Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A Southern Cake for the weekend.

This is a special cake. It is in fact one of the better cakes I've enjoyed in a long time. My lovely friend Marty Townsend made this cake, a Lane Cake,  for a recent dinner party at which our book group discussed the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. We don't often pair menu items with the book du jour, but I'm so glad that Marty chose to resurrect this vintage recipe for our gathering. With her permission, I am sharing her very thoughtful and eloquently presented research and reflections on this recipe.  The recipe is also below, and I encourage you to bake THIS cake this weekend.  There is plenty of time.

"Some background on my request to do our dessert course this Saturday:  inspired by reading about Lane cake in To Kill A Mockingbird, I thought it would be fun to attempt making one for our final course on Saturday.  Another book-related tie-in, yes, but nothing so elaborate as our Titanic dinner.  Commentary below is borrowed freely from NPR and Wikipedia. 

You may recall that a Lane cake is given as a welcome gift to Aunt Alexandra by Miss Maudie Atkinson. The narrator, Scout, reports, "Miss Maudie baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.” ("Shinny" is slang for liquor.)  Many different recipes existed for Lane cake.  Ours will have shinny.  

Later, Miss Maudie bakes a Lane cake for Mr. Avery, who is severely injured in an attempt to put out a fire in her home. “Mr. Avery will be in bed for a week—he’s right stove up. He’s too old to do things like that and I told him so. Soon as I can get my hands clean and when Stephanie Crawford’s not looking, I’ll make him a Lane cake. That Stephanie’s been after my recipe for thirty years, and if she thinks I’ll give it to her just because I’m staying with her she’s got another think coming.”

Lane cake is often found at receptions, holiday dinners, or wedding showers in the South.  It's a white sponge cake with a filling of candied fruit, raisins, pecans, coconut, and bourbon. The original recipe for Lane cake called for 1/4 cup Bourbon added to the filling mixture only, although the bourbon was sometimes replaced with grape juice by cooks who didn't want to use alcohol. Whisky, wine, and brandy are mentioned in some recipes.  

Recipes for Lane cake vary because many Southern cooks who made it fiercely guarded their recipes. Some lucky cooks used a recipe passed down from generation to generation, while others relied on vague instructions and a variety of sources in an attempt to recreate the family tradition. 

The cake's creator, Emma Rylander Lane, thought the cake tasted best when made a day or two ahead of time. She included this advice in the original recipe that appeared in her cookbook Some Good Things to Eat, published in 1898.

Lane was likely a native of nearby Americus, Ga. According to legend, she moved to Clayton when her husband was transferred there as an employee of Georgia Railroad Company. It's where she created the cake and published the recipe in Some Good Things to Eat after she entered it in a baking competition and won first place.

Since that time, recipes have been difficult to find.  The Lane cake may have suffered a fate similar to its sometimes-maligned cousin—the fruitcake. In "A Christmas Memory" by Harper Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote, a child and his relative collect ingredients like dried fruit, pecans and whiskey to bake fruit cakes for Christmas in rural Alabama. "Lane cake is actually a lot like fruit cake in a way... in terms of texture and taste,” one food researcher says. "I wonder if it's just fallen out of vogue."  "
- Martha Townsend

photo by Catherine Baker