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People of the Cake

Issue 68, Spring 2010

Photo by Charles Deluvio

I come from a family of cake fundamentalists.


We are people of the Cake. A baby is born and welcomed with cake; there’s cake for anniversaries, cake for graduating high school or college; cake for passing the bar or the CPA exam, cake for winning Second Runner-Up in the Miss Peanut pageant; cake for getting out of prison, cake for visiting kinfolk, cake for Christmas and Easter and the Fourth of July; cake when you marry, when you’re sick, when you die.

Proust journeys back to the past via a madeleine (a small, scallop-shaped cake, not a cookie); in The Unvanquished, Faulkner uses cake—or the remembrance of cakes—to conjure the lost days of peace and plenty before secession. Granny Millard asks Marengo and Bayard what they’d like her to read to them. They want the cook book: “Read about cake.” Coconut cake, to be exact. Craig Claiborne, the brilliant food writer and Delta gourmand, was also a coconut cake man:

One of my earliest recollections was watching my mother or one of the servants tediously grating coconut in large quantities, sometimes for ice cream, sometimes for a curried dish, but more often than not for coconut cake, which was one of Kathleen Craig Claiborne’s great specialties.

Indeed, one of my earliest recollections is watching my own grandmother whack a coconut with a machete. She’d hammer a sixteen-penny nail into the coconut’s “eyes” and drain out the juice. Then she’d rive it in two and carve out the meat with an oyster knife. After only four or five hours of gouging, hacking, beating, boiling, and whipping, she would present the cake on a cut-glass stand that had been a wedding present to her own grandmother. It was as white and shining as a debutante’s gown, covered in hand-shredded coconut, fuzzy as a French poodle.

I come from a family of cake fundamentalists. No mixes, no faux cream, no margarine, no imitation vanilla, no all-purpose flour. You should use Swans Down or some other cake flour: It’s made of soft winter wheat with a low protein content, which makes the cake finer and airier. If the recipe says fresh coconut, don’t you dare use that stuff in the bag. Suffering for your cake builds character. (We are Presbyterian, after all.) The first time I made Grandmama’s fresh coconut cake, I grated the skin off my knuckles. People said it was delicious: You really didn’t taste the blood at all.

After my fingers healed up, I moved on to making Old School cakes that didn’t require hatchets, machetes, or other weaponry. Lady Baltimore cake is a luxurious pile of nuts, figs, cherries, and egg whites, soft as tulle and sweet as divinity. With that name, you’d think it was some old Maryland recipe dating from the days of the Calverts, but according to John and Ann Bleidt Egerton, it was invented by one Alicia Rhett Mayberry, a Charleston belle, sometime near the turn of the twentieth century. Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, named his 1906 novel after it:

“I should like a slice, if you please, of Lady Baltimore,” I said with extreme formality. I returned to the table and she brought me the cake, and I had my first felicitous meeting with Lady Baltimore. Oh, my goodness! Did you ever taste it? It’s all soft, and it’s in layers, and it has nuts—but I can’t write any more about it; my mouth waters too much.

In 1898, Emma Rylander Lane of Barbour County, Alabama, published the recipe for what she called her “prize cake,” a four-layer white sponge filled with an opulent mixture of egg yolks, raisins, and booze. This is the cake, remember, that got Scout tipsy in To Kill a Mockingbird. If you do it right, putting at least three-fourths of a cup of hooch (Emma Lane called for “one wine-glass of good whiskey or brandy”) in the filling and drizzling another cup over the layers, letting it soak in, the Lane cake is a cocktail in baked form. I don’t hold with lazy-ass modern versions that use boxed mix (I’m talking to you, Southern Living) or omit the bourbon. I realize there are people who insist that Jesus didn’t turn water into wine at Cana, claiming it was actually Welch’s grape juice. Please. Like Jesus would be so tacky.

