Orange Spice Cake

Put 3 cups sugar and 1 ½ cup softened butter in a large mixing bowl. Cream together until light and fluffy. Add 5 eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in alternately 3 cups of flour and a cup of milk. Stir very well. Add a half cup of orange juice concentrate, a teaspoon of vanilla extract and cinnamon, and a half teaspoon of nutmeg, allspice and ground cloves. Mix thoroughly and bake at medium high (375) until lightly browned. Serve toasted slices with drizzled honey.

Poppy Seed Pound Cake

Regionalism is kaput. If I speak of chicken and dumplings as a Southern American dish, some Southern foodways pundit—you can’t toss a rock without hitting one, and the bigger the rock the better—will tell me it’s served in dim sum by expatriated Alabamans living in Hong Kong. On a  national scale (not that nationalism exists, of course) it’s no longer safe for me to assume that pound cake is a New England recipe because it’s so simple and practical. A friend from Texas—east Texas, mind you—now living in Maine said that their neighbors considered pound cake a particularly Southern recipe. Apparently, what I consider simple and practical Mainers think is broke and stupid. Balderdash; Americans have made this cake well before Burr shot Hamilton, so it all boils down to perspective if not quibbling over terms. This recipe and variations are luxurious with fruit, with ice cream a mortal sin.

2 cups sugar
1 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1 cup buttermilk
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla
3 cups plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 325 (trust me, this is a crucial step). Grease, line and set aside a 10-inch loaf pan or Bundt. Combine sugar and butter, beat until creamy. Add poppy seeds, buttermilk, eggs, lemon zest and vanilla, mix well, add remaining ingredients and beat at low speed, scraping bowl often, until thoroughly blended and moist. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake one hour. Turn off the oven and leave the cake in the cooling oven for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for at least an hour before slicing.

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 most of his guests remember and ask about is pound cake. To be honest,” he said, “I think a lot of people also believe it’s popular in the South 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.”

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. A good pound cake recipe is essential to any cook’s repertoire, and the best to have is a good sour cream version. This recipe comes from Jackson native 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.

Queen Cakes

As denizens of the Lower South, we’re all familiar with king cakes (gâteau des Rois). These big, sweet rings of braided yeast dough appear in bakeries soon after Epiphany (Kings’ Day; in reference to the “Three Kings of Orient”) and proliferate up until Ash Wednesday. While most are cinnamon-y and iced, more elaborate commercial examples are festooned with beads, scattered with sugar sprinkles and impregnated with a small plastic baby (homemade king cakes usually have the more traditional bean, a symbol of fertility).

Less familiar to us are queen cakes, which are English in origin and not specific to any season. Queen cakes are basically small pound cakes; the only essential ingredient aside from the requisite eggs, flour, butter and sugar is currents. Recipes for queen cakes began appearing sometime in the late 17th century and early 18th centuries, after the Glorious Revolution (1688). During that time, with the exception of the six years (1694-1702) when William III occupied the throne alone, his wife (and first cousin) Mary II and her sister Queen Anne (1702-14) ruled Great Britain as queens regnant (sovereigns in their own right). Unsurprisingly, queen cakes enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the reign of Victoria, but not during the reign of Britain’s current monarch, Elizabeth II, who is also a queen regnant. Queen cakes are traditionally larger than cupcakes, baked in ribbed patty-pans instead of cupcake tins.

Again, the essential ingredient in any queen cake is, unfortunately for us, currants. Currants (black and red; white currants are a relatively new cultivar) have been used in European cooking for centuries, and were popular in this country up until the early 20th century when currants, as vectors for white blister pine rust (WBPR), were banned under federal law in 1911 (a ban later relegated to state jurisdiction) as a threat to the logging industry (the same industry largely responsible for the illegalization of hemp because Cannabis sativa is a cheap, renewable source for the production of paper). In 1999 horticultural activist Greg Quinn of Staatsburg, New York, was instrumental in proving that currants, though a proven vector, were not the actual agent in the spread of the pine rust (turns out imported white pine seedlings were the culprits), and in 2003, the State of New York legalized growing currants; the legal use of medical marijuana began this past month in the state.

But because the currant production and shipment is still prohibited in many other states as well as in some specific local jurisdictions despite the development of WBPR-resistant varieties, you’re likely not going to find real currants (dried or otherwise) in stores; what you most often will find are Zante currants, dried berries of the small, sweet, seedless grape ‘Black Corinth’ (Vitis vinifera), named after the island of Zakynthos (Zante) which was once a major producer and exporter. In other words, Zante currants are raisins, but given they’re the best alternative you can usually get, use them without guilt, or for that matter any raisin you like.

Make queen cakes with your favorite pound cake recipe. Add your currants (such as they are) liberally, but toss them with a bit of corn starch first, since they tend to clump. You can flavor the batter if you like; vanilla or almond flavoring, for instance, but I wouldn’t range as far afield as citrus or cocoa. Cool completely  and dust with powdered sugar or drizzle with a glaze before serving.