Lost Cakes of the South
Homemade cakes are a point of pride among Southern bakers, sometimes civic pride. Many cakes are born of local ingenuity, starting as a response to a hometown or backyard specialty. Good Southern cooks are inventive and resourceful, always looking for tasty ways to make the most of what's at hand. Good Southern bakers are no exception.
Many of the South's most lauded confections are ornate layer cakes, made only for special occasions and displayed on the fancy stand that rests in the china hutch the rest of the year. They're head turners, but let's not overlook the workaday cakes that also serve us well, and more often, the ones that provide dessert and snacking (and maybe breakfast) on days that hum with family activity.
Over-the-top cakes are often memorialized in cookbooks, but simple ones are more often handwritten on index cards for the family recipe box, or quickly scribbled on a piece of scrap paper or the back of an envelope, ready to pull from an apron pocket and prop up against the flour canister on baking day.
To discover an old recipe, what some call a lost recipe, is to rekindle a connection to another baker, perhaps from a long time ago, or from our own childhood. A classic cake lets us taste the past in ways that still work today, and feel as exciting and new as the day it was first made. Convenience, charm, and deliciousness never go out of style.
Simple cakes have potential for greatness because they always live up to our expectations and, more importantly, our recollections. Even when we've not tasted a particular recipe before, we know and love cakes like them, which puts it in our good stead from the get-go. They're different, but familiar. An old-fashioned cake is reassuring, encouraging us to feel confident that ours will turn out just fine. And if it doesn't on the first try, the mishap gives us a story to pass along with the recipe. The role of story and association in a Southern recipe is as important as any ingredient.
Here are five doable desserts made from Southern pantry staples that deserve a new day in the sun, or at least on our countertops. They are a gift to busy bakers, and any homemade cake makes the kitchen a happy place.
This recipe delivers nostalgia, even among those who haven't had it before. That's because we fondly recall this category of homey cake, one made in a simple metal 9-by-13 pan (perhaps with a built-in lid that slid back and forth to open and close) and left on the countertop so that peckish people could help themselves at will, especially after school. It's a quintessential weekday snack cake, not that it wouldn't be welcomed for dessert or by some people (and you know who you are) at breakfast.
The oatmeal part of this cake is obvious. The batter includes a big scoop of softened oats, which makes the cake tender and oh-so-slightly chewy. No one knows who first stirred up this treat, but thrifty recipes that make the most of everyday staples have always been popular, and this one likely used up the cooked oatmeal porridge leftover from breakfast. Recipes from several decades back call for old-fashioned rolled oats, although the cake enjoyed renewed popularity in the 1960s when quick-cooking oats came on the market and the recipe popped up on the back of the oatmeal boxes. Either type of oats will work, so long as they soak in the boiling water long enough to turn tender.
The cake is plenty good, but the star here is the Lazy Daisy topping, which is a lot like the beloved coconut and pecan frosting slathered on a German Chocolate dessert , but much easier to make. The name Lazy Daisy describes uncooked frostings that are spread or sprinkled over a warm, freshly baked cake and broiled until toasted and bubbly. Lazy Daisy toppings appeared on a variety of cakes in the 1950s and 1960s, and after one bite, one has to wonder why we stopped using them given how quick, easy, and delicious they are.
Novice bakers, this recipe has you in mind. The best advice is to not walk away from the cake while it's under the broiler. Depending on the position of the oven rack and the strength of the heat, the topping might start to sizzle in only a minute, and can go from just right to scorched in the blink of an eye.
It's a dreamy place to vacation, but as far as a fruit is concerned, the narrow strip of North Carolina's barrier islands known as the Outer Banks is a punishing place in the summer: sandy, salty, stormy, and sizzling hot. For some reason, fig trees accept that challenge. A dozen or more varieties of figs, many of them native, grow happily and well along the Outer Banks. Figs are so popular on Ocracoke Island that they practically star in their annual Ocracoke Alive festival. Any fruit that inspires its own t-shirt clearly has deep roots in the community.
Local folklore tells that a fig tree won't bear fruit in the yard of an empty house after the family moves away. They say that the tree goes barren from loneliness. It is more likely that an untended tree suffers from lack of watering and nutrients, but who can truly know the heart and ways of a fig tree?