Even foot-washing Baptists in a dry counties know better than to make a Lane cake without alcohol. Celestine Sibley, the longtime columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, tells how her mother, not a drinker but a committed baker, drove down to Panama City, Florida, after church one day—hat, gloves, and all. She walked into a bar as “dark as the inside of a cow.” A young woman “half naked and downright impudent” slinked over, saying, “Madam, this is a cocktail lounge.” Evelyn Sibley drew herself up and replied, “My dear, I didn’t think it was the Methodist parsonage! I’ll have a half-pint of Early Times, please.”

We cakeists value tradition. I’ve had the same kind of birthday cake (Angel Food), perched on the same cut-glass cake stand my grandmother used for her coconut cake, every single year of my life. At my first birthday, my mother made a magnificent pink cake decorated with spun-sugar daisies. The photographic evidence shows I smashed my fist into it. I’m told that I licked the thick, seven-minute icing off my arm and laughed. Now, I make sure there are no cameras around on my birthday.

For Christmas, it has to be fruitcake: a serious fruitcake, with muscovado sugar, candied pineapples, candied lemon and orange peel, citron, red and green cherries, raisins, cinnamon and nutmeg, cloves and ginger, dates and chopped pecans, baked slow and low. It’s a treasure box of complex flavors, each one richer and more intoxicating, more seductive, than the last. Especially if you’ve kept the cake wrapped in rum-soaked cheesecloth for at least a month.

Fruitcake goes back to the Romans, maybe to Mesopotamia for all I know. The cookery book that Martha Washington worked on from the time of her wedding in 1749 to Daniel Custis until 1799, when her granddaughter Nelly Custis married Lawrence Lewis, contains four recipes for what she called “great cakes”—as opposed to small. Here’s the one she made for Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, parties, original spelling preserved:

Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks & beat them to a froth then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream & put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work’d then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner then put in the Youlks of eggs & 5 pounds of flower & 5 pounds of fruit. Add to it half an ounce of mace & nutmeg half a pint of wine & some frensh brandy. Two hours will bake it.

I’ll tackle that monster after the recession cuts us loose and I can afford five pounds of candied fruit (which wasn’t cheap even in Mistress Martha’s day). In the meantime, there’s pound cake. Don’t scoff. It may seem like a plain Jane amongst cakes: no fillings, no icing, no cup of cognac, no grating or chopping. But once you bite into a piece of good pound cake, it’s like when the librarian unpins her chignon and whips off her glasses: On my God! She’s a total babe!

Pound cake is deceptively simple. Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife calls for a pound of butter, a pound of flour, a pound of powdered sugar, and twelve eggs. My mother’s version is a little more complex, but not difficult. It’s a beautiful cake, nut-brown on the outside, yellow as a daffodil inside. It’s the cake she makes for people who do nice things, people with family in the hospital, and funerals. In spring, when we can get fresh, local strawberries, she makes it for shortcake. If there are leftover pieces, she makes trifle, soaking it in sherry, slathering it with blueberries or peaches, layering it with custard. She bakes it like Wynton Marsalis plays the horn—gracefully, improvisationally. She has a recipe, but never looks at it. Here is Betty Gilbert Roberts’s Sour Cream Pound Cake:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
3 cups white sugar
8 eggs, separated
1 cup sour cream
3 cups cake flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons good vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a tube pan and sugar the edges. Cream the butter and two cups of sugar until fluffy. While that’s beating, use a hand-mixer to whip the egg whites. Add the third cup of sugar and continue whipping until they form stiff peaks.

Add the egg yolks, one at a time, to the butter and sugar. Beat well. Sift the flour, salt, and soda together. Add, alternating wet and dry ingredients, the flour mix and the sour cream. Mix well. Add the vanilla, then fold in the egg whites. Try not to eat the batter (it’s really good). Bake sixty to ninety minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Cool ten to fifteen minutes and turn out on a plate.

This cake is best savored with a glass of Kentucky whiskey or old Madeira or champagne, sitting in front of a bright fire, lying on the new grass in spring, or curled up on the sofa reading French ballads.

“People of the Cake” was originally published in the Oxford American’s Spring 2010 Southern Food issue, guest edited by John T. Edge.

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Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts’s most recent book is Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee and is currently at work on a series of essays on white women.