To Kill a Mockingbird’s Lane Cake
I’ve never made a layer cake in all my days of baking, but I talked myself into giving it a try.
I belong to the Addison library book club and we were just finishing up reading To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Our monthly meeting was coming up and I wanted to surprise everyone with a Lane cake. For all of you who’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ll remember that Jean Louise mentioned the neighbor Maudie’s, Lane cake.
Little did I know what I was getting into. It turns out that an authentic Lane cake has three layers – I had two 9-inch round cake pans. I needed one more. Checking in the housewares department of a local store I found that the cake pans to match what I have only come in a two-pack; one more than I needed. I wanted to stay with the same kind of pan so the layers would bake evenly. A dark pan will cook faster than a shiny aluminum one. Buying the two pans cost me just north of ten dollars.
I also needed a bottle of brandy. Not being a whisky drinker I asked the man stocking the shelf the difference between whisky (which is less expensive) and brandy. Come to find out, he wasn’t a drinker and didn’t know. He offered an assumption that is must be in the brewing. The cheapest bottle on the shelf was almost fourteen dollars. Then I needed cake flour. I thought about using regular white flour, but decided at this point I was going to stay as close as possible to the “authentic” recipe. Next I bought unsalted butter and parchment paper. So far, the cost of the cake was pushing close to thirty dollars. I was grateful that I had the rest of the ingredients on hand.
Back when I turned thirteen, I asked my mom to make me a layer cake for my birthday. She’d always made us – our birthdays are on the same day – a nine by thirteen inch single layer cake. This would be her first attempt at a layer cake. She did her best. I realize that now, but it was nowhere near as pretty as the picture in her cookbook. I was at that ignorant age and selfish and I didn’t hide my disappointment. Never once, did I think of asking if she would like me to make her a birthday cake. I hope I made it up to her after I grew up and saw what a great mom she was.
Now it was baking day. I looked over the Lane cake recipe. I decided to start with chopping the pecans, then set the butter on the counter to soften, removed the eggs from of the fridge and forgot to get the milk out so it would warm up to room temperature. The microwave took care of that.
It is impossible to line round cake pans with parchment paper. I finally gave up. I greased the paper and just let it sit on top of the pans in a sheet. I wanted the edges to be long enough to hang over the rim of the cake pans so I could lift the layers out once they were done baking and cooled.
I sifted the dry ingredients into a bowl and set it aside. Added the vanilla to the warm milk and using my mixer, I creamed the butter. Once I had the batter ready to spoon into the cake pans it hit me that there wasn’t any sugar listed in the ingredients. That just didn’t sound right. I tasted the batter and it wasn’t good.
I turned on my computer and found a recipe for Lane cake on the Southern Living website. Ah ha! The recipe was the same as the one I had except for the two cups of sugar that should’ve been creamed with the butter. It was too late for that now, so I dumped the sugar on top of the batter and mixed it in. That was a close call!
I dropped a large serving spoonful of batter in the center of each piece of parchment paper and then tucked the paper down into the cake pans as best I could.
Because of the way the paper fit into the pans, the edges of the cake didn’t come out nice smooth and round. They were a bit scalloped but that was easy to hide with frosting.
While the layers were baking, I started making the filling. At the last minute I noticed that the raisins were supposed to be chopped. I almost said the heck with that then let out a sigh. I started chopping. I muttered “keep it authentic” a couple of times. Chopping a cup and a half of raisins takes a while and by the time I was done, my finger was sore from pushing down on the knife.
The layers were done before the filling was heated up but they needed to cool anyway. I let the cakes layers cool for about 5 minutes then lifted them from the pans using the edges of the parchment paper.
The recipe said to heat the filling pecan/coconut/raisin/butter mixture to 170 degrees on a candy thermometer. Once it was hot enough, I took the pan off the burner and added the rest of the ingredients. Low and behold, the filling needed to cool too. I set it out in the cold garage to speed up the process.
Now it was time to assemble to cake. The parchment paper was worth the trouble because it peeled off the cake layers clean and without any trouble. Once the layers were all stacked, with filling between each one and on top of the last, the cake looked pretty good. It listed a little to one side, but all in all, not bad.
Next came the frosting. I’d forgotten about the frosting. The first recipe – the one without the sugar – called for a whipped cream frosting made with unflavored gelatin. I didn’t have whipping cream or gelatin in the house. The other recipe called for 7 minute frosting that is made by using a mixer over a bowl of boiling water. That sounded like a sure plan for disaster to me. I looked in my Good Housekeeping Cookbook from the early 1970’s. I found a frosting recipe using Karo Syrup, egg whites and vanilla. All things I had on hand.
The frosting looked and tasted pretty good. I painted in on the sides of the cake like troweling plaster on a wall. All was well until I noticed the frosting slowly sliding down the sides of the cake and pooling on the serving plate. What to do? I put the cake in the refrigerator to see if cooling down the frosting would thicken it up. Thank goodness it worked.
The next morning, the day of the book club meeting, I did some patch work with the extra frosting I saved and scraped off the pool of frosting from the plate. I warned everyone that I had no idea if the cake was any good. Much to my surprise and relief, it was delicious and it all held together.
There was plenty for the book club, the librarian and a couple of patrons who had the good luck to come to the library that afternoon.
Here is the recipe I used:
To Kill a Mockingbird’s Lane Cake
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
2 cups white sugar
3 ½ cups cake flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 teaspoons baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk at room temperature
8 egg whites at room temperature – save yolks for filling
¾ cup of unsalted butter
12 egg yolks – save two whites for frosting
1 ½ cups white sugar
1 ½ cups chopped pecans
1 ½ cups chopped raisins
1 ½ cups coconut
½ cup bourbon
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups dark corn syrup
2 egg whites at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
DIRECTIONS: Cake – Line three 9-inch round cake pans with greased parchment paper. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar with an electric mixer. In a separate bowl sift together cake flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Measure out milk and add vanilla to it. Alternately add dry ingredients and milk to creamed butter. Set aside. Batter will be pretty thick. In a separate bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Add a good scoop of egg whites to the cake batter and mix. Add rest of eggs whites and mix well. Divide batter evenly between the three pans. Bake at 325 degrees for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean and layers are lightly browned. Set aside to cool.
Filling – Melt butter and set aside to cool but not re-harden. In a large saucepan, mix together egg whites and sugar. Add cooled butter. Heat mixture, whisking constantly, to 170 degrees on a candy thermometer and mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Mix in the coconut, pecans and raisins. Cook and stir for two more minutes. Remove from heat then add bourbon and vanilla. Stir to combine and let cool before spreading on cake layers.
Assembly – place one layer on a serving plate and spread 1/3 of filling mixture over top. Add the second layer, repeat with filling then add third layer. Spread remaining filling over the top.
Frosting – In a small saucepan, heat corn syrup until boiling. Remove from heat. In a large bowl, beat egg whites until foamy. Add salt and continue beating until soft peaks form. Slowly pour in hot syrup continuing to beat for 6 to 8 minutes until frosting is fluffy and forms peaks when beater is raised. Beat in vanilla. Cool before using.