“Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight,” Scout recalls of her neighbor’s famous dessert in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Lane Cake is a Southern classic, with the recipe dating back to the late-nineteenth century, when Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, used it to win first prize at the county fair in Columbus, Georgia.
With the release today of Go Set a Watchman, the highly anticipated sequel to Lee’s iconic first novel, we decided to return to Miss Maudie’s special cake. After all, the governor of Alabama declared it Go Set a Watchman Day, and we cannot think of better way to celebrate than sharing a recipe for a Maycomb favorite, as crafted by our sister title, Taste of the South.
For further insight into the significance of Lane Cake, we turn to cookbook author Nancie McDermott, who has a special place in her heart for both the dessert and Lee’s novel. Having authored a number of cookbooks—including Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations and Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pies, From Lemon Chess to Chocolate—she is a reliable expert on the joys of Southern desserts. Like a good story, they’re at the heart of what we love about living in the South.
Q&A with Southern cookbook author Nancie McDermott:
SL: Can you tell us about the rich history behind Lane Cake?
Nancie: This beloved, luscious, and elaborate cake has been a tradition at Christmas time and other major celebrations throughout the year, particularly in the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. It’s named after Emma Rylander Lane, of Clayton, Alabama, whose original recipe calls for a classic white butter cake. It’s a 1-2-3-4 cake made with 8 egg whites, baked in four layers, with a rich gooey filling made with the eight egg yolks, chopped raisins, sugar, and bourbon or brandy being mentioned to provide a kick. Home cooks fell in love with this cake and embellished it as we cooks do. By the 1940’s the filling commonly included shredded or grated coconut and chopped pecans, and by the late-20th century, candied cherries could also be found. A beloved variation calls for extra filling and uses it as both filling and icing for the entire cake; this version was featured in chef and culinary historian Edna Lewis’s The Gift of Southern Cooking.
SL: What is the Lane Cake’s significance in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Nancie: Lane Cake comes up as a symbol of the generosity and affection of Miss Maudie Atkinson, neighbor of Scout and Jem Finch. She always makes 3 small cakes for the two siblings and their friend Dill when she is baking a cake. The cake also allows her to display a point of pride in her culinary accomplishments. Miss Maudie emphasizes that she has to keep her recipe secret from a rival baker, in whose home she later stays.
SL: When did you connect Lane Cake and To Kill a Mockingbird?
Nancie: I reread the book when my daughter was assigned it in her high school English class. The references to cakes jumped out at me, since I have always loved to bake, and I was fascinated that here was a cake I had never heard of and never eaten, and yet it was so famous and important that Harper Lee didn’t need to describe it. Readers just knew! So I looked it up and fell in love. I found other cake references in the book: Angel food cake and possibly coconut cake or pound cake—I may have been imagining things by that point. But for the day when the class presented their projects on To Kill a Mockingbird, I baked a Lane Cake, an angel food cake, and a pound cake and took them to class as a sweet reward for teacher and students.
SL: Do you have any fond memories of or experiences with Lane Cake similar to its celebratory function in the book?
Nancie: When my book Southern Cakes was published in 2007, I did a book signing at Southern Season, a wonderful store featuring all things culinary, here in Chapel Hill. They baked my Lane Cake so we could offer samples to tempt people to look at and perhaps buy the book. People loved it, and it allowed many of them to learn about the cake for the first time. When people said “Oh, Lane Cake! I love this cake! Mamaw made one every Christmas!” I would ask “Where are you from?” and the answer was always Alabama or Mississippi. This was lovely validation of my sense that this cake has Deep South roots, and deserves to be known and loved all over the country!
This interview was edited for space. Nancie’s forthcoming cookbook, Southern Soups & Stews will be featured in our October issue. Stay tuned for an upcoming giveaway!