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The Country’s Favorite Cakes

Get acquainted with some regional treats you might not have been able to taste without traveling—until now.

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Regional cakes are the stuff of legends, and they say as much about a community’s taste as they do about its personality, perseverance, and sense of humor. Cakes like the chocolate-and-pecan Texas Sheet Cake or ooey, gooey St. Louis Butter Cake enjoy some degree of national fame and are often made outside of the region from which they originate, but others are secrets that seem to stay more tightly within state lines.

Some local favorites are elegant and complicated, like Maryland’s nine-layer Smith Island Cake or New Orleans’ unmatched Doberge Cake (pronounced DOE-bash or DOE-berj by locals), a deliciously split personality of lemon and chocolate. Other cakes, like Kentucky’s blackberry-flavored Jam Cake or the teetering Appalachian Apple Stack Cake, are spiced and warm, like the home bakers who make them.

I’ve always made a habit of digging for these hallowed cake recipes in spiral-bound community, junior league, and church cookbooks. You know the ones: hand-me-down treasures found at yard sales or library book sales, the ones with notes scrawled in the margins and dog-eared at the corners. The best recipes are always on pages stained from sticky fingers, proof that the recipes were beloved and, most importantly, used often.

Learning about regional cakes means sometimes getting a history lesson, too, as is the case with the Northeast’s Hot Milk Cake, a depression-era recipe that’s popularity is often credited to Ruth Ellen Church, a food editor at the Chicago Tribune in the 1950s. The newspaper’s recipe archives first noted a simple version of hot milk cake in the winter of 1911, but Church is the one who brought the recipe back to her readers’ attention, lauding the cake’s success with using baking powder as a leavener, in lieu of eggs only.

While some local favorites are a delicious twist on a classic cake that may already be in a baker’s repertoire—I’ll never miss a chance to dig into a slice of California’s Chiffon Cake or Hawaii’s Chantilly Cake—others are utterly unique and beyond comparison. Enter Michigan’s Bumpy Cake. Originally created at Detroit’s Sanders chocolate shop, it earns its name from the bumpy lines of vanilla buttercream that cut across the length of the cake, hiding under a thick blanket of cooked fudge frosting. Making distinctive sweets like this one, with its regional character in every bite, is like traveling the country’s back roads from the comfort of my kitchen.

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