The Most Iconic Southern Desserts
Imagine being handed the dessert menu from the greatest Southern restaurant in history—one that transcended state lines and generations (and menu item limits). That’s this list. We’re going through the most storied and most beloved Southern desserts ever made. These treats are the definition of “Don’t mess with a good thing.” Especially a good thing that comes covered in sky-high meringue, still left bubbling in a casserole dish, or layered into a spice-filled, pecan-speckled masterpiece.
As much as Southerners love their fried chicken and cornbread, we define some of these classic recipes as the ultimate comfort food. You’ll recognize them as the desserts your grandmother would make for big occasions and for no particular reason at all, using things like peaches, pecans, buttermilk, and sometimes even Duke’s mayonnaise. Read on for the South’s top 25 most famous desserts, and get ready to make a grocery run afterwards for all the ingredients.
Recipe: Easy Peach Cobbler
For Southerners, making peach cobbler in the summer is like breathing. First, it comes naturally. Second, it's absolutely necessary. The ooey, gooey dish full of sweet, stewed fruit happens to also be mighty easy.
Recipe: Hummingbird Cake
If you haven't heard of Hummingbird Cake, you surely aren't from these parts. (Secret: It's the most popular recipe in Southern Living history.) Throughout the early 20th century, spiced cakes with canned pineapple and bananas popped up in community cookbooks around the South, and this three-layer looker is a regional favorite.
Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake
Recipe: Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake
All Southern cooks agree on one thing: Duke's was sent from above. Not only does it bind together our favorite spreads (like pimiento cheese and chicken salad) but it is the secret to the most moist chocolate cake below the Mason-Dixon. And you can quote us on that.
Classic Southern Buttermilk Pie
Recipe: Classic Southern Buttermilk Pie
Light and silky smooth, this creamy custard-based pie hails from an era of “desperation pies.” (Also known as “make-do pies.”) Buttermilk pie gets its signature tangy flavor from buttermilk, a splash of lemon juice, and a hint of vanilla.
Texas Sheet Cake
This dessert fits the Texas bill: Decadent and over-the-top. It might just look like a simple sheet cake, but boy is it so much more. Texas claims this fudgy recipe as its own, dating back to the mid-20th century—perhaps partially because of the pecans, an ingredient that grows in abundance in the Lone Star State.
Classic Banana Pudding
Recipe: Banana Pudding
Many Southerners have a memory attached to banana pudding: Maybe it was served at every Easter lunch or Memorial Day cookout, or perhaps it was always made by your grandmother and exclusively served in a layered trifle dish. Regardless, we like to think of it as the most humble of classics.
Don't get caught talking to a Georgia farmer about why pecan pie is obviously the perfect dessert. You won't win. Pecans are a Southern trademark, and pecan pie hits the table on many days apart from Thanksgiving.
The Lane Cake
Recipe: The Lane Cake
This cake, like many things in the South, starts with an old story: Over 100 years ago, it won the county fair competition in Columbus, Georgia. Later, it was featured in the literary classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. The appeal? It's a fruit-filled, bourbon-spiked, meringue-topped cake. Enough said.
Mississippi Mud Cake
Recipe: Mississippi Mud Cake
In the 1980s, simple was for suckers, and decadence ruled supreme. (A point proven further by the permed hair and puffy sleeves.) There was a surge in dessert recipes with the name “mud” in them, and Mississippi's take might be the richest, darkest, most decadent chocolate (and marshmallow-speckled) dessert you’ll ever taste.
Key Lime Pie
Recipe: Heavenly Key Lime Pie
Key lime pie has been enjoyed by locals in Key West for over 100 years, which means bootleggers and Ernest Hemingway both (most likely) indulged in the sweet-tart treat. That's an endorsement we'll take.
Sweet Potato Pie
This take on classic custard-style sweet potato pie has a fun secret—and it's actually even more vintage than the recipe you know and love. This double-crust, old-fashioned pie may look ordinary on the outside, but when it's sliced, the inside reveals vibrant orange layers of sweet potatoes flecked with spices and sweetened with sugar and sorghum syrup.
