By Gil Marks
Lane Cake – History and Recipe for a Classic Boozy Layer Cake
on The History Kitchen
“Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.”
– To Kill a Mockingbird. Author Nelle Harper Lee (1960), a native of Monroeville, Alabama, presented a picture of Southern culture in the mid-20th century, with numerous vestiges of life in the Deep South and Southern foods including Lane cake.
[Shinny = slang for liquor, derived from moonshine]
Lane cake is a four-layer (though some prefer three) white cake with a thick bourbon-laced raisin filling. The egg whites are used for making the vanilla butter cake and the egg yolks for the custard filling.
Emma Rylander Lane (d. April 25, 1904) of Clayton, Alabama in Barbour County introduced the now classic treat bearing her name in her self-published and extremely hard to find 1898 cookbook, A Few Good Things to Eat (the more easy to find 1989 reprint was renamed Some Good Things to Eat). Lane cake appeared shortly before the advent of another classic Southern layer cake — but not the same — Lady Baltimore cake of Charleston, South Carolina (1903) and after the Robert E. Lee cake (lemon curd filled cake) and coconut cakes; the spread of regulated ovens and the rotary beater spurring the proliferate of fluffy white cakes. In her book, Lane entitled the concoction “Prize Cake,” as it had won first prize at a baking contest at a country fair in Columbus, Georgia – about 60 miles from her home in Americus. William Faulkner, a native of Mississippi, in his novel Intruder in the Dust (1948) wrote of a trend in Southern culture: “…this happened two or three terms ago back in the twenties, a Frenchman’s Bend lady naming no names at feud with another lady over something which began (we understood) over the matter of a prize cake at a church supper bazaar….” The concoction eventually and indelibly took on the name of its creator.
For many decades, Lane cake primarily remained the province of a small swatch of the Deep South -– Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. “Lane Cake” was included in Atlanta Woman’s Club Cook Book (1921), attributed to “Mrs. W. C. Lane of Roanoke, Ala”; with chopped walnuts added to the filling and no mention of a frosting. “Lane Cake” was added to the revised edition of the classic Southern Cooking by Henrietta Stanley Dull (New York, 1941); it was not in the original 1928 edition, as it had yet to become widespread — Dull’s 1928 recipe for “Canton’s Prize Cake” was a white cake baked as either a loaf or layers and lacking any filling information. Then recipes appeared in national cookbooks and, of course, its 1960 mention in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The base for Lane cake is an egg white variation of the classic 1-2-3-4-cake, resulting in a sponge cake-like texture, and a raisin filling derived from the 1870s Minnehaha cake. In her rendition, Mrs. Lane instructed: “Bake in four layers, using medium-sized pie tins, with one layer of ungreased brown paper in the bottom of each tin.” The original version contained only raisins (“seeded and finely clipped”) in the custard filling, but subsequent cooks commonly embellished it with pecans and frequently coconut and candied fruit reminiscent of a fruitcake. Lane directed “one wine-glass of good whiskey [denoting bourbon] or brandy” for the filling. The liquor helps to cut the cloyingness of the filling and to moisten and preserve the cake akin to a classic fruitcake. Mrs. Lane insisted that the cake named after her “is much better made a day or two before using.”
Lane’s original prize cake called for “Boiled White Frosting (from a standard recipe), covering the top and sides with the frosting,” without including the frosting recipe. Some subsequent versions omitted any frosting, simply topping three layers with the dark filling. Most modern Lane cakes, in the Southern manner, call for a fluffy white frosting. You can use seven-minute frosting or whipped cream cheese frosting or substitute yellow cake for the white layers.
As in To Kill a Mockingbird, distinctive layer cakes were whipped up by Southerners for significant life events and company. In many Southern homes, Lane cake became, in particular, a traditional Christmas treat as well as a favorite at Thanksgiving, Valentine’s, birthdays, anniversaries, bridal showers, church suppers, and other noteworthy occasions. Lane cake is truly a taste of the Deep South with more than enough sugar and shinny to lift anyone’s spirits.
