If you follow the Book Trotters on BubbleLife, you know that the book club just read Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
For the monthly meeting of the book club, members often prepare dishes enjoyed by the book’s characters to share with each other over discussion. Re-reading the novel sparked my interest in the famous Lane cake.
In “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the Finches’ neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, brought over a Lane cake to welcome Aunt Alexandra when she came for a visit. Miss Maudie was well known around Maycomb for her Lane cakes.
Scout Finch’s take on the cake was, “Miss Maudie baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.”
Shinny derived from Moonshine, is slang for liquor.
The Lane cake is a traditional Southern cake that originated in Clayton, Alabama. According to food scholar Neil Ravenna, the inventor was Clayton’s Emma Rylander Lane, who won first prize with her creation at the county fair in Columbus, Georgia.[ She called the cake Prize Cake when she self-published a cookbook. Later, a friend encouraged her to change the cake’s name and give it her own.
The original prize-winning recipe had the reputation as a difficult cake to make. It was so difficult and labor intensive
that throughout the South, the cake was synonymous with the celebration of a noteworthy life event. Reserved for special occasions, many Southerners remember the cake at birthdays, anniversaries and wedding showers.
Borrowing from the “Cake Doctor” and her technique of starting with a cake mix and doctoring it to perfection, I decided to try my hand at a “copycat adaptation” of the Lane cake. A “copycat adaptation” is what my friend Kathy and I call something when we think we can produce a similar result with a lot less work and trouble!
Today, there are many versions of the Lane Cake recipe, but pecans, coconut, raisins and bourbon remain the main ingredients
I bought a good quality yellow cake mix. (You could use white.) Most people agree — though I am sure there are purists who would not — that the major baking companies like Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines and Pillsbury produce some moist, flavorful cakes.
Frosting is a different story. The canned frostings often have an artificial flavor. However, I have found a frosting mix at Central Market that is awesome. The brand is Homestead Baking Company. The mix is more expensive and you must add your own butter and milk, but the results are well worth it.
I prepared the cake mix according to the package directions, reducing the water by three teaspoons and adding one teaspoon of Mexican Vanilla extract, one teaspoon of brandy extract and one teaspoon of Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla extract.
I learned this trick in a cake decorating class many years ago. Reduce the liquid and choose a combination of any three flavorings that complement your cake flavor. It makes the cake taste richer.
Mexican Vanilla was difficult to come by for a while, unless you picked up a bottle while vacationing in Mexico. However, our Henderson Avenue neighbor, La Mariposa, is now carrying the real thing — San Luis Rey Vanilla, imported from Mexico.
When the cake was completely cooled, using a serrated knife (a bread knife), I sliced the two layers into four layers.
To prepare the frosting, additions to the packaged frosting mix include two sticks of softened butter and four tablespoons of milk. I substituted the milk with two tablespoons of bourbon and two tablespoons of half and half. Otherwise, I prepared the frosting according to the package directions, then I folded in 2/3 cup sweetened, flaked coconut, lightly toasted, 2/3 cup chopped pecans, lightly toasted, and ½ cup raisins.
The frosting was just the right consistency for spreading, but had it been a little thick, I think an additional splash of Jim Beam would have done the trick.
I spread the frosting between the layers and on top of the cake — naked cake style —which is currently my favorite way to decorate a cake.
Now for the taste test! I invited my dear friend Jean Hollon Shackelford over for a piece of cake. Originally from Montgomery Alabama, she has memories of her mother’s Lane cakes and of her family sitting around the kitchen table shelling pecans and grating fresh coconut. Remember — labor intensive.
“We always had a Lane cake at Christmas,” she recalled. “When I brought Bob home [referring to her future husband Bob Shackelford] for my family to meet, we had a Lane cake.”
Sitting on my porch swing and enjoying a piece of cake, my friend said it brought back memories of her mother’s cake.
New York Chefs Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, founders of Preservation of Southern Food were dedicated to keeping Southern food honest. One way they did that was by revitalizing old recipes.
My mock Lane cake is probably not what they had in mind, and it may fall short of “honest.” However, it is a modernized recipe that tastes similar to the real thing.
It won’t be entered in any county fairs, but I would make it again. Perhaps I’ll make it for Mother’s Day and I will refer to it as a “labor of love.” I would not be fudging on that.
Still convinced that you want to make the “real cake?” Following is the recipe that Jean’s mother, Fred Hollon used in her Alabama kitchen.
6 Tbsp. (2 sticks) unsalted butter , softened, plus more for pans
3 ½ cups cake flour , plus more for pans
1 Tbsp. homemade baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup milk , room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups sugar
8 egg whites , room temperature
8 Tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
8 egg yolks
1 cup finely chopped pecans
1 cup finely chopped raisins
1 ¼ cups freshly grated coconut
¼ cup bourbon or Tennessee whiskey
1 tsp. vanilla extract
To make cake: Preheat oven to 325°. Line the bottoms of three 9-inch cake pans with parchment paper; grease and flour parchment paper and sides of pans.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. In a glass measuring cup, combine milk and vanilla. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter on medium speed until creamy. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Reduce speed to low; add flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the milk-vanilla mixture. Mix until combined, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl.
Transfer batter to large bowl; wash and completely dry mixing bowl and beater attachments. In clean bowl of electric mixer, beat egg whites just until they form soft peaks. Stir one-third of the beaten whites into the batter to lighten; then, in two parts, gently fold in remaining egg whites.
Scrape batter into prepared pans; gently tap pans on counter to remove air pockets. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until cake springs back in center when lightly touched. Place pans on racks to cool 5 minutes; invert cake layers onto racks to cool completely (do not remove parchment paper).
To make filling: In a large nonreactive saucepan, melt butter over low heat; set aside to cool. Whisk in sugar and egg yolks until well blended. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula while also scraping bottom of pan, until mixture reaches 170° to 180° when measured with an instant-read thermometer and thickly coats back of spatula, about 10 minutes (make sure mixture does not simmer). Remove from heat and stir in pecans, raisins, coconut, bourbon, and vanilla. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, or until thickened and chilled.
To assemble the cake: Peel parchment off cake layers. Invert 1 layer onto a large cake plate. Top with about 1 cup filling, spreading filling to the edges of cake. Top with second cake layer and spread that layer with 1 cup filling. Repeat with final cake layer and remaining filling. Cool completely before serving.