Recipe: Coconut Sheet Cake
Southerners knew just what they were doing when creating this ultra-sweet, snow-white dream. (We'd follow a slice of coconut cake into any witch's den.) In fact, Charleston’s Peninsula Grill makes a coconut cake so ultimate that it deserves a spot on your bucket list—with its 12 layers of moist, buttery cake held together with fluffy coconut filling.
Classic Southern Pound Cake
Recipe: Classic Southern Pound Cake
This recipe is the ultimate classic. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Here's the only recipe you need.
Another Kentucky classic. (Those folks love to pair their bourbon with something sweet, we imagine.) Transparent pie is another of the league of butter-sugar-egg pies like chess pie, buttermilk pie, and custard pie. In taste, the recipe is most akin to a custard pie. Magee's Bakery in Maysville, Kentucky, has served up the Bluegrass State's signature confection for decades.
Little Layer Chocolate Cake
Recipe: Little Layer Chocolate Cake
Known best below the Gnat Line, this chocolate cake's height is something magnificent to behold. It can be based on which birthday you're celebrating or on how many layers you successfully bake and stack without disaster. Either-or. The sweet chocolate icing-to-cake ratio is more than worth the nervous sweat.
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
Recipe: Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
Back when many meals were cooked in a cast-iron skillet over an open fire, the upside-down cake was born. Then someone thought to combine butter, brown sugar, and pineapple at the bottom to culminate in a deliciously gooey topping for the cake once flipped over. Genius.
Recipe: Strawberry-Pretzel Icebox Pie
To be fair, strawberry pretzel salad is the real classic here; but we're not totally settled on where it lands on the spread. Side dish? Dessert? (We say it deserves its own category.) This pie recipe clears up the confusion and fits the bill. Here are the must-have ingredients: strawberries, pretzels, strawberry gelatin, and cream cheese.
Blackberry Jam Cake
Recipe: Blackberry Jam Cake
Kentuckians like to say that the jam cake belongs to their state, but the spice-filled cake was actually brought over to the region by German immigrants originally. Southern folks put their own spin on it with homemade berry jam and whichever nuts can be collected locally (like pecans or black walnuts).
Recipe: Coca-Cola Cake
In the 1990s, Southerners were all about using Coca-Cola in everything from barbecue braises to sheet cakes. Way before then, we picked this famous cola cake recipe to be included in Southern Living’s first cookbook, 1970’s Our Best Recipes.
This cake might be one of our favorite classics in the bunch—because it's got a touch of mystery. No one is totally certain why it was dubbed "Japanese," but the same recipe kept popping up with the namesake and Southerners latched on tight. This fruitcake is mighty different from the hard loaf you knew as a child (and would occasionally use as a door stopper). Its spice-filled layers are topped with a sweet lemon-coconut frosting.
Recipe: Apple-Bourbon Pie
Don't put it past Kentuckians to infuse everything with bourbon, including apple pie. Inside this regional delicacy, you'll find a spiced twist from bourbon-infused raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, apricot preserves, and toasted pecans or walnuts.
Recipe: Praline-Cream Cheese King Cakes
That's right, Louisiana folks have been fighting over the babies for over a century. Traditionally, king cake is an oval-shaped confection that lands somewhere between a coffee cake and French pastry. While fillings and flavors vary, the tri-colored topping and tiny plastic baby remain steadfast.
Recipe: Classic Chess Pie
Southerners have been making chess pie for as long as we've been able to get our paws on a few scoops of sugar and a couple pats of butter. Coming from the era of make-do pies, chess pie is simple and (unlike buttermilk pie or custard pie) typically includes vinegar or cornmeal in the batter, often both.
Caramel cake is about as classic as it gets in the South. (One of my fondest memories as a kid involves my grandmother making this cake for her own birthday and getting mad when the icing was never as good as her mother's...who took her secret to the grave, literally.)
Try your hand at our most recent rift on the basic Caramel Cake Recipe. Sea salt perfectly compliments sweet caramel.
Shaker Lemon Pie
Recipe: Shaker Lemon Pie
Shaker cooks considered lemons an important part of a healthy diet and perfect for dessert (even though they were expensive and hard to come by). To justify the splurge, they devised this pie to make use of every bit of the fruit, peels and all. We found this recipe in a 1974 cookbook published by the Charleston, West Virginia, Junior League.