When fig trees are happy, as backyard gardeners can attest, they surge into seasonal ripeness and their limbs can bow under the weight of the fruit as though they were handing them to us. A sun-warmed ripe fig is alluring. Golden beads of nectar seep through the cracks in the skins, letting us glimpse the silky, sultry, sweet pulp that lies within. However when they are ripe, they are extremely fragile. It is nearly impossible to ship and store ripe figs, so their perfection remains a truly local treat, mostly in backyards, where the distance between picking and eating is a game of inches.
What to do with a wonderful fruit that refuses to be kept? Preserve them. No homemade jam is easier to perfect than fig preserves. Many cooks put up scads of jars each summer, perhaps in self-defense when the trees are at their fullest. It's also easy to buy jars of excellent jam all over the region, at roadside stands, in farmers' markets, and in grocery stores.
Jam cakes are popular in the South. A jar of jam adds fruity goodness and sweetness to classic spice-cake batter, especially back in the days when there would be little, if any, fresh fruit to use during much of the year. Each community uses the type of jam that is most plentiful in that place, so it stands to reason that along the Outer Banks, particularly around Ocracoke, that is going to be fig preserves.
This cake shows up in many cookbooks that catalog great recipes from the last hundred years, from tomes to spiral-bound community collections. For example, a recipe for Brownstone Front Cake was in the "From the Cupboard" chapter of The Southern Heritage Cakes Cookbook published by Oxmoor House, the cookbook cousin to Southern Living. It also appeared in The American Heritage Cookbook and the American Century Cookbook. Different versions even graced the pages of magazines, such as Ladies Home Journal in 1940, and the "women's pages" of hometown newspapers. Many descriptions say this cake originated during the Great Depression when chocolate was expensive and hard to come by, but there's a recipe for it in a pamphlet from the 1895 Cotton State and International Expo in Atlanta. It sure looks like Southerners have loved this cake a long time.
Brownstone Front was a go-to favorite in the days before rich, intense, dark chocolate cakes became the rage in the 1990s. It contains only a whiff of chocolate, similar to recipes for red velvet and chocolate pound cakes, reminding us that sometimes a little is plenty when used in the right way. A few spoonsful of flavorful cocoa (or, in some versions, a couple of tidy squares of baking chocolate) turn this cake a pale, ruddy brown, the same color as the building blocks of brown stone building facades, thus its name.
The name and the chocolate are about the only things bakers agree on when it comes to how to make the cake they recognize as Brownstone Front. The ingredients, shape, and serving style are all over the place. Some insist the cake be baked as a loaf, making it look even more like a building block. Others say that it's always a multi-layer cake (the more layers the better) and yet others make it in a reliable tube pan.
There are similar delicious disagreements over how to assemble the cake. The fanciest finish is an icing of sugar, evaporated milk, and butter that must be boiled and fussed over until it's close to turning into candy, then cooled, beaten, and spread over the layers. Bakers these days can rely on a candy thermometer to peg the target temperature for the icing. Our grandmothers had to use a knowing eye and experienced touch. They tested the readiness of cooked sugar recipes (such as icing, caramel, and candy) by spooning a little of the boiling hot mixture into a cup of cold water and then kneading it with fingertips when cool enough to handle. If they could squeeze the blob into a squishy ball that held its shape, then the icing had reached soft ball stage and was ready to pull from the stove. That was a lot of work, so in contrast, bakers in a hurry for cake turned instead to a quick whipped cream filling that was intended to resemble the mortar between the stacked stones.
Brownstone Front is a lesson in how classic cakes can change and evolve when passed from hand to hand. A good recipe gets around, but rarely comes around un-tweaked. Each baker's choices likely came down to the ingredients in the pantry, the sizes and shapes of pans in the cabinet, their experience with other cakes, and the expectations of those around the table.
A handwritten copy of this recipe might make the recipient wonder if the baker was holding out on the real version, conveniently "forgetting" crucial ingredients in order to keep their prize recipe a secret. Although it seems suspect that only four ingredients add up to perfection, that's the way of Pecan Mist Cake. There really is no flour in this recipe that's been around for decades, long before anyone considered whether a dessert was gluten-free. Instead of flour, the body of this confection comes from ground pecans that look like mist suspended in each slice.
