Southern cakes are about occasions. We love to celebrate all things family, every calendar holiday, and all of life’s achievements, both big and small, along the way.
Where certain dishes or vegetables might be seasonal, cakes are occasional. One will always find a hummingbird cake during summer festivities and a Lane cake during the winter holidays. Layer cakes are how we choose to celebrate our birthdays and chocolate cakes are how we like to entertain for those casual affairs like bridge club or church suppers.
We’ve made a list of four of our favorite southern cakes. Serving one of our treasured cakes is certain to delight any group for any gathering.
Like its namesake, the hummingbird cake is charming. Along with being beautiful and delicious, it comes with an air of mystery that makes for good food fodder. The origins of the hummingbird cake are difficult to decipher, but most cake historians (yes, that’s a thing) agree that the cake most likely has Jamaican roots and evolved from a dessert called doctor bird cake that is baked in a tube pan, or what we southerners call a Bundt pan.
The doctor bird is a type of hummingbird found only in Jamaica. This tube cake became very popular in the southern United States and eventually evolved into a round layered cake covered with cream cheese frosting.
What makes this spice cake unique, is the inclusion of banana and pineapple chunks into a batter that is oil based as opposed to butter based. The result is a dense, moist cake that lasts much longer than butter-based cakes. The cream cheese frosting compliments the spice and fruit in the most delectable of ways.
The hummingbird cake has recently undergone yet another make-over. Modern cake decorating techniques have been applied to this traditional dessert and are now presented with the same flair that was once reserved for wedding cakes. One of the more visually pleasing cakes on the southern cake spectrum, the Hummingbird cake is never hard to spot. With its decorative icing and gorgeous design, this cake is usually the centerpiece of any formal spread.
Red Velvet Cake
Red velvet cake is my favorite. I often choose a different type of cake for my birthday, one that my children will enjoy, but my folks have made it their tradition to always bring me a red velvet cupcake loaded with decadent cream cheese icing.
The richness of red velvet cake is created by the combination of vinegar and oil in the batter (along with just a touch of cocoa powder). This cake is made all the more festive with red food coloring, and when combined with the traditional cream cheese icing, it becomes the most celebratory of cakes. But what I love most about this dessert is that it comes with a side of pearl-clutching scandal.
Red velvet cake was once a top-secret, coveted recipe owned by the Waldorf Historia. The famous hotel did eventually sell the recipe, but for an exorbitant fee. The cook who made the purchase was so enraged by the amount of money charged for the recipe, that once in his possession, he shared it with the world out of spite.
This Lane cake is perhaps the most genuinely southern of all of cakes. Its roots are firmly planted in Columbus, Georgia where Emma Rylander Lane won a prize for it at the county fair. Emma, an Alabama native who relocated to Americus, Georgia, later published a cookbook called “A Few Good Things to Eat.” The Lane cake quickly grew in popularity across the region and has been republished numerous recipe collections along with several famous works of southern literature.
This white cake is made with four layers and infused with a “full wine glass full of whiskey,” to cut the sweetness of the custard filling. Served with a white frosting, and as of late, shredded coconut, the Lane cake is easily adaptable to personal tastes. Whether one chooses to frost or not, add nuts, or fold in a favorite fruit, the one constant is always the whiskey. The Lane cake is best served boozy and warm.
Like most culinary traditions in America, the jam cake is of European origin. Early settlers brought their unique perspective to the New World, which included the folding of seasonal fruits into cake batter. The region’s abundance of berries lent itself to this tradition. Soon, blackberries and wild strawberries were harvested and made into sweet jams that were used to flavor a variety of desserts.
While there are many variations of this type of cake, some being more heavily spiced with clove, others incorporating buttermilk, the one commonality that has never changed is the caramel icing. Few things please a southern crowd more than a jam cake drenched with homemade caramel icing. This cake is traditionally served at most family gatherings and casual social affairs.
A southern cake makes any occasion special. These confections are an integral part of our family history. Each cake we bake is part of a bigger story, one that tells how our culture chooses to celebrate life’s important moments with the people we love. Life, after all, is sweeter in the south.