Christmas is coming, and it's time to eat Southern cake

When I was a kid, we had a wonderful minister with a sweet wife who taught me many things about food and life. Her name was Lizzie Ziegler, and one of her stories was one about Christmas oranges. When she was a little girl in the early 1900s, oranges were so rare and exquisite she would save part of the peeling, wrap it in a handkerchief and stick it in a sewing-machine drawer.

On a cold winter’s day, she could pull out a bit of the crumpled zest and inhale the very fragrance of Christmas memories.

When I think of Mrs. Ziegler, Proust’s madeleines come to mind. So does Nancie McDermott’s Orange Slice Cake with Orange Glaze. McDermott, author of “Southern Cakes” (Chronicle Books, $19.95), says the cake probably originated generations ago in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. During the bare years of the Depression, as Mrs. Ziegler would attest, fresh oranges were hard to come by, so the fruitcake-like concoction was made from the sugar-coated, faux-orange candy that was cheap and plentiful at the store. Apparently, the gemlike jellies evoked the essence of citrus in hard times -- when not a single orange was available for the Christmas stocking.

“That touched me so,” said McDermott, who lovingly sifted through old recipes and documents when she was researching her delightful and indispensable “Southern Cakes.” “I saw many notes like ‘Memaw’s orange slice cake was the highlight of our Christmas.’”

Like many Southern kids of a certain age, I remember chopping nuts and candied fruit as my South Georgia grandmother made her glorious stacks of Lane Cake (based on Alabama native Emma Rylander Lane’s self-proclaimed “prize cake,” from Lane’s self-published opus of 1898) and Japanese Fruitcake (a heavenly stack of alternating spiced and plain layers with a lemony-coconut filling).

When I stopped by to see my Aunt Libby over Thanksgiving, she pulled out my grandmother’s Lane Cake recipe and told me that instead of the requisite bourbon, Nanny added red wine from my grandfather's store in the tiny town of Climax. (What we were just saying about orange-slice candy? A wise cook makes use of what’s handy, be it Muscatel or moonshine.)

As she was leafing through her recipes, Aunt Lib pulled out instructions for Mrs. Dixon’s Ageless Fruitcake. She hadn’t a clue who Mrs. Dixon was, but when I wrote about the cake on Facebook, half of Decatur County claimed to have known a Mrs. Dixon who was legendary for her fruitcakes. (Different person, Aunt Lib said.)

“My daddy had a cousin who made these back in the day in a ring pan. Then she put them in a wax papered tin and ‘bourboned them to death!'” wrote Joan Skipper Schoubert, a friend of mine from Bainbridge High School. “I still remember that heavenly smell when you opened the tin!"

Mrs. Dixon’s Ageless Fruitcake is now aging in layers of wax paper and tinfoil in a sealed plastic bag on Nanny's sideboard in my cool, dark dining room. It is moist, delicious and easy to put together. The hardest thing about it is chopping the sticky candied cherries and pineapple, which you can find in the grocery store this time of year. (Full disclosure: Although Mrs. Dixon's recipe does not call for alcohol, I poured a half cup of Bulleit over my finished cake -- a tribute to Truman Capote’s "A Christmas Memory," in which Buddy and Sook brave the glowering Mr. HaHa Jones in pursuit of whiskey for their cakes.)

Driving home through Georgia pecan country after Thanksgiving, I stopped at Ellis Bros. Pecans in Vienna, where family matriarch Lucile “Cile” Ellis gave me a spiral-bound copy of her family’s self-published book of recipes. The Ellises’ recipe for Japanese Fruitcake — which uses cinnamon, allspice, cloves, raisins nuts and molasses in the spice layer — sounded tantalizing.

As McDemott points out, “Nothing about [Japanese Fruit Cake] is remotely Japanese. Nor does it qualify as a fruitcake in any traditionally Southern definition of the word.” With Mrs. Ellis' recipe and a little help on the filling from McDermott’s book, I came up with a version that would do Nanny proud. When I sliced and attempted to plate the towering four-layer pagoda, I remembered eating it at gatherings long ago, studded with toothpicks. You can’t get the fat layers to stay together and stand up straight once you slice it! Some cooks smother it all with a layer of white icing. But this is good enough for me, especially the gooey part where the lemon-coconut goodness soaks the bottom of the cake and sticks to the plate.

