HARTFORD, Ala. - In this corner of the country, where cotton and peanuts pay the bills and the Florida border is a morning's walk away, the worth of a cook can be measured in cake layers.
All across the South at Christmas, layer cakes parade across virtually every sideboard. But in the small towns of southeast Alabama, they are more than holiday tradition.
They're currency, comfort and status. Everyone knows whose cakes are tender and whose consistently reach 12 layers or more.
"Three or four weren't nothing to brag about," said Franklin Peacock, who has been eating layer cake here since the 1930s. "Five or six is about where you'd want to start talking about your cake."
Martha Meadows, 77, learned to bake 15-layer cakes from her mother, who cooked each layer one at a time in a cast-iron hoe-cake pan. The pan now lives in a kitchen cupboard in the small house in a cotton field between this town and Slocomb, Ala., where Meadows has lived for 34 years.
Why 15 layers? "That's just the way it comes out," she said. "One time I got 17. Of course, I weren't trying."
Meadows is a whirl of efficiency, using a stand mixer to prepare the yellow batter and rotating six cake pans in and out of the oven, frosting each layer with warm, boiled chocolate icing as the next batch bakes. The result is known as a little layer cake because the layers are thin. Baking and frosting one takes her two hours, she said, "if you don't count the cleaning."
This Christmas season, she'll bake about 10, selling some to neighbors and donating others to her Baptist church. It's a relatively light year. Five years ago, she made 105 for Christmas.
"I'd never do that again," she said.
I was introduced to Meadows by Franklin Peacock's son, the chef Scott Peacock, who was raised on southeast Alabama layer cake. He now lives in Atlanta, where he runs the Watershed restaurant, but he has recently been traveling home to record stories from cooks in their 80s, 90s and 100s for an oral history project.
He is forever bragging about the layer cakes from Hartford, his hometown. I met him in Alabama to see for myself.
Especially at Christmas, the cake ladies of Alabama distinguish themselves with cakes whose recipes are a century old. To be sure, many Southern Christmas tables will hold red velvet or Italian cream cakes with cream cheese frosting, but those are Johnny-come-latelies, introduced in the 1960s and nothing like the old-fashioned layer cakes with tricky boiled icing.
The little layer cake is perhaps the showiest of the extensive southern Alabama repertory. There is always a pound cake on the table at Christmas, as there often is year-round. And usually, there is a fruitcake, like the simple ones with pecans and two kinds of dried fruit that the members of the Sardis United Methodist Church are making this season. A core group of about eight cranked out 1,000 of them, selling various sizes for $5 a pound. A couple of years ago, they made enough to buy a new grand piano for the church. Last year, the cakes helped pay to remodel the church kitchen.
There is, of course, coconut cake with its fluffy frosting whipped from egg whites and boiled sugar, with fresh coconut pressed into its sides. And certainly, there are Lane cakes, made with an 1898 recipe named after Emma Rylander Lane of nearby Clayton, Ala., who called it her prize cake. The cake was a childhood favorite of President Jimmy Carter, whose hometown of Plains, Ga., is a few hours' drive from Clayton. Harper Lee, who grew up in Monroeville, Ala., mentioned Lane cake in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The Lane cake is made with lots of egg whites, the yolks reserved for a rich filling of ground pecans, coconut and raisins flavored with bourbon or local wine. That makes it something of an illicit treat here in dry Geneva County, which is thick with non-drinking Baptists, some of whom substitute grape juice.
Like many of these layer cakes, the Lane cake gets better with a little age. Some cooks still store theirs in a tin with cut apples, to keep it moist while the alcohol mellows and flavors meld.
Lemon cheese cake is another lovely layer cake that makes economical use of yolks and whites. It's nothing like what a New Yorker thinks of as cheesecake. The "cheese" is really an eggy lemon curd piled between layers of cake made sturdy by egg whites. More lemon curd covers the whole cake, its layers visible beneath the slightly translucent jelly.
Caramel cake is harder to come by. Its icing is demanding. The cook must take a half-cup of sugar to the edge of burning in a cast-iron skillet, boil it with more sugar, cream and butter and then beat it into a fluffy tan confection. The trick is to work fast so it doesn't set up before the cake is frosted.
"That frosting is a demon," said Nancie McDermott, author of "Southern Cakes." "There's a reason people quit making that boiled frosting and went to confectioners' sugar. But that's what makes these cakes so special. It's really a dying art."
The same boiled frosting, but with cocoa instead of caramel, stars as the thin fudge-like coat of the chocolate little layer cake. In most of the South, even in other parts of Alabama, the cake is virtually unknown.
It does, however, show up in some interesting pockets. The chef Art Smith, who grew up in Florida a couple of hundred miles from Meadows, made a 12-layer version for Oprah Winfrey. On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a version with 14 marshmallows melted into the icing began appearing in the 1960s, apparently an import that came with women transplanted from other parts of the South, said Elizabeth Wiegand, author of "The Outer Banks Cookbook."
The most strikingly similar cake I found is one made with a virtually identical recipe on Smith Island, a community of about 250 people off the coast of Maryland. Local bakers claim the Smith Island cake was developed in the 1800s by the wives of watermen who needed a sturdy layer cake on their boats during the long autumn oyster harvest.
"As Pee-wee Herman used to say, I love that story," said McDermott, who believes most of the tales surrounding layer cakes are charming but not true. "There doesn't have to be a story. There can just be cake," she said. "But it's like arguing about barbecue. It's fun. It's harmless."
No matter what their origins, Alabama layer cakes are worth trying. They are the perfect holiday confection - difficult enough to be special but not so hard that a cook with a few free hours, a pantry of common ingredients and a little dedication cannot make one.
I'm not much of a baker, so I took some lessons in Alabama. While the measurements were exact, the methods were sometimes vague.
