Yancy’s Carrot Cake

This recipe is the only one you’ll ever need. Many might consider the dark rum optional, but it’s essential; even if you’re a teetotaler, the alcohol burns off in the cooking, and good heavens, you’re bound to know someone with at least one bottle.

I like a mix of gold and dark raisins, and prefer salted pecans to walnuts. Like all great cakes, this one is best made the day before.

Mix thoroughly ¾ cup vegetable oil and ¾ cup warm buttermilk with ¾ cup white and ¾ cup light brown sugar (you don’t have to pack it). Set aside. Sift together 2 ½ cups plain flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 2 teaspoons each ground cinnamon and ground ginger, and a couple dashes of nutmeg.

Add half the dry ingredients to the oil/buttermilk mixture, and the rest alternately with 4 well-beaten eggs at room temperature. Add two cups grated carrots, about ¾ cup raisins, ¾ cup chopped nuts and a cup of drained crushed pineapple. Finish off with a tablespoon of vanilla extract and a generous slug of dark rum (okay, three ounces).

Pour batter into a Bundt or two 9 in. layer pans and bake at 375 until fragrant and springy. For the frosting, mix a pound of cream cheese and ½ stick butter at room temperature with powdered sugar to texture, a teaspoon almond extract and grated orange zests. Sprinkle with nuts.

Buttermilk Gingerbread

For a deeply-scented, well-textured loaf, cream a stick of softened unsalted butter with a half cup of light brown sugar. Beat until fluffy. Mix well with two beaten eggs and a half cup of sorghum molasses. Sift one and a half cups of flour with a half teaspoon of baking soda, a heaping tablespoon of ground ginger, and a teaspoon of each of cinnamon and ground cloves. Blend into butter with a teaspoon vanilla extract and a half cup buttermilk. Mix wery well and pour into a buttered loaf pan. Bake at 350 for about an hour, until the loaf pulls from the edges. This is so very good with cider.

THE Compromise Cake

One of my friends who has an eye out for old community cookbooks at rummage sales, flea markets, and thrift shops ran upon a Christmas Sampler from the girls of Ladies’ Night Out at the First Baptist Church of Florence, Mississippi. Therein I found a recipe for compromise cake, not just any old compromise cake, mind you, but “THE COMPROMISE CAKE.”

The recipe just stopped me in my tracks; just what kind of compromise does this cake represent? Given the zeitgeist I suspected some sort of quasi-political origin such as a traditional dessert for such a Southern political–a barbecue or fish fry–but when I passed the recipe around on social media for clues, a friend, upon seeing the applesauce ingredient, pointed out that apple cakes were traditionally served at hillbilly weddings back in the day, so maybe the compromise is between the groom cake and the bride cake.

That’s how I learned about apple stack cakes, which mountain housewives made from apples they’d dry for the winter. Pieces of apples were threaded onto strings and hung in the rafters or in a special outbuilding that had a small kiln inside for drying fruit and other foods. Dried apples were cooked with water and sweetening into a thick, fragrant sauce. The layers were made with sorghum, applesauce, and flour, thin and crisp, really more like a big cookie than a cake.

Stories were told about poor mountain brides who could not afford a wedding cake and were gifted with stack-cake layers donated by friends and family members. The layers were brought to the wedding, stacked and cut on the spot; the more layers, the more popular the bride. Stack cakes usually had at least five layers and most people believed there should be an odd number for luck. I’m sure someone had a stack or two ready in case things didn’t add up right.

The catch is that because of the dryness of the layers, a stack cake–at any height–must sit for at least two days. Given that time, the moisture from the apples–and more often than not the applesauce between–softens the layers a bit, melding the flavors and making the cake moist and delectable. Cutting into a stack cake as soon as it is assembled is a disservice to the cake and the cooks.

My theory that the cake was intended to go with the couple on their honeymoon in case things got out of hand was gently debunked by Elizabeth Carter, who said, “You’ve told a lovely story about apple stack cakes that is very true, but you missed the point of the Compromise Cake. My mother (who recently—2022–passed away at the age of 91 and I discussed this more than once.”

