Have you ever had Lane Cake? Here is the story behind the notoriously difficult-to-make cake, in an excerpt from my book, “Forgotten Tales of Alabama.”
It was in 1960 that one of Alabama’s most famous residents, Nelle Harper Lee, immortalized a lesser known woman from the state’s past: Emma Rylander Lane. In Harper Lee’s only novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird,” her character Scout uttered these words in Chapter 13: “Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane Cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.”
The young Scout was referring to the alcohol baked into the cake, which is a real confection that originated in Alabama. It is a white sponge cake made with egg whites and consists of layers filled with a mixture of the egg yolks, butter, sugar, raisins, and whiskey.
In “Mockingbird,” the character Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake to welcome Aunt Alexandra, who had come to live with the Finches. Being served a Lane Cake is a high honor because the confections are difficult to bake. Earlier in the story, in Chapter 8, Miss Maudie wanted to thank a neighbor who came to her aid when her home burned, saying: “Mr. Avery will be in bed for a week – he’s right stove up. He’s too old to do things like that and I told him so. Soon as I can get my hands clean and when Stephanie Crawford’s not looking, I’ll make him a Lane Cake. That Stephanie’s been after my recipe for thirty years, and if she thinks I’ll give it to her just because I’m staying with her she’s got another think coming.”
Scout continued: “I reflected that if Miss Maudie broke down and gave it to her, Miss Stephanie couldn’t follow it anyway. Miss Maudie had once let me see it: among other things, the recipe called for one large cup of sugar.”
The Lane Cake was created by Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, who published the recipe in her 1898 cookbook, Some Good Things to Eat, after the cake won first prize at a fair. Lane initially called the confection Prize Cake, until a friend encouraged her to lend her own name to it.
Lane died in April 1904 while in Guadalahara, Mexico.
In her day, Lane made the cake in medium pie tins lined with brown paper rather than in cake pans. The initial recipe called for “one wine-glass of good whiskey or brandy” in the filling. She also said the cake tasted best if made a day or two before serving.
These days, dozens of variations can be found, although Lane’s 1898 recipe is more difficult to come by. Coconut, dried fruit, and nuts are commonly added to the filling, and some bakers like to use the filling mixture to ice the cake.
Here is an updated version of the recipe:
2 cups sugar
1/2 pound plus 4 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt (optional)
1 1/4 cups milk
8 egg whites, beaten until still but not dry
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter the bottoms and sides of three 9-inch layer cake pans. Coat the bottoms and sides of the pans with flour and shake out the excess. Set pans aside. To make the batter, beat sugar and butter together until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla extract. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Sift a second time. Add flour mixture alternately with milk to batter. Add 1/4 of egg whites, and beat them in. Fold in remaining egg whites. Spoon equal portions of batter into each of the prepared pans. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Place on a rack, and let stand 10 minutes. Turn cake layers out onto a rack to cool. Meanwhile, prepare filling. Yield: 10 or more servings.
9 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
1/3 cup bourbon
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup shredded coconut, preferably fresh
1 cup candied cherries, cut into quarters
1 cup raisins
Combine egg yolks, sugar, and orange rind in the top of a double boiler, and place the top pan in a basin of simmering water. Cook gently, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat a wooden spoon. Do not let the mixture boil or the yolks will curdle. Remove from heat, and beat in bourbon, vanilla, mace, pecans, coconut, cherries, and raisins. Let cool to room temperature. Spread between cake layers. Top cake with icing.
2 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt (optional)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Beat egg whites until stiff, and set aside. In a saucepan, combine sugar, water, cream of tartar, and salt, and bring to a boil, stirring. Cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add vanilla. Pour sugar mixture over egg whites, beating constantly. Frost top and sides of the cake.