Know Your Sweets: Lane Cake
Lane Cake (Alias: Prize Cake, Alabama Lane Cake) is the crown jewel of Alabama confections: a four-layer sponge cake filled with a mixture of thick custard, raisins, coconut, and bourbon, topped off with a fluffy frosting.
Similar Desserts:Lady Baltimore Cake, Rum Cake, Hummingbird Cake
Key Ingredient Spotlight: Bourbon
While this cake may look dainty and innocent at first glance, the boozy fruit soaked inside ensures that it packs quite a punch. Depending on your tastes—and desire to get a little tipsy—bourbon can appear in one, two, or even three elements of the cake. It will assuredly be a part of the egg-yolk-heavy custard filling, traditionally mixed with raisins and, often, coconut. However, culinary customization has seen versions with bourbon as part of the cake layers and frosting as well. When selecting a bourbon, use one that has the right amount of spice to compliment the cake's flavors: Four Roses is a solid choice with a honey undertone that works well for baking.
Not a fan of bourbon? Brandy can also be the liquor of choice in the preparation of this dessert. If the cake makes an appearance at a child's birthday party, the boozy component is substituted for grape juice.
Clayton, Alabama—a small town on the South Georgia border of roughly 30,000—lays claim to the cake's origins, though the entire state owns the dessert as the most well-known Alabama sweet export. While some believe it has widespread presence across the South, the cake is actually rather limited in its culinary scope to its home state and the bordering states of Georgia and Mississippi. While the cake is a year-round treat, it is particularly popular during Christmastime in the area.
One beautiful quality of the Lane Cake is how malleable it is depending on the season, availability of ingredients, and personal taste. This is especially true about both the filling, which has become subject to interpretation for cooks across the south. The fruit of choice for the filling is traditionally raisins, but dates, candied cherries, cranberries, golden raisins, and figs are all fine substitutes or additions. While coconuts has become a staple of the Lane Cake, the original recipe excludes it, so feel free to leave it out if you're not a fan.
The Lane Cake is credited to Emma Rylander Lane, its namesake and a resident of Clayton, Alabama. Ms. Lane won first prize with it at the county fair in neighboring Columbus, Georgia, which led her to call the dessert "Prize Cake" when she self-published Some Good Things to Eat, her first cookbook, in 1898.
The exact recipe wasn't republished until Ms. Lane's granddaughter shared it straight from the cookbook in a 1967 Associated Press article. The recipe gave many specific instructions, including that "one wine-glass of good whiskey or brandy" be used for the filling and that the raisins be "seeded and finely clipped."
In the mid-1800s, the Lane Cake had something of a reputation as a temperamental dessert to bake and a problematic one to assemble, making its appearance at tea parties and bridal showers the source of much admiration. The snow white color of the cake's layers were a difficult feat to achieve before oven temperatures were well regulated—many a too-dark cake was tossed out to begin again. The high number of egg whites in the cake also was the source of much consternation, due to the fact they had to be whipped by hand into soft, not stiff, peaks in order to give the cake its light, airy texture. When the rotary beater came on the scene in 1884, it made this fluffy delight became a much simpler task.
The Lane Cake makes repeated appearances in Alabama-native Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch, everyone's favorite tomboy six-year-old, even makes the claim, "Miss Maudie Adtkinson baked a Lane Cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight!"
Want to try this cake at home? The recipe is right this way.
About the author: Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She likes planning elaborate dinner parties surrounded by her collection of dwarf citrus trees. You can read her latest musings and about her various misadventures on her website: hellosarahbaird.com or follow her on Twitter: @scbaird.