“My grandmother, aunts, and my mom all make an applesauce fruit cake that contains lots of assorted fruit and nuts, and no eggs. It’s very moist, but only bakes successfully if you put in the required cups of fruit & nut mixture.”

Elizabeth also remembers a newspaper article “back in the 1960s or 70s” about The Compromise Cake that retold the story from an elderly couple.”

“It seems the young bride tried to make the Applesauce Fruit cake their first Christmas but it didn’t go well and her husband didn’t want all the fruit. So to please her new husband they “compromised”, she only put in what fruit and nuts he liked, and added more ingredients as normal cake would have, and it baked just fine.”

Another correspondent, Kate, wrote, “I am going through my recipe box and just came across The Compromise Cake recipe. It is in my hand, and I believe I wrote it more than 50 years ago. The recipe is exactly as you have written with one exception: my recipe includes 2 Tablespoons of cocoa. I do not recall ever making the recipe, but vaguely recall having eaten it somewhere and having been impressed with it, copied the recipe.”

Here’s the recipe from the Ladies’ Night Out from the First Baptist Church of Florence, Mississippi.

The Compromise Cake

1 1/2 c. applesauce
1 c. raisins
1 c. chopped pecans
1 1/3 c. sugar
2 c. cake flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 c. chopped dates
1/2 c. shortening
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla

Lightly oil and flour a 10-inch tube pan; refrigerate. Combine applesauce and soda; set aside. Mix raisins, dates, and pecans; set aside. Whip shortening with sugar, add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Combine flour and spices; add 1/2 cup flour mixture to raisin mixture. Gradually mix very well remaining flour with shortening. Add applesauce and fruit/nuts mix. Stir in vanilla. Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour, or until toothpick dry. Cool thoroughly before removing.

Our State Cake

It should come as no surprise to any of you that most states in our Union actually have official state foods, and it should be equally unsurprising that most are desserts.

Official state foods include Lane Cake, the State Dessert of Alabama, as well as the comparably famous Smith Island Cake, which is that of Maryland. Utah has a State Snack Food (Jell-O!?), and it’s quite telling that the State Snack of Texas is tortilla chips and salsa while that of New York is yogurt. California has all of four State Nuts (almond, pecan, walnut, and pistachio). By my reckoning, Oklahoma has won the state food contest hands down by officiating a State Meal: Chicken-fried steak, barbecued pork, fried okra, squash, cornbread, grits, corn, sausage with biscuits and gravy, black-eyed peas, strawberries, and pecan pie.

Unofficial state foods are often the subject articles assigned to some junior editor for filler/fodder in any given dozens of click-bait slide shows. On any given one of these fluff pieces, you’ll inevitably find a Mississippi mud cake, which is not our official state cake. In fact, unless you count large mouth bass, oysters, white tailed deer, or wood ducks, Mississippi doesn’t have a state food.

Mississippi mud cake is more fudge or a brownie than a cake, and that’s likely how it began, but around fifty years ago in the 70s when all sorts of craziness was going on (yes, I was there), marshmallows—inexplicably and unnecessarily—were introduced, likely because the resulting swirls are reminiscent of currents and eddies. Me, I think marshmallows are a vile alteration, and Australians seem to agree, since the Aussie mud cake—no, they do not call it Murrumbidgee mud cake—is marshmallow-free and smooth as silt.

One icon deserves another, so here’s Tammy Wynette’s recipe for Mississippi mud cake, which she says was taught to her by her mother, Mildred Lee.

2 sticks melted butter
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups plain flour
1 ½ cups pecans, chopped
½ cup cocoa
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
Mix together sugar, cocoa, and butter and eggs. Add flour, pecans, vanilla and salt to above. Bake 35 minutes at 350 degrees in a greased 9×13 oblong pan.
Cover with miniature marshmallows and return to oven to melt.
½ cup milk
1/3 cup cocoa
1 stick melted butter
1 box powdered sugar
Sift cocoa and powdered sugar, add milk and butter. Mix until smooth, then put on top of cake.