Technique is crucial to the success of the Pecan Mist. There's no leavening, so the airy interior comes from egg whites whipped into meringue and yolks beaten into golden ribbons. It's not very sweet, and it's hard to imagine any cake could deliver a better pecan flavor. (The fresher and plumper the pecans, the better this will be.) Although this cake is decidedly Southern thanks to all those pecans, it's just like recipes for the legendary walnut and hazelnuts tortes found in Old World bakeries. Perhaps the recipe came to the South in the heart and memory of someone who came here generations ago, ready to make a nut torte and turning to the pecans that were plentiful in her new hometown.
The trick is to grind the pecans into tiny, uniform pieces that look like sand. When overworked, they dissolve into paste, which turns the cake sticky. When left too large and coarse, they sink to the bottom. Bakers once probably tackled the task with one of those little nut-chopper jars with the screw-on lids and a spring-loaded handle that lowered and rotated the chopping blade with each pump. Or perhaps they ran them through the grinder used for sausage and vegetables for relish, one of those heavy metal funnel-shaped contraptions that bolted into the edge of the countertop to hold it in place when cranked. Thank goodness that we can count on a food processor to make quick work of getting the pecans just right, not to mention a mixer to beat all those whites and yolks. Making a Pecan Mist Cake with nothing but elbow grease would have been a feat of endurance.
Although this cake appears in cookbooks in Texas and Louisiana, it often includes Georgia in its name, a tribute to the fact that the Peach State produces more pecans than any other, with an annual crop of 200,000 pounds harvested from more than 10 million trees. During times when grocery money was scarce, some cooks of modest means had better access to pecans than to store-bought flour to use in baking. Pecan groves covered acres of land, dropping so many nuts that some farmers let their pigs roam among the trees to feast on the free mast.
Another reason this cake is often associated with Georgia is because it is a popular dessert at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room in Savannah. Since 1943, when a young Sema Wilkes took over a boardinghouse in the city's historic downtown district, guests have lined up for legendary lunch service. When the doors open at 11:00 sharp, they're seated at communal tables to enjoy home-style Southern classics served family-style. The menu changes daily, but it sometimes includes Georgia Pecan Mist Cake, a recipe shared in Mrs. Wilkes' Boardinghouse Cookbook.
Pecan Mist Cake isn't iced or glazed. The perfect accompaniment is a bracing cup of hot, strong coffee. (Okay, and maybe with a side of juicy, ripe peaches come summertime.)
The genius of this cake is that it is simple and straightforward, made from staple ingredients and ready in under an hour. It's the kind of baked good one can stir together in less than ten minutes, pop into the oven when the family sits down to supper, and be ready to serve for dessert. But don't mistake ease with so-so cake. Far from it. Busy Day is everything we want in a classic butter cake: tender texture that's both spongy and fluffy with clean, not-too-sweet flavor that keeps us coming back for just one more bite. It's so tasty and satisfying that it needs no frosting, fruit, or ice cream, although it's amenable to those things. When paired with juicy strawberries so ripe and fragrant that they perfume the kitchen and a dollop of real whipped cream, you have stellar strawberry shortcake.
The recipe yields a single layer, enough for six or so servings, a pleasant and prudent contrast to huge cakes that can grow stale before they're finished. It slices beautifully, but it's tempting to just break off a big bite (or hunk) in passing. Busy Day Cake is a busy scratch baker's dream come true.
Some bakers joked that this ought to be called Neighbor Cake because if you ran out of an ingredient, a neighbor could surely lend you a cup of this or that. This type of recipe is so simple that cooks often knew it by heart and taught it to others by baking alongside them. It might have landed in family recipe boxes or jotted on slips of paper tucked inside cookbooks, but not necessarily included in the pages of those cookbooks because it was so well-known and too plain to compete with elaborate special occasion confections.
But one important cookbook author did talk about the charms of this workaday cake. Edna Lewis included her version of the recipe in her classic The Taste of Country Cooking, a book that described and celebrated the resourcefulness, brilliance, dignity, and understated elegance of home cooking, based on her memories of growing up on a farm in Freetown, Virginia. She wrote,
Her version called for mixing the batter with a wooden spoon, but most of us will appreciate the speed of a mixer. She also made her own baking powder, which, as a young girl in a kitchen with no measuring spoons, she measured by piling it on a dime, but this recipe has been adapted to use store-bought. She would likely still remind us, however, that when a recipe calls for very few items, each one matters all the more, so choose high-quality ingredients.