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Lane Cake (My Way)

Lane Cake (My Way) My first taste of Lane Cake, as with other Southern favorites, came from my friend Greg’s mother.  Greg and I would pull up in his driveway on our bicycles, finish talking about what was going on at school or another part of our tiny world, and before I said goodbye and headed home, Mrs. Hinshaw would sometimes come out with a taste of whatever she was cooking or baking.  She loved to share the wonderful goodies that came from her kitchen, but I also suspect that she pitied my lack of exposure to good Southern cooking at home (thanks to my Yankee mother).  And so the tastes she offered me had a slightly evangelical mission to them as well as the basic instinct of people of good will to share the bounties of the hearth.The version of Lane Cake that Mrs. Hinshaw made was, as I remember it, a bit different from the cakes I have encountered in my research.  In memory it was a sort of Bourbon-flavored pound cake, though Mrs. Hinshaw may have been intending to finish layers with an elaborate filling and glaze.  I only encountered a sliver of cake.  It was delicious—and memorable—so I naturally thought of her cake when I set out to create my own version.  The original is a white cake, or silver cake—a butter cake made with egg whites only.  Silver cake makes a fine coconut cake and others as well, but I usually prefer cakes made with whole eggs (and even extra yolks).  But yolks are needed for the filling, and I have always had a first instinct in baking to use all parts of the eggs I crack.  Oeufs à la Neige is the perfect example of balance—fluffy poached meringues floating on a pool of egg yolk custard, crème anglaise.  For my version of Lane Cake, four whole eggs will do for the cake, I reasoned, and four yolks for the filling.  That leaves four whites to make a frosting.  Perfect!When Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, self-published her volume of recipes in 1898—called Some Good Things to Eat—she included a recipe for her cake that had taken top honors at the county fair in Columbus, Georgia.  Prize Cake, she called it, but other cooks began to bake it and to call it Lane Cake in her honor (as she modestly did in later editions).  Originally popular just in Alabama and Georgia, by the mid-twentieth century it was firmly established throughout the South as a festive occasion cake.  But when Harper Lee included it in To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, it gained fame throughout the country.  Lane Cake is especially popular for Christmas and birthdays. This year I decided to bake one for my birthday, so I guess I will have to throw myself a party to make good use of it.  Or I might portion it and put some aside in the freezer for the next occasion, or for the next sugar attack.  Share or hoard?  Can I be generous like Mrs. Hinshaw?  Hmmm.  Decisions, decisions .I doubt that Mrs. Lane would recognize this cake as hers, but there have been many “improvements” through the years, and there is some confusion about which edition of Some Good Things first added coconut, and whether Mrs. Lane ever approved a separate white frosting.  I frost because I like the look and the way it seals in the (boozy) moisture.  The meringue frostings that we call Boiled Icing andSeven-Minute Icing are pretty much the same, though the one is heated and then whipped on the stand mixer, while the other is beaten with a hand mixer on the stove over hot water—for seven minutes.  Swiss meringue is the technical term.  When made by either method it produces a pillowy, marshmallowy frosting that is fun to make but always very sweet.  It must be spread immediately after it is made, and does not really hold its good looks so well.  However, if you turn the meringue into a buttercream, then it spreads beautifully and stays gorgeous for days.  The richness of the butter balances the sweetness of the meringue to produce something really luscious.  This buttercream comes together best when both the meringue and the butter are at cool room temperature.  If the meringue is hot and melts the butter, the texture will suffer.  But if the meringue is warm and the butter is cool, that will work too.  Cool butter will always whisk in eventually, so it is better to err on the side of too cool rather than too warm.Bake this cake and assemble it at least a day or two ahead to give it time to ripen.  Up to a week in the fridge is fine, provided that it is tightly sealed against refrigerator odors.  Lane Cake also freezes beautifully.  Feel free to add coconut—preferably freshly grated—to the filling.  I like coconut, but prefer to enjoy it on its own instead of adding a sandy texture to a filling where the coconut flavor rather gets lost.  Feel free to add candied or syruped cherries to the filling as well, if you wish.  I prefer the relative simplicity of just pecans, raisins, and bourbon.  Sixteen portions is about right, even if the honoree is past sixteen candles!...more

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