Southern Cakes

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Delectable Red Velvet Cake makes any occasion a special one.
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Coconut Cake is delicious whether it's one- or two-tiered.
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A bit of baking flour never hurt anyone.
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Chocolate cakes have nothing on Mrs. Rowe's Brownstone Front Cake.
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Lemon Pound Cake is just one of the variations for a versatile cake recipe.
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Our pal Gritty was all smiles until the wax began to drip.

While it’s enjoyed all over the world, cake is heartily embraced by Southerners who, of course, have added unique and delicious twists to the historical glory of the sweet treat. Old-fashioned Southern cakes have become a part of the American canon of cake baking.

Cake boasts a long lineage stretching back to the ancient Egyptians – the first civilization to show any skill in baking, sweetening much of its bread with honey. The actual word “cake,” however, is traced back to Viking origins. The Norse word “kaka” means a baked flour confection sweetened with sugar or honey, mixed with eggs and often, but not always, with milk and fat.  

The histories of cake, bread, biscuits and buns are indistinct. The beginnings of all would be bread in its simplest form. As techniques for baking and leavening developed and eating patterns changed, what were originally regarded as forms of bread came to be seen as categories of their own and named accordingly. 

During the 19th century, technology made the cake baker’s life much easier. The chemical raising agent bicarbonate of soda, introduced in the 1840s, followed by baking powder (a dry mixture of bicarbonate of soda with a mild acid such as cream of tartar ), replaced yeast, providing a greater leavening effect with less effort. Another helpful breakthrough was the development of ovens with more accurate temperature control.

Cake sustains a celebratory reputation. They are a must-have at birthdays, weddings, graduations and wakes. There’s no need to wait for those occasions, though, to enjoy one of these special Southern cakes. 

Coconut Cake

For me, Coconut Cake is the quintessential Southern cake – a true testament to the Southern love of sugar and the tropical flavor of coconut.

3/4 cup coconut milk, whole milk, or a combination of coconut milk and whole milk
1/2 cup fresh grated coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups cake or pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs

Coconut Frosting:

1/2 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large egg whites
1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups fresh grated coconut 
Heat oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans; line bottoms with rounds of parchment paper or waxed paper. Grease and flour paper and sides of pans; set aside. Heat coconut milk, grated coconut and vanilla until hot. Pour in blender and process until coconut is finely chopped; set aside. Sift cake flour, baking powder and salt into bowl; set aside. Use electric mixer to beat butter until light and creamy. Gradually add sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, scraping bowl and beating for about 1 minute after each addition. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping sides of bowl frequently.
Slowly add about one-third of flour mixture to creamed mixture along with half of milk/coconut/vanilla mixture. Beat on low speed until blended. Scrape bowl and repeat with another one-third of dry mixture and remaining milk mixture. Scrape bowl and repeat with remaining flour mixture. Scrape bowl and continue beating on low speed for a few seconds.
Spoon batter into prepared pans, spreading evenly. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until browned and sides pull away from sides of pans. Cool in pans on racks for 15 minutes. Invert onto racks that have been sprayed with nonstick coating to cool completely.
For the frosting: Bring water and sugar to boil; cover and cook without stirring for 1 minute. Uncover and boil, stirring frequently, until mixture is hot enough to spin a thread when a little is dropped from a spoon, or to about 230°F. Remove from heat and set aside. Use electric mixer – with whisk attachment if available – and beat egg whites until fluffy and soft peaks form when lifted with beaters or whisk. Still beating on high speed, gradually add sugar syrup in thin stream. Continue beating until frosting is fluffy and holds peaks.
Invert one cake onto serving plate; frost top and sides with frosting. Place second layer atop first and frost top and sides liberally. Sprinkle fresh grated coconut over top of cake and toss coconut gently onto sides. 

Red Velvet Cake

When I think of Southern cakes, this is often the first one that comes to mind. This recipe comes from the files of one of my favorite Southern friends, Yolonda Brawley, and it’s now one of my family’s favorites.

1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 1/2 ounces red food coloring
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vinegar 
Heat oven to 350°F. Cream shortening; beat in sugar gradually. Add eggs one at a time; beat thoroughly after each addition. Make paste of cocoa and food coloring; add to creamed mixture. Add salt, flour and vanilla alternately with buttermilk, beating thoroughly after each addition. Sprinkle soda over vinegar; pour vinegar over batter. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Bake in three 8-inch pans or two 9-inch pans for 30 minutes. 

Hummingbird Cake

Also known as “The Cake that Doesn’t Last,” “Jamaican Cake,” “Granny’s Best Cake,” “Doctor Bird Cake” and “The Cake that Never Ends,” this old Southern delight was first published as Hummingbird Cake in Southern Living magazine in 1978. But it has been baked in the South for generations and called a variety of names. Nobody knows where the term “Hummingbird” comes from – perhaps it’s from the hums of glee as happy eaters bite into this cake. Other theories say it’s because the cake and icing are so sweet; on the website, the writers suggest the cake originated in Jamaica, where the Doctor Bird (Swallow-tail hummingbird or Trochilus polytms) is a national symbol.

