American Cake author Anne Byrn mines the Southern arsenal for fresh and easy riffs on the classics.
When Southern cakes come to mind, we think of pound cake, Lane cake, coconut cake, and the Lady Baltimore.
Cakes have long been a part of Southern culture. Traditionally, the recipes have been shaped by indigenous ingredients such as the pecan, citrus fruit (which adapted to our coastal climates), the availability of sugar, and the tropical coco-nuts, bananas, and pineapples that came through the ports of Charleston and New Orleans.
The people of the South—the English, French, German, Spanish, and African American—all contributed to the cake story we know today. Enslaved people, in particular, had a deft hand at baking and their cakes became a part of our entertaining and celebratory culture. Over time, those recipes were written down and baked at Southern tea rooms, where cake was big business in the 1930s.
Look into the face of a talented Southern cake baker and you’ll see someone who cares deeply about details and presentation, and who’ll be offended if a slice of their masterpiece has more than crumbs left after the potluck. But as I learned from researching my book, American Cake, most cooks these days prefer a cake that’s easy to make, tastes less sweet, and looks modern.
So I’ve created five Southern cakes to suit today’s palate. The lemon cheese cake is a Georgia classic, brightened with spring strawberries. The Williamsburg orange cake is now slightly deconstructed and full of fresh orange flavor. An 1857 sorghum cake recipe is modernized with mashed banana and baked as bouchons. Classic coconut cake becomes a simple pound cake, and the jam cake is a cinch to pull together with fresh blackberries. The South’s tradition of baking cakes continues.
ICE LIKE A PRO: Make sure the cake and frosting are at the same temperature. The frosting will spread more easily, and layer cakes stay straight and tall. All cakes look best on a cake stand—it’s like putting on high heels. For a more modern touch when frosting a cake, spread the sides ever so gently for a nearly naked cake, and then pile the top generously and garnish. For surprise flavors, spread jam, lemon curd, or caramel icing between layers and use a simple buttercream or cream cheese frosting on the outside. When in frosting doubt, whip heavy cream and lightly sweeten with sugar. Keep cake refrigerated.
Sorghum, often called sorghum molasses, is a longtime Southern sweetener popularized out of necessity after the Civil War. Unable to get Louisiana and Georgia sugar, cooks baked cakes with sorghum, the woodsy-flavored boiled juice of sorghum grass. In recipes, sorghum substitutes well for molasses. This recipe is a modern adaptation of an old 1857 sorghum cake printed in a Concord, North Carolina, newspaper. These little cakes are a play on the chocolate bouchons made popular by chef Thomas Keller. If you don’t have a mini-popover pan, you can use mini-muffin pans.
This cake was popular in South Georgia and for reasons unknown it was called a “lemon cheese cake.” That was likely due to the filling and frosting, which is much like a lemon curd and turns bright orange-yellow as it cooks down. This recipe is adapted slightly from both Grace Hartley’s Southern Cookbook and My Mother’s Southern Kitchen by James Villas.
Coconut flour, found in health food stores and some supermarkets, combines nicely with unbleached wheat flour in this classic recipe. Toast the coconut flakes ahead of time to bring out the nutty flavor. You can’t beat the ease of a pound cake recipe, and this is ideal for those who prefer a less-sweet cake.
The Williamsburg orange cake is now slightly deconstructed and full of fresh orange flavor.