Food In Fiction: To Kill A Mockingbird – Lane Cake

I actually did make this cake and posted a recipe for it in November 2009, here.

Originally posted: October 28, 2009

Photograph by Neil Ravenna

For the Lane Cake, I won’t be posting a recipe, but instead, because of the wonder of the internet can offer the history of how it came to be. In all the years I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, I really didn’t have a clear idea of what a Lane Cake was, except I knew it had liquor in it, as described when Atticus’ sister came to stay and help with Scout and Jem:

Maycomb welcomed her. Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane Cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight….

Before that, Miss Maudie baked a Lane Cake as a thank you to one of the men who helped fight the fire that burned her house to the ground:

“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.”

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.

From the Encyclopedia of Alabama:

The Lane cake, one of Alabama’s more famous culinary specialties, was created by Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Barbour County. It is a type of white sponge cake made with egg whites and consists of four layers that are filled with a mixture of the egg yolks, butter, sugar, raisins, and whiskey. The cake is frosted with a boiled, fluffy white confection of water, sugar, and whipped egg whites. The cake is typically served in the South at birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and other special occasions. The recipe was first printed in Lane’s cookbook Some Good Things to Eat, which she self-published in 1898.

According to chef and culinary scholar Neil Ravenna, Lane first brought her cake recipe to public attention at a county fair in Columbus, Georgia, when she entered her cake in a baking competition there and took first prize. She originally named the cake the Prize cake, but an acquaintance convinced her to lend her own name to the dessert.

The Recipe

Lane’s recipe states that the cake should be baked in medium pie tins lined on the bottom with ungreased brown paper, rather than in cake pans. She specified “one wine-glass of good whiskey or brandy” for the filling and that the raisins be “seeded and finely clipped.” She also insisted that the icing be tested with a clean spoon. In Lane’s time, the cake would have been baked in a wood stove. Lane also suggested that the cake is best if made a day or so in advance of serving, presumably to allow the flavors to meld. Lane used the cake recipe as the basis for other cakes in her book, some frosted with orange or lemon cream.

The Lane cake has been subjected to countless modifications and twists over the years. Coconut, dried fruit, and nuts are common additions to the filling described in the original recipe. Home bakers who wish to avoid the whiskey or brandy in the original recipe have substituted grape juice, especially for children’s birthdays. Another common variation is to ice the entire cake with the filling mixture. The Lane cake is often confused with the Lady Baltimore cake, another fruit-filled, liquor-laced dessert with a different pedigree.

In Alabama, and throughout the South, the presentation of an elegant, scratch-made, laborious Lane cake is a sign that a noteworthy life event is about to be celebrated. In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, by Alabama native Harper Lee, character Maudie Atkinson bakes a Lane cake to welcome Aunt Alexandra when she comes to live with the Finch family. Noting the cake’s alcoholic kick, the character Scout remarks, “Miss Maudie baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.” Shinny is a slang term for liquor.

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