Photo: Victor Protasio; Prop Styling: Cindy Barr; Food Styling: Torie Cox

When I was a girl growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, holidays were spent at Aunt Julie’s house. It was a beautiful brick home with a large front porch, pocket doors, and tiny spaces underneath the stairs where my cousins and I would play together. Family gatherings were loud, somewhat disjointed events with the adults laughing from the dining room and the kids carrying
on from our own table in the nook off the kitchen. 

The menu was always a potluck, always served buffet style, and the plates always seemed too small to fit all the offerings. After we overfilled our dishes, we would then scatter to enjoy the feast.

It was the desserts that brought the whole family back together after dinner. Aunt Julie would set out a parade of homemade treats, all lined up in a row on the counter: apple pie, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, chocolate cake, yellow cake, and coconut cake. They were all delicious, but I had two particular favorites—and they came out only at Christmas: mincemeat pie, which is a dessert for another story, and Blackberry Jam Cake with Caramel Frosting

Eating a slice of Aunt Julie’s jam cake reminds me of sliding into a warm bed. Imagine the comfort of worn quilts, the excitement of clean sheets, and the sigh of relaxing into a soft mattress, and you’ll have an idea of how a bite of this cake makes you feel. It is a moist and hearty spice cake with a zip of tartness from blackberries and a slather of slightly salty caramel frosting all over. In short, it is perfect.

I have always loved eating this cake, but it wasn’t until I attempted to make it myself that I really began to understand its nuances. Here is what I learned. The spices are key elements. The amounts of cinnamon, allspice, and cloves called for in this recipe give the layers nicely balanced warmth, but you can feel free to bump up the spices if you want to create something a little more dramatic. 

WATCH: Italian Cream Cake

 

I also discovered that a cream cheese frosting is a must. Unlike the caramel icing that is traditionally paired with blackberry jam cake, my caramel-cream cheese version is a little bit savory, which tempers the sweetness of the cake layers. 

But above all, I realized that the most important ingredient in this recipe is the jam. You can use whatever brand of seedless blackberry jam or preserves you like in the cake batter, but just make sure it doesn’t contain additional pectin, which will make the jam much too thick. I made the mistake of using the wrong kind of jam once, and it produced a dense brick of a cake that even our backyard opossum, Sir Phillip, refused to eat. 

I could tell you that I love this cake because it connects me to a special little piece of Kentucky’s culinary history, which it does. I could tell you that it’s also a crowd-pleaser, which it always is. I could even tell you that the finished product makes a subtly impressive sight when it’s displayed on a milk glass cake stand—and, oh, how pretty it is. But the truth is, I love this Blackberry Jam Cake because it reminds me of the warm, wonderful glow that shines from a home that’s filled with a family’s laughter.

A Well-Traveled Recipe

Kentuckians like to boast that the jam cake is as original to their state as bourbon and the Derby. While there is a proliferation of jam cakes in old community cookbooks from that area, the recipe is actually a gift from German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and then ventured to Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and other places, bringing the European tradition of the jam-filled spice cake with them. Traditionally baked during the holidays, these confections were made using homemade berry jam, typically blackberry or blueberry, which the cook had put up in the summer. (According to an old wives’ tale, if you don’t use homemade jam in your cake layers, the fruit mixture will fall to the bottom of the pans.) Along with an abundance of spices, the original recipes also featured nuts of the region (such as black walnuts and pecans) and were iced with a satiny smooth caramel frosting. Jam cakes keep well and taste even better after a few days if covered and kept in the refrigerator (the waiting requires some restraint but is worth it).

Damaris Phillips is the author of Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy.