25 Years of Southern Living's White Cake Covers
Christmas traditions are precious things. Whether it's placing the Nativity set in its rightful spot on the mantel or watching It's a Wonderful Life after trimming the tree, these rituals give the season meaning. For Southern Living, it wouldn't be the holidays without a white cake on the cover of our December issue. Over the years, we've tried just about everything—gift-shaped desserts, cookies, candy that looked a bit too much like glass (oops), and more. "All of the cakes you develop become your special 'babies,' " says Test Kitchen Professional Pam Lolley. "You love them for different reasons."
It all began in 1995 with a Coconut-Lemon Cake from Sissy Nash and her daughter, chef Kathy Nash Cary of Louisville, Kentucky. Our former Editor in Chief John Floyd chose it as the cover, and it was an instant hit across the South. Sissy's mother, Tee ("the queen bee," says Kathy), baked the cake for family celebrations. Kathy remembers Tee proudly slicing and serving it as the grand finale of holiday dinners.
After the success of the previous year's cover, we decided to feature another white cake. But how could we make it even better? Turn it into an edible gift! This charmingly over-the-top creation was decorated with gingerbread men and wrapped up with a Fruit by the Foot
ribbon sprinkled with sparkling sugar.
Recipe: Chocolate Truffle Angel Cake
By the third year, the pressure was on to make the cake truly extravagant. A three-layer chocolate version with a fudgy pecan-praline filling just wasn't enough, so we added a ring of oversize angel-shaped cookies alternating with pieces of ruffled ribbon. Unfortunately, we didn't explain how to properly slice this dessert. (Sorry!)
Red velvet and peppermint might seem like an unlikely combination, but as you can see from this cover, it's as Christmassy as Santa's suit. The marbled layers (made with white and yellow cake mixes) were swathed in minty cream cheese frosting and trimmed with enough candy canes to cover a tree.
Lane Cake, a famous Southern dessert that dates back to 1898, got a festive transformation with an edible wreath of candy holly leaves, fruit and cinnamon candies, plus a bright bow made from candy melts. The garnish was so elaborate that we took a few shortcuts on the actual cake and called for a store-bought mix and frosting.
Former Test Kitchen Professional Jan Moon Potter designed a shimmering five-pointed beauty that practically took an engineering degree to construct. "It was John Floyd's idea to have a star cake, but he wanted readers to be able to make it without having to buy a special pan," recalls Jan. "Lord, have mercy—I spent so many hours on that cake."
John loves his mama's recipe for homemade divinity and thought the old-fashioned Southern candy might make a unique cake frosting. Although divinity requires some skill (and dry, sunny weather), the Test Kitchen delivered with a four-layer sour cream cake swathed in a sugary frosting that mimics the real thing.
Recipe: Fresh Orange Italian Cream Cake
Long before the Cronut, we merged two regional favorites—ambrosia and Italian cream cake—to develop one stunning confection. (The filling requires juice from 4 pounds of oranges, but it's worth the effort.) And yes, those are boxwood sprigs on the plate. Although our recipe warned that the plant is toxic, we now use only edible garnishes.
The editors were challenged with developing a dozen-layer "Twelve Days of Christmas" cake (with 10 cookie lords a-leaping, eight maids a-milking, etc.). Rumors of a mutiny in the Test Kitchen swirled around the office, and—after some diplomatic give-and-take—they created the Twelve Cakes for Christmas, each made with the same chocolate batter.
A pound cake might seem too homey for a cover star, but former Senior Food Editor Mary Allen Perry's gussied-up version was just fancy enough. When we were photographing the cake that summer, a roaring fire during the shoot produced billowing clouds of smoke, prompting the homeowner's neighbors to call the fire department.
To give readers even more options, Mary Allen developed a Sour Cream Cake Batter with five different flavor variations that could be baked in six different pan sizes. A six-tier Chocolate-Red Velvet Layer Cake and a smaller fluted cake made the cover along with mini Praline-Pecan Cakes wrapped up with pretty bows.
Since the 1995 cake was still the most popular, we revisited that winning combination of coconut with lemon filling. (We did learn our lesson and garnished with fresh rosemary instead of using boxwood sprigs.) Just like before, readers told us how much they loved its simplicity and how it looked "just like Grandma used to make."
