Lane Cake Is a Boozy, Coconut-Filled Southern Classic

Some days, I miss my Southern home so much, that I'd just about sell my soul for a proper meat 'n' three. Or a bag of White Lily flour so I can make real biscuits. I get a tight spot in my chest when I think about redeye gravy. Or a Pub Sub (if you know, you know). I have arranged for a Duke's mayonnaise delivery right around when the Jersey tomato season starts. I'm going to be okay. But some complicated combination of longing and hunger led me to make a Lane cake the other night. By the end of the evening, my apartment was coated in a veil of flour, I (literally) had egg on my face, and I hadn't felt so lighthearted and not-homesick since I left the South to move to Brooklyn.

I didn't expect to miss cake. It's not that we don't have cake in Brooklyn-we have excellent cake-plus viennoiseries, all manner of sweets that span the globe, and truly stellar doughnuts. I regularly consume them all. But what I long for are the Southern special occasion cakes-like the grande dame of Southern cakes, the coconut layer cake, classic Tennessee jam cakes, cakes flavored with bourbon and soaked with flavored milk to keep them tender. I used to eat slices of these special sweets at church suppers, family gatherings, or in the office when there was a birthday. But due to the pandemic-and the wasteful impracticality of making a layer cake just for my perpetually single self-it's been a long time since I had a slice of honest-to-goodness celebration cake. I think the last one I had was the four-tier coconut cake I made for my dad on his 70th birthday. So with all of that in mind, I decided to take on the famed Lane cake-three layers of moist vanilla cake sandwiched with an eggy custard filled with coconut, pecans, raisins, and bourbon. If you've had it before, you know it's a riot of textures and an olfactory feast.

In my Incredibly Precise Scientific Research-that is, talking to my many Southern friends and relatives-it seems that for many people, the cake doesn't exist outside of a mention in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout says: "Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight." That's right: "Tight" means buzzed in this case. A couple of my friends (ahem, research subjects) mentioned that President Jimmy Carter (who was from Georgia) was a fan of the cake, as writer Anne Byrne confirms in her book, American Cake.

Unlike many other regional specialties, the origin of the Lane cake is not shrouded in mystery. It is generally accepted that Mrs. Emma Rylander Lane won first prize for it at a fair in Georgia near the turn of the 20th century. It became known thereafter as "Prize Cake," Byrne writes. This was until 1898, when Lane published a cookbook, Some Good Things to Eat, in which she first put her name to the cake. She modestly wrote, "my prize cake, and named not from my own conceit, but through the courtesy of Mrs. Jamie McDowell Pruett, of Eufala, Al.," as the late Southern food writing legend John Egerton noted in Southern Food.

Mrs. Lane lived during the Progressive Era (1890-1920)-a time of lots of change, when new technology like modernized cooking stoves, ready-made clothes, and canned goods arrived on the scene with the promise of freeing women from some of the grind of domesticity. Lane's self-published cookbook was part of a larger trend, writes Emily Blejwas in The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods. Many women wrote cookbooks in this era, as they learned to take advantage of new innovations and sought to help others to do the same. (You can draw a straight line from this cookbook wave to the temperance movement, but that's a different story entirely.) There was one particular invention, though, that spawned a new generation of cakes that we now know as Southern classics.

Fundamentally, the advent of baking powder in 1856 brought about the invention of modern cake. Previously, cakes were leavened with yeast, potash, or whipped egg whites-they were often rich, heavy adaptations of imprecise European recipes. In the South, where a woman's baking prowess was a particular point of pride, the arrival of a new cheap, easy-and predictable-leavening led to an absolute fervor for cake-making. Perhaps in an effort to incorporate some of the richness of the old-style cakes, Southern bakers started filling their airy cake layers with fillings of fruits and nuts. Bourbon made an appearance in these modern cakes, perhaps as a substitute for the more expensive and hard-to-find vanilla. The bourbon also made a cake with "excellent keeping ability," as Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock wrote in The Gift of Southern Cooking. Blejwas mentions in Fourteen Foods that some older Alabamians have memories of the Lane cake being made around Thanksgiving and then being left to stand until Christmas.

"I've done that with fruitcake, but I've never done that with the Lane cake, but I guess their thinking is that there's so much booze and then there's the fruit," says baking guru Cheryl Day. She's the author of the James Beard Award-nominated Cheryl Day's Treasury of Southern Baking, and she graciously allowed me to call her up to talk cake.

While she's never let her Lane cake cure for a month, Day does tell me, "I think it tastes better the next day. But I've eaten it the same day. I mean, I'm a fan of eating what's in front of you…. You don't have to wait until the next day, but it's gonna get better and better."

Day's recipe hews fairly closely to the original published by Mrs. Lane, so I ask her if she based her own recipe on it. "I don't know if I've ever actually seen the original recipe. This is a recipe that's been passed down in my family for generations. And I don't think I changed very much of anything," Day says. "My grandmother was from Alabama…that's who pretty much taught me to bake besides my mom."

Day's excellent version of the cake turned my tiny kitchen into a joyous and sticky blizzard of sugar and flour and coconut. While the cake has a reputation as a baking project that you'd save for special occasions (even Egerton noted that it took him three hours to make), Day's measured, clear instructions made it seem special but achievable.

Day deftly resolved a problem I've had in the past with a variety of recipes: She told me to wipe out my mixing bowl with lemon juice so that it's "squeaky clean, so you can get that volume that you want the egg whites to have." I tend to go under-or-overboard with my egg white whipping (I just get so excited!), but Day's recipe comes with a warning: "I think people tend to overbeat their egg whites. This recipe calls for soft peaks because it just makes it easier to fold into the batter rather than having to force it in."

It took me four hours (at a certain point I think the bourbon fumes got to me) to make the cake, filling and all, and as I looked at the results, I was struck by how very…brown the Lane cake is. But Day forewarned me that that would be the case: "It's really not the prettiest cake," she laughed, noting that she loves to put fresh flowers on it. "I think that really brightens it up and makes it pretty," she says. But if you want to skip that, there's something stately about all those layers of custard and cake-besides, it's not as if the cake will be around long enough for folks to debate its aesthetic.

As we chatted, though, it was a nontechnical piece of advice that I found the most revelatory: "Take your time and enjoy the recipe," she said. Take your time. Enjoy the recipe. Maybe that's my real lesson. Maybe the finished product isn't the point (though I did absolutely love it)-maybe the actual making of the celebration cake is just as important as its consumption. As I stirred the coconut and raisins into the custard frosting and soaked each layer in vanilla-scented milk, each motion felt like an act of love. It was an extravagance, using an entire dozen eggs and expensive ingredients like bourbon and pecans (in this economy?!), but it was also a boozy, sugary moment of self-care-and it tasted like home.

After cleaning my kitchen and, um, sobering up, I immediately set about in true Southern fashion, forcing cake slices onto all of my Brooklyn friends. I took a particularly large chunk to a longtime crush, worried that he wouldn't like it. But then I remembered Day's words, "I mean, there's so much booze in this cake…. No one is going to complain about eating it."

And no one did.