‘Watchman’ Publication Revives An Old-Fashioned, Boozy Alabama Dessert

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With Governor Bentley's signature, the lane cake could become Alabama's official state dessert.

Gina Yu,WBHM

With Governor Bentley's signature, the lane cake could become Alabama's official state dessert.

The deep south has seen a resurgence of interest in southern culture since author Harper Lee published her newest novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” The author previously wrote beloved classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” so it’s no wonder her new book set off sparks of conversation about southern identity. Within that, however, there’s been speculation about the forgotten dessert mentioned in her first book: lane cake. WBHM’s Stephanie Beckett went out to find, make and eat the lost confection.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” and Lane Cake

The cake became a big part of Alabama identity after Harper Lee mentioned protagonist Scout eating it in “Mockingbird.” A neighbor baked it, and Scout said, “Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.” The cake became a big holiday favorite, a bill even passed in the state legislature to make it Alabama’s official dessert. But since then, it seems to have been forgotten.

The Cakerie

Lexi Ginsburg Mota owns The Cakerie, a local bakery. It’s one of the last bakeries in Birmingham that still makes the once-famous cake. Until someone custom-ordered a Lane cake from a bakery she used to work at, she was a stranger to the recipe.

“I’m from Alabama,” she says, “and I moved away and came back and I hadn’t heard of it either.”

Ginsburg Mota and fellow baker Anna Kelly usually bake wedding cakes, but squeeze in Lane cake orders whenever they can. Since the release of “Go Set a Watchman,” they’ve even gotten a few more Lane cake orders than usual.

 

 

The Process

Kelly and Ginsburg Mota need orders in advance because the cake takes around 6 hours to bake. The quickest part, Ginsburg Mota says, is the filling.

“The buttercream [frosting] takes a long time,” she says, “and the cake takes a long time, so it’s like, just being prepared.”

The buttercream takes so long because they make two different kinds– a special Cakerie twist.

“One is you put whites and sugar,” Ginsburg Mota says, “And the other one is a French buttercream, and we do yolks. But then we actually combine the two.”

But for the filling itself, the Cakerie bakers like to take it a more traditional route.

There isn’t much history available on Lane cake, but the original recipe is traced back to Emma Rylander Lane, who entered the cake in a baking competition in 1898. The cake won, and it soared in popularity.

There are many variations on the recipe, but most of them stay true to the filling, which Ginsburg Mota says is what makes the cake so unique anyway. It’s a combination of pecans, coconut, raisins, whiskey, sugar, eggs, and butter that goes between each layer of cake.

When every Lane cake is done and set out, Ginsburg Mota says the Cakerie has never heard any complaints. She says the biggest hope for Lane cake to gain popularity again is to continue to spread the word.

“We’ve never heard anybody say, ‘I don’t like this,'”she says, “There’s nothing not to like about it.”

The Cakerie uses this classic recipe by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock (but they adapt it to make it their own)

Ingredients

  • Cake
    • 3 1/2 cups cake flour
    • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
    • 2 teaspoons baking soda
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt
    • 1 cup milk, at room temperature
    • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    • 2 sticks ( 1/2 pound) unsalted butter, softened
    • 2 cups sugar
    • 8 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • Filling
    • 12 large egg yolks
    • 1 1/2 cups sugar
    • 1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
    • 1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) finely chopped pecans
    • 1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) finely chopped raisins
    • 1 1/2 cups freshly grated coconut
    • 1/2 cup bourbon
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter three 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust with flour, tapping out the excess.
  2. Sift the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl. In a small pitcher, combine the milk and vanilla. In a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. Slowly add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl. On low speed, alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk in 3 batches. Beat the batter until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
  3. In another bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Stir one-third of the egg whites into the cake batter to lighten it. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the remaining egg whites until no white streaks remain.
  4. Pour the batter into the cake pans and smooth the tops. Tap the pans lightly on a work surface to release any air bubbles. Bake the cakes on the middle and lower racks of the oven for about 30 minutes, shifting the pans halfway through, until the tops spring back when pressed lightly and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. Let cool in the pans for 5 minutes, then invert the cakes onto a wire rack to cool completely. Peel off the paper.
  5. In a large saucepan, combine the egg yolks and sugar and stir until smooth. Add the melted butter and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 6 minutes; do not let it boil. Stir in the pecans, raisins and coconut and cook for about 1 minute. Add the bourbon, vanilla and salt and let cool to lukewarm.
  6. Place a cake layer on a serving plate, right side up, and spread with 1 1/4 cups of the filling. Repeat with a second cake layer and another 1 1/4 cups of filling. Top with the last cake layer and frost the cake with the remaining filling. Let the cake cool completely before serving.