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On Cooking Southern: Fruits, Nuts, and Heirloom Cakes

Christmas Cake
Black John Cake (left) and pieces of prunecake join egg nog on the Christmas table.

Have a cake-happy Christmas

By Laurie Triplette
Scarce as hen’s teeth/scarcer than hen’s teeth: Nonexistent. About as likely to occur as a family vacation shared by John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi.
ON COOKING SOUTHERN:  Fruits and Nuts and Heirloom Cakes
Fa la la la la, ‘tis the season when we’re all going a little (or lot) nutty. How fitting, then, that so many of our holiday-season cakes, candies, and pies call for nuts of all kinds, from pecans and walnuts, to pistachios and coconuts. The Old Bride just returned home from visiting family in North Carolina, where we reminisced about old-fashioned fruit-and-nut cakes from gatherings of our youth. I brought back several heirloom recipes that were precursors for the popular Lane Cake and Lady Baltimore Cake of the late 20th century. The fruits and the nuts were home-grown, and our kinfolks developed nifty prep tricks.

Tricks to Shelling Nuts

Pecans: Remove from the tough outer hull with a hammer, and allow the pecans to dry for a day or two. Drop them into a large pot of boiling water for 10 minutes, remove from heat. After 5 minutes, drain and dry the nuts. To crack with less breakage of the nut halves, use the nutcracker or pliers and gently crack the shell all the way around the short circumference. Gently again, pull the two shell halves apart and the nut should come free. Wiggle loose or gently pick it.
Walnuts: Pick them from the tree as soon as the hulls turns from green to yellowish and become soft enough to dent with a thumb. If gathering from the ground after they fall (September), make sure the nuts have not been on the ground more than a day. (The longer they remain in the hulls, the more harsh and bitter the flavor of the nut.) Break the hull with a hammer, then wash and dry the nuts on a wire screen. This may sound counter-intuitive, but when ready to shell the nuts, soak them again for one to two hours, which will make the nut kernels flexible enough to extract from the shells. Place the pointed end up on a hard surface and strike with a hammer until the two halves crack and separate. Remove kernels with pliers and a nut pick.

Gauging Readiness of Cooked Icings

Candy-making and cooked icings require understanding about the stages of crystallization that transforms sugar when cooked. We commonly refer to the ever-hotter cooking stages as thread (230-234˚F), soft ball (234-240˚F), firm ball (242-248˚F), hard ball (250-268˚F), soft crack (270-290˚F), hard crack (300-310˚F), and caramelized sugar (310-338˚F). With practice and a cup of cold water, a cook can determine these stages without a candy thermometer, but temperature-measuring is always safer.
To use a candy thermometer, warm it up in warm water.  Place the warmed-up thermometer into the boiling sugar mixture near the center of the pan, with the bulb NOT touching the pan bottom. Hold steady, and read it at eye level. Note: It takes a while for sugar to warm to 220˚F, but then the temperature jumps higher very rapidly. Remove thermometer and rest it in a wooden spoon.


This traditional cake comes from Haywood County, North Carolina, near the Tennessee border. The prunes add moistness and sweet fruit flavor, while the spices virtually shout happy holidays. It tastes like a very moist spice cake with caramelized glaze.
1-1/2 c white granulated sugar
1 c vegetable oil
3 large eggs
2 c sifted plain flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1 c buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts or both)
7-oz bag of dried prunes, chopped fine
Blend sugar and oil. Mix in eggs. Sift dry ingredients together and add alternately with milk. Add vanilla, nuts, and prunes. Pour into greased pyrex dish 9-by-13-by-2 inches, and bake in preheated oven at 300˚F until firm. Remove from oven and cover with icing while still hot.
Buttermilk Icing
1 c sugar
1/2  c buttermilk
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 T light corn syrup
1/4 c butter (1/2 stick)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Combine all ingredients and boil in medium saucepan, stirring, until mixture forms a soft ball. (234-240˚F) Pour over hot cake without beating. Leave in pan until ready to cut into slices for serving.
This late 19th century recipe was a favorite of the late Beth Tartan (Elizabeth Sparks), long-time food editor for the Winston-Salem Journal. An extremely moist cake that tastes like gingerbread, it tastes more flavorful after two to three days..
1 c butter
1 c brown sugar, packed
1 c molasses
3 eggs
3 c sifted plain flour
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda dissolved in 3 T cold water
1 c whole buttermilk
Cream together the butter and sugar. Blend in the molasses, and don’t worry about it looking curled. Add eggs one at a time, blending well after each addition. Sift together the flour, spices, salt and add to creamed mixture alternately with the baking soda and the buttermilk. Blend well and pour into two greased and floured 9-inch cake pans. Bake at 350˚F in preheated oven for 25 minutes or until done (toothpick comes out clean from center). Remove to rack to cool about 30 minutes, then turn out of pans.
2 c brown sugar (packed)
1/2 c whole milk
4 T butter
1/2 c chopped raisins
1/2 c shredded or flaked coconut
1 c chopped black walnuts (no substitutions)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Boil the brown sugar, milk and butter together, stirring with a wooden spoon, until thick but not crystallized. Remove from heat and add the fruit and nuts, then stir in the vanilla. The filling should be a rather thin syrup that penetrates into the cake. Spread between the layers and on top. It will drip down the sides a bit. Serve with whipped cream.

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