Cake Oil

In my old home town, certain ladies were known to have the best recipe for, say, a coconut or 9-layer butter cake, Lane, Sally Lund, or what have you. When having a big holiday dinner or entertaining guests from out-of-town, you’d call up these good souls, commission the cake and it would be ready for you on the day.

We also had June Ann Willoughby, who you’d call to make a Mickey Mouse cake for a children’s party or a groom’s cake in the shape of his favorite hunting dog. She also created naughty cakes for bachelors’ and bridesmaids’ parties. A friend of mine swore she had a cast of her breasts made for June Ann to bake a cake in.

“We had to use an ice cube on the nips to get them to come out right,” she said.

June Ann’s crowning achievement was a cake that replicated a 1957 De Soto Fireflite Sportsman for Wayne and Alice Bryant’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. It was the very car that Wayne drove to pick Alice up in on their first date, and (according to Alice) the one in which Wayne, Jr.—who was mayor at the time and present at the party—was conceived.

“Though not THAT night, of course!” she added. The cake was big enough to feed over fifty people and the icing she used was a glassy, high-gloss glaze.

“Honey, I use cake oil,” she said. “What you do is you mix one part shortening, one vegetable oil, one part sugar, and one plain flour into a paste and brush that on the sides of your cake mold. You don’t have to fuss with dusting or anything. I make a quart of it at a time and keep it in the refrigerator. Lasts forever.”

Welty’s White Fruitcake

The Jackson Cookbook, first issued by the Symphony League of Jackson in 1971, followed by a well-deserved 30th anniversary issue, features Eudora Welty’s introduction, “The Flavor of Jackson”, a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition.

In the essay, Welty writes: “I make Mrs. Mosal’s White Fruitcake every Christmas, having got it from my mother, who got it from Mrs. Mosal, and I often think to make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more,” Welty wrote.

The original recipe in The Jackson Cookbook was submitted by Mrs. Mosal’s daughter, Mrs. D.I. Meredith. In 1980, this expanded version appeared on  a limited edition Christmas card sent out by Albondocani Press, Ampersand Books, and Welty herself.

White Fruitcake

1 1/2 cups butter
2 cups sugar
6 eggs, separated
4 cups flour, sifted before measuring
flour for fruit and nuts
2 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1 pound pecan meats (halves, preferably)
1 pound crystallized cherries, half green, half red
1 pound crystallized pineapple, clear
some citron or lemon peel if desired
1 cup bourbon
1 tsp. vanilla
nutmeg if desired

Make the cake several weeks ahead of Christmas if you can. The recipe makes three-medium-sized cakes or one large and one small. Prepare the pans — the sort with a chimney or tube — by greasing them well with Crisco and then lining them carefully with three layers of waxed paper, all greased as well.

Prepare the fruit and nuts ahead. Cut the pineapple in thin slivers and the cherries in half. Break up the pecan meats, reserving a handful or so shapely halves to decorate the tops of the cakes. Put in separate bowls, dusting the fruit and nuts lightly in a sifting of flour, to keep them from clustering together in the batter.

In a very large wide mixing bowl (a salad bowl or even a dishpan will serve) cream the butter very light, then beat in the sugar until all is smooth and creamy. Sift in the flour, with the baking powder and salt added, a little at a time, alternating with the unbeaten egg yolks added one at a time. When all this is creamy, add the floured fruits and nuts, gradually, scattering the lightly into the batter, stirring all the while, and add the bourbon in alteration little by little. Lastly, whip the egg whites into peaks and fold in.

Start the oven now, about 250. Pour the batter into the cake-pans, remembering that they will rise. Decorate the tops with nuts. Bake for three hours or more, until they spring back to the touch and a straw inserted at the center comes out clean and dry. (If the top browns too soon, lay a sheet of foil lightly over.) When done, the cake should be a warm golden color.

