Joni Woolf: The best cakes, ever. Amen

Published 4:08 pm Saturday, May 20, 2017

Some recipes you should not alter. Some you should. We learn these lessons, usually, by trial and error, by failing and occasionally succeeding. “Southern Living” has been the final word of many of my culinary efforts over the years. If it’s in the magazine, you can count on it (in today’s lingo, you can take it to the bank). I have believed this. I have trusted those test cooks at the legendary magazine to offer only the best.
Well … some things cannot be improved on. Take, for instance, the Cream Cheese Pound Cake. Every time my daughter takes one to an event at Calvary, where we go to church, it is consumed before I get a piece. I make the cake, too, for friends and relatives, and it is always a success. For one relative, I add caramel frosting, but the cake can hold its own without any trim. So why did that great magazine think it could be improved upon? In the May 2017 issue, a cake called Classic Southern Pound Cake appears, looking very much like the real classic. But instead of 8 ounces of cream cheese, it calls for 6; instead of 6 eggs, it calls for 4 large eggs, and 2 large egg yolks. It adds ¼ cup half-and-half. These are not great changes to the classic recipe, which is simply 3 cups sugar, 1 ½ cups butter, 8 ounces cream cheese, 6 large eggs, 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla and 3 cups flour. But the changes change the cake. I baked the new recipe, doing everything exactly as called for — even bought a beautiful new Bundt pan for the exercise — and the results were disappointing. The texture of the cake was more like a layer cake, not as dense as the original recipe. Since then I have made two Cream Cheese Pound Cakes, and delighted in how perfectly they turned out — in appearance and in taste. I’ll stick to the old recipe.
If there is a cake I’m known for, among a few friends, it is the Italian Cream Cake. It is delicious; it is decadent. No one should eat it — anything this good must be bad for you. I make it for Jeff Logan’s birthday, and have made it for Chuck Smith, and first made it for Terry Holland’s birthday celebration in St. Simons three years ago, a real test of my patience since I had to transport it in a cooler to protect the frosting. The recipe, that I got from Louise Dodd’s cookbook “Eating from the White House to the Jail House,” is below, with my changes. Yes, I changed the recipe, and it worked. The cake was fine, but there was never enough frosting and it was maddening to get to the third layer and have only a couple of tablespoons of frosting to cover the top and the sides. So, I increased the frosting recipe by 50 percent. I now slather frosting all over the layers and down the sides and have a couple of tablespoons left over. It is a lavish, wonderful cake. And will probably kill me if I eat much of it.

Italian Cream Cake
½ cup butter
½ cup Crisco
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs, separated
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup coconut
Beat butter and Crisco at medium speed with an electric mixer until fluffy. Gradually add sugar, beating well. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Add vanilla, beat until blended. Combine flour and soda; add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed until blended after each addition. Stir in coconut. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form; fold into batter. Pour batter into 3 greased and floured 9-inch round cake pans (I line pans with parchment paper). Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in pans on rack 10 minutes; remove from pans and cool on wire racks. Spread Nutty Cream Cheese Frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake.

Nutty Cream Cheese Frosting (as adjusted by Joni Woolf)
1 cup chopped pecans
1 ½ 8-ounce packages cream cheese
¾ cup butter, softened
1 tablespoon vanilla
5 cups confectioners’ sugar

Place pecans in shallow pan and bake at 350 degrees for 5 to 10 minutes, or until toasted, stirring occasionally. (I toast the pecans in the oven where I’ve just baked the cake, saving re-heating the stove.) Cool. Beat cream cheese, butter and vanilla at medium speed with electric mixer until creamy. Add sugar, beating at low speed until blended. Beat at high speed until smooth; stir in pecans.
After frosting the cake, I spread a row — about one inch wide — of toasted coconut around the edge of the top layer. It’s a sign that underneath all this frosting, there is a delicious cake that contains coconut. Who can resist?

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at