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Cake Batter Ingredients
- 3 1/2 cups sifted cake flour or 3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted (12.25 ounces/350 grams)
- 3 1/2 tsp double-acting baking powder
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg (optional)
- 2 cups granulated sugar (14 ounces/400 grams)
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened (65 to 67°F) (2 sticks/8 ounces/455 grams)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract, or 1 teaspoon vanilla and ½ teaspoon almond extract or 1 teaspoon orange extract
- 1 cup milk (8 fluid ounces/8.5 ounces/240 grams)
- 8 large egg whites (1 cup/8.5 ounces/240 grams)
- 8 large egg yolks (9 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon/5.25 ounces/150 grams)
- 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar (8.75 ounces/250 grams)
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened (65 to 67°F) (1 stick /4 ounces/115 grams)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup bourbon or brandy (4 ounces/115 grams)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 cup finely chopped raisins (5 ounces/145 grams)
- 1 cup finely chopped pecans (4 ounces/115 grams)
- 1 cup grated coconut, preferably fresh (3 ounces/90 grams) (optional)
- 1/2 cup finely chopped candied, dried tart, or maraschino cherries or pineapple (4 ounces/115 grams) (optional)
Boiled Frosting Ingredients
- 1 cup granulated sugar (7 ounces/200 grams)
- 1/3 cup water (2.75 ounces/80 grams)
- 2 large egg whites (¼ cup/2.125 ounces/60 grams)
- Pinch salt, or ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
You will also need:
- three 9- by 1½-inch round baking pans or two 9- by 3-inch round baking pans or springform pans, parchment paper, mixing bowls, stand mixer or hand mixer, cooling rack, 2-quart saucepan, wooden spoon, candy thermometer
- Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F (325°F for a convection oven). Grease three 9- by 1½-inch round baking pans or two 9- by 3-inch round baking pans or springform pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper or wax paper, grease again, and dust with flour.
- To make the batter: Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and, if using, nutmeg.
- In a large bowl, beat the butter on low speed until smooth, about 2 minutes.
- Increase the speed to medium, gradually add the sugar, and beat until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla.
- Add the flour mixture and milk alternately (4 portions for the flour; 3 portions for the milk) beginning and ending with the flour.
- In a large bowl, beat the egg whites on low until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to medium and beat until soft leaks form, 5 to 8 minutes. Fold one fourth of the egg whites into the batter, then gently fold in the remaining whites.
- Divide the batter equally between the prepared pans. Bake until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when lightly touched, 20 to 25 minutes for 3 pans or about 30 minutes for 2 pans.
- Let cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove to wire racks and let cool completely, at least 1½ hours. The cake can be wrapped and stored at room temperature for up to 1 day.
- To make the filling: Place the egg yolks in a 2-quart saucepan and lightly beat. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the butter and salt and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until thick enough to coat the back of the spoon and almost translucent, about 10 minutes. Do not boil.
- Remove from the heat and gradually stir in the bourbon and vanilla. Add the raisins, pecans, and, if using, coconut and/or cherries. Let cool, but do not chill before spreading.
- To assemble: If using 2 larger pans, use a serrated knife to cut each cake in half horizontally. Arrange a cake layer on a serving plate and spread with a third of the filling, about 1 cup. Top with a second cake, spread with half of the remaining filling, and place the third cake layer on top. If making a 3-layer cake, spread the remaining filling on top; for a 4-layer cake, leave the top bare and cover later with frosting. Place in a covered container. Let ripen in a cool place or the refrigerator for at least 2 days and up to 2 weeks, daily spooning any of the filling that seeps out back over top of the cake. For long term storage, place in the freezer for up to 4 months.
- To make the frosting: In a small saucepan, stir the sugar and water over low heat until dissolved. Stop stirring, increase the heat to medium-high, and boil until it reaches the soft-ball stage and registers 238°F on a candy thermometer.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat the egg whites on low speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Add the salt or cream of tartar, increase the speed to medium-high, and beat until soft peaks form, about 1 minute.
- In a slow, steady stream, beat in the hot syrup. Be careful the syrup does not touch the beaters or it will spin into threads. Add the vanilla and beat until cool.
- For a 3-layer cake, spread the frosting over the sides of the cake; for a 4-layer cake, spread over the sides and top. If not serving on the same day or for leftovers, store in the refrigerator covered with a cake keeper, a tent of foil, or a bowl with a knife or other flat utensil wedged under it. Serve at room temperature.
- Orange-Spice Lane Cake: In the filling, add 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest, ¼ teaspoon ground mace, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom.
- Alcohol-Free Lane Filling: This does not have the keeping power, due to the absence of liquor, as the traditional version. In the filling, omit the bourbon and increase the sugar to 1½ cups (10.5 ounces/300 grams). Add 1 cup evaporated milk with the butter and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened. Stir in the fruits and nuts. Store the cake in the refrigerator.