More than 100 years ago, Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, entered the annual baking competition at the county fair in Columbus, Georgia. She took first prize. No doubt the judges were swayed by her cake’s filling: a richly yolked custard heavily spiked with bourbon. The recipe, entitled Prize Cake, can be found in Some Good Things To Eat, a collection of personal favorites she published in 1898. Though later versions add shredded coconut and pecans to the filling, the original recipe calls for raisins only. Like Lady Baltimore Cake, it’s one of many spirited fruit-filled cakes of the era that became a holiday tradition. In July 1960, Lane Cake gained literary fame in To Kill A Mockingbird. And in March 1966, Southern Living featured a recipe for Lane Cake in its second issue. Our latest twist? Dried peaches (finely diced and ridiculously delicious) stand in for raisins, and the traditional meringue frosting gets a spirited makeover with a triple shot of peach schnapps.
Expecting a twist on cheesecake? You’re in for an even sweeter surprise. These layers are filled with a buttery rich lemon curd instead. Recipes dating back to the early 1800s called for acidulating cream with lemon juice, then separating the curds and whey. Over the years, the original recipe for lemon cheese evolved into one using butter and eggs. By the 1940s almost every good cook south of the Mason-Dixon Line had a recipe for lemon cheese layer cake in her repertoire. And if you’ve ever lived anywhere near Hartford in southeast Alabama you know of the local ladies still famous for their 14-layer lemon cheese cakes. This cake trumps them all.
Velvet cakes (minus the jolt of red) were popular in Victorian times when savvy cooks blended flour and cornstarch to create fine-crumbed cake layers with a velvety texture. The subtle hue of Mahogany Velvet Cake, and later Red Devil's Food Cake, was the result of baking soda interacting with natural cocoa and other acids in the batter. Legend has it that chefs at the Waldorf Astoria dreamed up a hybrid "Red Velvet" cake during the 1930s and served a slice to the owner of the Texas-based Adams Extract Company while he was a hotel guest. By the 1940s, Mr. Adams was marketing red food coloring to the masses with recipe cards for a Red Velvet Cake his wife Betty developed. In 1989, an armadillo-shaped groom's cake in Steel Magnolias kicked off a cult following for red velvet. The craze has continued, fueled in part by the red velvet cakes that have graced the Southern Living Christmas cover three times
The origins of jam cake lie deep in Appalachia where store-bought sugar was once scarce. Cakes were often sweetened with homemade jams, filled with wild berries and mountain fruits. The payoff for the genius swap? Rich, dense cake layers with a depth of flavor sugar alone can’t deliver. Vintage cookbooks offer century-old favorites, from Alice May Cresswell’s Blackberry Jam Cake to Zella McDowell’s extravaganza made with strawberry jam and fig preserves. Most recipes start with a tangy buttermilk batter ramped up with one or more flavors of jam and a flurry of ground spices. Foraged hickories and black walnuts, or wind-fallen pecans were added along with raisins and dates. Optional flourishes ranged from cocoa and freshly grated apple to pickled watermelon rind. This latest addition to our archives is finished with a quick caramel cream cheese frosting instead of the traditional burnt sugar icing. And yes, it’s every bit as luscious as it looks.
White as a Sunday glove, coconut is the doyenne of Southern layer cakes, a masterpiece of home cookery that has crowned dining room sideboards for more than a hundred years. Purists sing the praises of simple but divine, opting for coconutwater-doused cake layers and dreamy swirls of meringue. No argument there. In fact, it's one of our favorites too. But flip through back issues of Southern Living and you'll find more than 40 top-rated twists too good to pass up. Often requested: Nanny's Famous Coconut-Pineapple Cake leavened with 7-Up, sent in by a reader in 1997. Fifty-one years earlier Eudora Welty chose a coconutcake as the culinary centerpiece of Delta Wedding. Faulkner even gives it a shout-out in The Unvanquished. One of the earliest published recipes appears in Mrs. Hill's New Cook Book. Writing from her rural Georgia kitchen in 1867, Mrs. Hill advises to make the filling "as thick and rich as desired," which is exactly what we did with our latest creation.