cake tour

My enchantment with homemade cakes started early.

Plucking feathery bits of white coconut off a birthday cake is my first memory — in fact, that’s me in the photo above. It’s 1961, and I’m sitting on the kitchen table at my grandparents’ house in Boone. My grandmother made the cake; I still have that cake stand.

I baked my first cakes in my beloved turquoise Easy-Bake Oven. I remember stirring the wee packets of mix and pushing the tiny tin pans into the warmth of the oven’s lightbulb, where the cakes didn’t so much bake as gradually stopped being wet.

In my teens, I tackled layer cakes with ambition. By my 20s, I set my sights on perfecting pound cakes, still my favorite to bake, eat, and share. Now, I bake two at a time so I can stash a spare in the freezer. Suddenly remembering there is a pound cake in the house is a reason to rejoice.

Homemade cakes are a point of pride among Southern bakers. Some cakes are born of local ingenuity, starting as a response to a hometown or backyard specialty. The good ones turn into keepers. All cakes have the potential for greatness and grandeur — and a good story about where they come from.

Blue Ridge Mountains

Dried Apple Stack Cake
The hallmark of cooking in the Mountain South is resourcefulness, making utterly delicious dishes from modest ingredients. Consider the stack cake: many thin layers of sorghum-sweetened cake married together by thick, fragrant filling made from dried apples. There is no cake — perhaps no recipe — more rooted in Appalachian mountain culture.

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Mountains and Foothills

Black Walnut Pound Cake with Old-Fashioned Penuche Frosting
The meek might never taste a black walnut. The outer husks of these tree nuts are a mighty fortress, resembling a petrified tennis ball. A standard nutcracker won’t make a dent.

Black walnuts must be pounded into submission, by mallets or more. Some people crack black walnuts by running over them with their cars. Back and forth, up and over, until either the shells or the driver give up. The work is tedious and the walnut shells stain everything they touch, including hands and driveways. Once open, not everyone appreciates the strong, pungent, rather bitter flavor of black walnuts. Those who do, however, do so passionately.

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Cheerwine Pound Cake
There is no historical marker for the first time and place that some creative home cook poured soda pop into cake batter, but the idea took hold fast, especially as these products flourished after World War II. Almost all community cookbooks include a recipe or two for a cola cake.

Cheerwine pound cake has a delicate golden crust and a moist, dense crumb. It needs no frosting, only a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar, like fairy dust. It keeps well for days, if it lasts that long.

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Central NC, Sandhills, Coastal Plain, and Outer Banks

Muscadine Cake
We North Carolinians love our native grapes. Compared to the imported, thin-skinned, seedless grapes found in the grocery stores, muscadines might seem like a lot of trouble, but they are worth it. The skins are thick and the pulp is shot full of stubborn seeds. Ah, but the flavor, the perfume, the musky sweetness. No other grape compares.

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Outer Banks

Fig Preserves Cake with Buttermilk Glaze
As far as fruit is concerned, the Outer Banks is a punishing place: sandy, salty, stormy, and sizzling hot in summer.

For some reason, fig trees accept that challenge. A dozen or more different varieties of figs, many of them native, grow along the Outer Banks. Figs are so popular on Ocracoke Island that they practically star in the island’s annual Ocrafolk Festival.

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