I asked Meadows how long to beat the batter.
"It needs to be beaten a pretty good little bit," she said.
How long should I cook the icing?
"When it gets to cooking, turn it down."
Many experienced cooks in the South assume that everyone knows how to bake.
Virginia Willis, author of "Bon Appetit, Y'all," sent me a coconut cake recipe she got from an 80-year-old family friend from Augusta, Ga. It begins: "Make a yellow cake."
But the bakers I met were encouraging. They played down their own skill and promised me that success or failure sometimes has more to do with the phase of the moon or the quality of a particular bag of flour than with skill.
"Mine are lopsided this morning," said Jean Strickland, 77, whose caramel cake in fact didn't look a bit lopsided the day I met her. She bakes about eight layer cakes a month for people who are too sick to make their own or for the old folks' home or, really, anyone in need.
"It's partly what I call my ministry," she said.
But it's also the best way she knows to make herself feel better.
"If you get down and out," she said, "just get in the kitchen and bake a cake."
Chocolate little layer cake
One 12-layer cake
For the cake:
2 sticks butter, more to grease pans
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup shortening
2 teaspoons vanilla
5 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
5 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups milk
For the icing:
5 cups of sugar
1/3 cup cocoa
1 stick butter, cut into pieces
1 15-ounce can evaporated milk
1/2 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease three 9-inch cake pans and line with rounds of parchment or waxed paper.
- In a mixer, cream together butter, sugar and shortening until fluffy, about three minutes. Beat in eggs one at a time and continue to mix on medium until eggs are well incorporated. Stir in vanilla.
- Sift flour; then add salt, baking soda and baking powder. Sift a second time. With mixer on low, alternately add flour mixture and milk in about four additions, then increase speed to medium. Beat until smooth, about four or five minutes, scraping down sides of bowl.
- Spread 3/4 cup batter in each pan. Bake six to eight minutes, or until cake springs lightly when pressed with a finger. Flip cake out of pan onto paper towels or cake rack while still very warm. Repeat with second set of layers.
- When first layers go into oven, start to make icing. Put sugar and cocoa in a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan and mix well. Turn heat to medium-high and add butter and milks, bringing to a boil. Boil for about four minutes, stirring continually, careful to watch that it does not boil over. Lower heat to simmer, add vanilla and stir occasionally for another 7 to 10 minutes. If using a candy thermometer, cook to the point just before soft ball stage, or about 230 degrees.
- Begin icing first layers, still warm, when second batch is in the oven. Flip layers over so that top side faces up. Use about four tablespoons of icing per layer. Icing will be thin but will firm up as it cools. Stack layers, then continue icing and stacking as layers are baked.
- When all layers are iced and stacked, glaze top and sides of cake. Contours of layers will be visible through icing. If icing hardens too much while frosting cake, set back on low heat and stir until it is spreadable.
- Adapted from Martha Meadows
Lemon cheese layer cake
One layer cake
For the cake:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature, more to grease pan
3 1/4 cups cake flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
8 egg whites
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the lemon curd:
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
12 egg yolks
3 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease three 9-inch cake pans and line with parchment or waxed paper. Mix flour, baking powder and salt and sift onto a piece of waxed paper or parchment.
- In a large mixing bowl, beat sugar and butter until light and fluffy, scraping sides as needed. Whisk egg whites until well blended but not foamy, and add to batter in four batches, making sure each addition is well incorporated.
- Add dry ingredients and milk to batter, alternately, in four batches, mixing each only until just blended. Mix in vanilla.
- Divide batter among three pans. Gently drop each one on a counter to eliminate large air bubbles. Bake for about 20 minutes or until cake springs back in center when pressed or a cake tester comes out clean. Let rest for 5 minutes; then remove cake from pan and cool completely on rack.
- Meanwhile, make curd: Put all ingredients in a non-reactive saucepan and whisk to blend. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until filling thickens and a candy thermometer registers 170 degrees. This can take 10 to 15 minutes. Do not let filling simmer or boil. Remove from heat and pour into a bowl to cool to room temperature.
- Place one cake layer on a cake stand or plate and spread 2/3 cup curd on top to the edges. Stack another layer and continue until all layers have been used. Use remaining curd on top and sides. Filling is somewhat translucent, so layers will be visible through curd on sides. If layers slide while frosting, push three or four long wooden skewers through them to hold until cake sets. Cake is best left covered at room temperature overnight.
- Adapted from "The Gift of Southern Cooking," by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis (Knopf, 2003)
One layer cake
For the cake:
1 cup softened butter, plus more to grease pans
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, well beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
For the icing:
2 1/2 cups sugar
8 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease three 9-inch cake pans and line with rounds of parchment or waxed paper.
- Sift flour; then sift again with baking powder and salt. In a mixer, cream together butter and sugar until fluffy, about three minutes. Beat in eggs one at a time and continue to mix on medium until eggs are well incorporated. Stir in vanilla.
- With the mixer on low, alternately add flour and milk; then increase speed to medium. Beat until smooth, about four or five minutes, scraping down sides of bowl.
- Fill each pan about three-quarters full with batter. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until cake springs lightly when pressed with a finger. Flip cake out of pan onto paper towels or cake rack while still very warm.
- When layers go into oven, start to make icing. Put a half-cup sugar in a large cast-iron pan and set over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar melts and begins to turn dark brown. Be careful not to let it burn. Remove pan from heat.
- Add butter, cream, remaining sugar and salt. Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil and cook for three minutes, stirring, until it reaches about 240 degrees on a candy thermometer.
- Remove from heat and add vanilla and baking soda. Using an electric hand mixer, beat until the icing is spreadable and fluffy. Frost tops of each layer immediately, stack and then frost sides of cake.
- Adapted from Virginia Willis and Scott Peacock