soda cakes feat img
photograph by Charlotte & Johnny Autry

All sorts of delightful sweet treats can trace their lineage to North Carolina, including three classic soft drinks: Cheerwine, Sun Drop, and Pepsi. It’s hard to beat the fizzy refreshment of popping the top off a chilled bottle and taking a big swig, but these cakes come close. Each recipe features a healthy pour of a hometown favorite.

soda caps

For best results:

• Use regular soda, not diet, and preferably the retro versions that are sweetened with cane sugar, not corn syrup. Artificial sweeteners don’t fare well when cooked, as they can lose their sweetness and sometimes turn bitter.
• To ensure accuracy in measuring, let the fizz and foam settle when pouring and topping off the soda. However, don’t use flat soda past its prime.


Pepsi and Peanuts Fudge Cake

In 1893, Caleb Bradham created a soft drink that was an overnight sensation. Yet Bradham aimed for his drink to serve not only as a refreshment, but also as a tonic to treat indigestion. He named his product Pepsi-Cola and gave it the slogan “Exhilarating, Invigorating, Aids Digestion.” Later, Bradham simplified his message to “Drink Pepsi-Cola. It Will Satisfy You.”

Yield: 16 servings.

Cake
2 cups Pepsi (not diet)
1 cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder
½ cup unsalted butter
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature

Icing
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup whole milk
1 cup creamy peanut butter (not all-natural)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 (1-pound) box powdered sugar
1 ½ cups sweet-and-crunchy candied peanuts, coarsely chopped

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with vegetable shortening.

In a large saucepan, whisk together the Pepsi, cocoa, and butter over moderate heat until smooth. Add the granulated sugar and brown sugar, and whisk until melted and smooth. Pour into a large mixing bowl and let stand until cooled to room temperature. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs until beaten. Whisk into the Pepsi mixture. Add the flour mixture and stir with a rubber spatula until combined. The batter will be slightly lumpy.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake in the center of the oven until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Place the cake on a wire rack to cool slightly while you prepare the icing.

For the icing: In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat. Whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil, whisking continuously. Add the peanut butter and whisk until smooth. Remove from the heat, and whisk in the vanilla.

Add the powdered sugar in thirds, whisking until smooth after each addition. Pour over the warm cake and spread to the edges. Sprinkle the peanuts over the top. Place on a wire rack to cool to room temperature.


Cheerwine Poke Cake with Cream Cheese Glaze

This “Nectar of North Carolina” hails from Salisbury, where it’s made by the Carolina Beverage Corporation and Cheerwine Bottling Co., the oldest continuously operated, family-owned soft drink company in the country.

Because Cheerwine is not wine, the name can confuse people who are new to it. Its moniker comes from the drink’s red color and the cheerfulness that its drinkers experience. The original label proclaimed, “It’s full of good cheer.”

Poke cake is so named because you puncture the cake with several holes and then pour syrup, gelatin, or other sweet liquid into the openings.

Yield: 16 servings.

Cake
1 ½ cups Cheerwine (not diet), plus more for the cake mix (see below)
1 (3-ounce) box cherry gelatin
1 box white cake mix
Ingredients for the cake mix, per package directions, substituting Cheerwine for water

Glaze
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons milk
⅓ cup maraschino cherries, drained

For the cake: In a small saucepan, bring 1½ cups of Cheerwine to a boil. Remove from heat, add gelatin, and stir until dissolved. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate until needed.

Prepare the cake mix according to the package directions, substituting Cheerwine for the water. Bake in a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes.

Use a chopstick, straw, or handle of a wooden spoon to poke holes in the cake in 2-inch intervals. Spoon the gelatin mixture evenly over the cake, letting it run down into the holes. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 3 hours.

For the glaze: In a medium bowl, beat the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla until smooth. Add the powdered sugar in thirds, beating after each addition until smooth. Beat in the milk. Spoon the glaze over the top of the cake, spreading it to the edges. Sprinkle the cherries over the top.


Sun Drop Shortcake

OK, technically, Sun Drop was conceived somewhere beyond the North Carolina state line in 1928, when the recipe popped into the head of Missouri salesman Charles Lazier as he tooled around in his car. A few years later, Lazier shared his recipe with his friend Charles P. Nanney, a soft-drink bottler in Gaston County. Nanney tinkered with the recipe to suit his tastes and then added it to his production line. As his first marketing attempt, Nanney teamed up with Red Bridges, owner of Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, who agreed to serve seven-ounce samples of Sun Drop with his barbecue. The first slogan of this bright-yellow, citrusy soda was “Refreshing as a cup of coffee.”

Yield: 8 servings.

Shortcake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
⅓ cup vegetable shortening
½ cup sour cream
½ cup Sun Drop (not diet)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Filling and Topping
1 cup whipping cream, chilled
1 (12-ounce) jar lemon curd
3 tablespoons sugar
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
4 cups whole blackberries, blueberries, and/or halved strawberries

For the shortcake: Preheat the oven to 450°. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Work in the shortening with your fingertips or a pastry blender until the mixture is crumbly.

Stir in the sour cream and then the Sun Drop. The dough will be soft and sticky.

Pour the melted butter into a 9-inch square baking pan. Pat the dough evenly into the pan. Bake in the center of the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Turn the cake out of the pan and place onto a wire rack. Let cool to room temperature.

For the filling and topping: Beat the cream to stiff peaks in a chilled bowl with chilled beaters. Fold in the lemon curd with a rubber spatula. In a small bowl, mix the sugar and lemon zest. Rub with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and shiny.

To assemble: Using a long serrated knife, split the shortcake horizontally. Place the bottom piece on a serving plate. Spread half of the cream mixture over the cut side. Arrange half of the berries over the cream. Cover with the top piece of the shortcake. Spread the remaining cream over the shortcake; sprinkle with the rest of the berries. Sprinkle lemon sugar over the berries.

Serve soon or loosely cover and refrigerate for up to 4 hours.

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Sheri Castle hails from Watauga County, but came down off the mountain to go to Carolina and now lives in Fearrington Village. She is a writer, recipe developer, cooking teacher, and popular public speaker. She is fueled by mountains, excellent bourbon, farmers’ markets, and searching for the right word. Sheri believes that stories happen only to those who can tell them. Check her out at shericastle.com.