This might look like a classic Bundt cake,
but it certainly wins the award for the longest name ever (Vanilla Butter Cake with Fluffy Wintry-White Icing and Sparkling Peppermint Candy). We thought the sugary shards of homemade candy on top were beautiful, but unfortunately, some people actually mistook them for glass, causing a bit of concern.
Made with a boxed white cake mix and pantry staples, this simple recipe was designed to please busy cooks with long to-do lists. While many readers applauded the relative ease of this cake compared to more elaborate versions in past years, others expected more bells and whistles (and didn't hesitate to share their disappointment).
After the previous year's simplicity, we knew we needed to go big. This recipe, by Rose Marie Crowe of Trussville, Alabama, had chocolate layers enhanced with coffee and a mousse-like ganache filling on the inside and billowy swirls of seven-minute frosting and homemade candied orange slices on the outside.
Unlike the usual fruitcake that's studded with dried fruit and soaked in alcohol, a Japanese fruitcake has tender spiced layers and a citrus-coconut filling. Pam paid tribute to this popular 1950s dessert, as well as her grandmother, saying, "She always had a Japanese fruitcake on Christmas Eve for our big family party."
Readers submitted more than 800 cake recipes for the 2011 cover. The Test Kitchen baked a few dozen, tasted up to 12 slices a day, and put them under intense scrutiny. Lynn Brown of Centennial, Colorado, took home first prize for her recipe, which reminded one staffer of "all the wonderful flavors that come tumbling from a stocking."
"Think of this instant classic as the little black dress of white cakes," we wrote of Mrs. Billett's creation, that year's contest winner. The recipe was shared by Sue Winter of Gillette, Wyoming, who said it was a favorite choice for birthdays in her family. Although no one knows who Mrs. Billett was, we still thank her for this extra-tender cake.
When this tower of a dessert is sliced, the layers of red velvet cake and white chocolate cheesecake inside make a dramatic statement. Pam vividly recalls that when then-Editor in Chief Lindsay
Bierman first laid eyes on the cake in the Test Kitchen, he exclaimed, "This is it!" Years later, it's still one of our most popular cakes.
Crafty readers had fun with fondant as they fashioned a realistic-looking striped bow on a gift-shaped cake. Nonbakers got a treat, too—the dessert was available to buy online from Eilenberger's bakery in Texas. In 2018, the cake appeared in the Hallmark Channel movie Christmas Joy.
We went for a wintry look with a stand of snowy trees (sugar cones that were piped with frosting and then bedazzled with silver dragées) atop a buttermilk cake flavored with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. The tart cranberry filling and a frosting featuring apple cider complemented all the warm spices in this cake.
For the 50th anniversary of Southern Living, Pam and fellow Test Kitchen Professional Emily Nabors Hall developed such a spectacular array of desserts that we ran four cakes in the issue. This one decked in sparkling tree cookies won the coveted cover spot, thanks to its incredible rum custard filling.
Vintage glass Christmas ornaments inspired the beautifully intricate (and edible!) cake balls that topped our Snowy Vanilla Cake. The petallike rows of piped Cream Cheese Buttercream are also
impressive looking—and a bit easier to
pull off than the ornaments, which Pam admits were "a pain in the butt."
Editor in Chief Sid Evans wanted "simplicity" to be the year's theme. A station wagon gingerbread cookie driving through a forest of rosemary trees made an easy topper for this cake, flavored with vanilla and almond extract. As simple as it looks, we pored over dozens of cookie cutters before settling on just the right one.
The South's most iconic flower—the magnolia—was the inspiration for one of our most stunning cover cakes ever. Test Kitchen Professional Sarah Epperson crafted gum paste blooms and leaves that were so realistic that people had to touch them to be sure. And Pam made a chocolate cake just as memorable as the decorations.
This year's coconut confection is a sweet nod to our very first cake. To give it a new look, we added a choice of three fillings (lemon, cranberry, or chocolate) and topped it with a pair of dove-shaped cookies as a symbol of peace—our wish for the New Year. And now, the planning for next December's cover cake begins!