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups white sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 can (8 ounces) crushed pineapple with juice
2 cups diced bananas
1 cup chopped pecans 
Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 12-cup Bundt pan; set aside. In large mixing bowl, add flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, oil, eggs and vanilla. Beat until smooth. Stir in pineapple with juice, bananas and pecans. Pour into prepared pan. Bake in oven for about 70 minutes. (I check it after 60 minutes.) Cool for 20 minutes; turn out onto rack or plate. Cool completely, and frost with Cream Cheese Icing. 

Cream Cheese Icing

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 package (1 pound) confectioner’s sugar 
Beat cream cheese and butter until smooth. Blend in vanilla. Gradually beat in confectioner’s sugar. Frost cooled cake. 

Cottage Pudding

Definitions list cottage pudding as consisting of a plain, dense cake covered with a sweet sauce or glaze, often made of fruit. Baked, steamed or boiled puddings often resemble cakes. The website,, claims the dessert was named because it is a common cake made of ingredients found in the pantries of any cottage; according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, another name for the cake is Poor Man’s Pudding. The pudding description comes from the doughy inside of the cake. Another recipe simply listed slices of pound cake served with fruit sauce.

1/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup milk
2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 cups boiling water
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon vanilla 
Heat oven to 350°F. Grease 9-by-13-inch cake pan; set aside. For cake, combine first seven ingredients (butter, sugar, egg, milk, flour, baking powder and salt). Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 30 minutes or until cake tester – a toothpick or similar object of your choice – inserted into center of cake comes out clean.
For sauce, combine last five ingredients (sugar, boiling water, butter, flour and vanilla) in saucepan over medium heat; cook until sugar is dissolved and sauce thickens slightly. Remove from heat. Sauce will be thin.
Slice cake into 2-inch pieces and place each piece in a bowl to serve. Pour liberal amount of sauce over each warm piece of cake and serve immediately. Do not pour sauce over entire cake, as it will become soggy.
Store leftover cake at room temperature for up to three days. Store sauce in refrigerator and warm in microwave before serving leftover cake. 

Mrs. Rowe’s Brownstone Front Cake

This is an old family recipe from the owner of Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant and Bakery in Staunton, Virginia. It’s mentioned in early cookbooks – the earliest mention is in the Atlanta Exposition Cookbook published in 1895. According to the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John Mariani says the origin of the name is unknown, but it would seem to refer to the reddish-brown facades of brownstone buildings. The cake has a delicate chocolate flavor, and the frosting is hard to the touch, yet creamy when you take a bite.

3/4 cup cocoa
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup boiling water
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
3 cups sugar
4 large eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 cup buttermilk 
Heat oven to 350ºF. Grease and flour two 10-inch cake pans; set aside. Stir together cocoa and baking soda. Pour boiling water over cocoa mixture and set aside. Cream butter until smooth. Add sugar and continue to blend. Add eggs one at a time, blending well after each addition. Add flour alternately with buttermilk and continue to mix. Just prior to baking, stir in cocoa mixture. Divide batter evenly between pans and bake 12 to 15 minutes. Test for doneness. Cool completely on wire rack before frosting with Caramel Icing. Spread frosting between layers and over top and sides. 

Caramel Icing

1 pound brown sugar
1 cup cream
1 tablespoon butter 
Bring sugar and cream to boil in deep saucepan until it reaches soft ball stage when dropped in cold water. Add butter just before removing from heat. Set aside to cool. Beat until smooth and creamy. Frost cooled cake, spreading frosting between layers and over top and sides. 

Lemon Pound Cake

While it can be said that the pound cake did not begin in the South – with its roots stretching back to England – it can be said that Southern bakers have made pound cake their own. This recipe’s variations show the versatility of this sturdy cake.

2 sticks butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
5 eggs, large
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 large lemon juiced, about 1/3 cup juice 
Heat oven to 350°F. Butter 9-by-5-inch loaf pan; set aside.
In large bowl, combine butter and sugar; beat on high until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly between additions. Add vanilla and lemon extract. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Slowly add dry mixture, 1/3 cup at a time. Pour batter into loaf pan and bake for about 75 minutes. During last 5 minutes of baking time, prepare lemon syrup for drizzling over top of cake. In large microwave-proof bowl, combine sugar and water. Microwave on high for 2 minutes. This will be very hot. Let rest for 5 minutes; then stir in lemon juice.
Test cake for doneness with wooden skewer inserted in top. This should come out clean. Let rest 5 minutes in pan on cooling rack. Poke holes in top of cake with wooden skewer. Slowly drizzle syrup over top of cake. Let cake rest additional 5 minutes in pan. Remove cake from pan and place on serving dish.


Poppy Seed: After mixing batter, gently fold in 1/4 cup poppy seeds. Pour batter into loaf pan, bake and glaze as directed.
Mexican Spiced Chocolate: Sift 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder and 1 teaspoon cinnamon with dry ingredients. Substitute almond extract for lemon extract. Glaze with sugar syrup that is in the original variation.
Orange: Substitute orange extract and orange juice for lemon extract and lemon juice.

Mollie Cox Bryan cooks and writes from her home in Waynesboro, Virginia. Her latest cookbook, Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pie, will be released this summer.