When they’ve cooled enough to handle, run a spatula around the sides of each cake, cover the pan with a big plate, turn the pan over and slip the cake out. Cover the cake with another plate and turn rightside up. When cool, the cake can be wrapped in cloth or foil and stored in a tightly fitted tin box. From time to time before Christmas you may improve it with a little more bourbon, dribbled over the top to be absorbed and so ripen the cake before cutting. This cake will keep for a good while, in or out of the refrigerator.

The Little Black Dress of Cakes

My friend John Wills, a fine cook who grew up in east Texas, went to high school in Chicago, attended college in Alaska, and now lives in Maine, told me that of all the Southern recipes he brings to the table, the one that his guests most remember is pound cake.

“To be honest,” he said, “I think a lot of people believe it’s typically Southern because you didn’t have to be able to read to make it, all you had to remember was a pound each of butter, flour, eggs and sugar.”

A good pound cake recipe is essential to any Southern cook’s repertoire, but these days you’ll rarely find a pound cake recipe that doesn’t include milk in some form; Egerton’s “half-pound” recipe in Southern Food (1987) has whole cream. But I’m far from alone in believing that best pound cakes are made with sour cream.

This recipe comes from Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976). “With no exceptions,” she writes, “this is the best pound cake I have ever tasted.” As with most of Winifred’s recipes, this one is ludicrously meticulous; an eighth of a teaspoon of salt? Resift three times? Honestly.

1/2 cups butter, room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup commercial sour cream
3 cups all-purpose flour, measured after sifting
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon flavoring (vanilla, lemon, or 1/2
teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon almond)
Powdered sugar

Cream butter by hand or an electric mixer until it has reached the consistency of whipped cream. When you think you have creamed it enough, cream some more. Slowly dribble in sugar a tablespoon at a time; beat well. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in sour cream. Put measured flour into sifter with soda and salt, and resift three times. Add flour cup at a time to creamed butter, blending well with mixer on lowest speed. Add flavoring. (I use vanilla and almond along with 2 tablespoons brandy.)

Pour batter into one Bundt pan and one small loaf pan or two large (cake, see below: jly) pans, greased and lined with heavy waxed paper. Bake in a preheated 325° oven: Bundt cake for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. small loaf for about 55 minutes, large loaves for 65 minutes or until cake tests done. Cool on rack 15 minutes and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Remove from pan and allow to continue cooling to prevent sweating. Yield: 1 (10-inch) Bundt cake and 1 (7- x 3- x 2-inch) loaf cake or 2 (9- x 5- X 3-inch) cakes—40 to 44 servings.

Skillet Upside Down Cake

Oil and line a 9″ skillet with parchment paper. Drizzle in 1/4 cup melted butter, and layer with sliced pineapple and cherries. Sprinkle chaotically with light brown sugar. Pour in vanilla-flavored sponge cake batter and bake until sides have pulled a little from the pan. Cool well before inverting; refrigerate before slicing and serving.

Friendship Cake

For the starter, combine a package of dry yeast with a cup of sugar and 2 cups of sliced peaches, and 2 cups water in a glass gallon jar. Cover loosely, set aside, and stir with a wooden spoon for ten days.

On the tenth day, add 2 12-oz. cans of chunk pineapple with liquid. Stir daily for 10 more days. On the 20th day, add 1 12-oz. can fruit cocktail with liquid. Let this work for 10 more days, stirring daily. On the 30th day, drain juice off, and set fruit aside. The liquid is your pass-along starter; give a pint to 6 friends along with the following recipe. You’ll have enough drained fruit for 2 Bundt or 9×13 pan cakes.

For a cake, add 1 pint of the starter to 1 cup nuts, chopped, 1 (18 ounce) yellow cake mix, 1 (3 1/2 ounce) package instant vanilla pudding, 4 eggs, and 2/3 cup oil. Mix well. Stir in 2 teaspoons cinnamon, chopped apples, raisins/cherries, and nuts. Bake in a greased and floured tube pan at 350 for about an hour.

Remove from the oven, cool, and heave a great sigh of relief.