “American Cake” and Kim Severson, a Southern-based journalist, little layer cake debuted in Alabama, although it’s also made on Smith Island, Maryland, where it’s called Smith Island Cake. This gem echoes a dobostorte lineage insofar as it’s composed of 12 to 18 thin, golden cake layers that sandwich a rich chocolate filling.
Caramel Layer Cake
Like Lane cake, caramel cake is similarly referenced in literature in “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. A classic 1,2,3,4 gold layer cake formula (i.e., one cup butter, two cups sugar, three cups flour and four eggs) topped with an addictive brown sugar fudge frosting, this is one of the most luscious cakes on the planet. Add some fleur de sel on top for an updated salted caramel cake.
Texas Sheet Cake
Texas sheet cake, sources say, is based on German chocolate cake made with Baker’s chocolate. The recipe for the latter was published in a 1957 Dallas newspaper and was an instant hit with readers. How the recipe transitioned to the Southern classic is unclear, but Texas sheet cake is traditionally made with buttermilk and a gooey pecan topping. These days it just as often features a fudge chocolate icing.
Red Velvet Cake
Red velvet cake harks back to the Victorian era, when velvety cakes were a trend, given the use of almond meal, cocoa and cornstarch to make fine-grained, tender cakes. In 1938, the Food and Drug Administration passed a ruling allowing food-grade dyes and red food coloring was quick to get ladled into red velvet cake. Red velvet got a cinematic shoutout in the 1989 film “Steel Magnolias” as a groom’s cake.
The first mention of Coca-Cola cake appears to be in 1952 in the Charleston Gazette although it was probably around before that, given Southerners’ love affair with the cola, “the Champagne of the South.” Sweet and containing natural caramel, Coca-Cola is a natural for barbecue briskets, ribs and this easy, fudgy cake.
Sweet Potato Pecan Pound Cake
Nothing is more traditional than a good old-fashioned Southern pound cake made with homey favorite ingredients like Georgia pecans, farm-fresh sweet potatoes and a dash of bourbon. This recipe belongs in any collection of Southern cakes. It’s tall, mighty and moist ― and a true crowd-pleaser.