Come to think of it, you could use orange zest in place of lemon. In which case it would make cake fit for Mrs. Ziegler. Goodness gracious, I wish I could take her a slice this Christmas.

These three Southern classics will get you in the mood for the holidays: An easy fruitcake, a layered Japanese fruitcake with lemon and coconut filling and a recipe calling for orange-slice candy out of a bag.

Mrs. Dixon’s Ageless Fruitcake

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 3 hours, 30 minutes

Serves: 10-12

If you like a spiked fruitcake, pour a 1/2 cup of bourbon over the finished product, and leave it to marinate in a tightly sealed container. A dollop of whipped cream or ice cream is a nice touch, too.

3/4 pound candied cherries

1 pound candied pineapple

4 cups pecans

1 3/4 cup cake flour, divided

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 sticks butter

1 cup granulated sugar

5 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

whipped cream (optional)

Thoroughly grease a 10-inch tube pan. Line bottom with wax paper, and grease the paper.

Chop cherries, pineapple and pecans into medium size. Dredge pecans with 1/4 cup of the cake flour, and sift the remaining flour with baking powder. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add well-beaten eggs, and mix well. Fold in flour, and mix well. Add vanilla and lemon extract, and mix well. Stir in cherries, pineapple and pecans with a large spoon until well incorporated. Scoop mixture into pan, and smooth over the top with knife. Place in cold oven, and bake for three hours at 250 degrees. Cool completely before removing from pan. Refrigerate, or store in an airtight container in a cool dark place. When ready to serve, remove wax paper and slice. If desired, serve with whipped cream.

Per serving, based on 10: 729 calories (percent of calories from fat, 60), 8 grams protein, 67 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 50 grams fat (15 grams saturated), 157 milligrams cholesterol, 282 milligrams sodium.

Orange Slice Cake with Orange Glaze

Hands on: 40 minutes

Total time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Serves: 10-12

If you don't want to bother with squeezing and zesting oranges, you may use store-bought juice and omit the zest.

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pound orange slice candy, chopped into small pieces (about 3 cups)

2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts

1 8-ounce package chopped dates (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 cup sweetened shredded coconut

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup buttermilk

2 cups confectioners’ sugar

1 cup orange juice (preferably fresh)

1 tablespoon grated orange peel

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Generously grease a 10-inch tube pan. Line the bottom with waxed paper or kitchen parchment, and grease the paper.

Combine four and salt in small bowl. Place the orange slice candy, nuts, dates and coconut in a large bowl. Sprinkle about one-third of the flour mixture over the candy and nut mixture, and toss to separate the sticky pieces and coat everything with flour.

In a very large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scrapping down the side of bowl from time to time. When the mixture is light and fluffy, stir in half the remaining flour, beating on low speed until it disappears. Stir baking soda into buttermilk, add half of it to the batter, and stir well. Stir in the remaining flour, then the buttermilk, mixing after each addition until the batter is smooth. Add the candy and nut mixture, flour and all, and mix well. The batter will be extremely thick— you may need to use your hands. Scoop batter into prepared pan and smooth over the top. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the cake is golden brown, pulling away from the sides of the pan and a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.

To make the glaze: Combine confectioners sugar, orange juice and zest in a medium bowl and stir well, until the glaze is smooth.

When the cake is done, leave it in the pan, and pour the glaze all over the warm cake. If the pan is quite full, you may need to do this gradually, allowing the glaze to soak into the cake. Allow to cool completely. (May chill in refrigerator over night.) Run a knife around the side of the pan to loosen the cake. Gently turn the cake out of the pan onto a plate. Remove the wax paper, and place cake top side up on a cake stand or serving plate. Sprinkle with additional confectioners sugar (if desired) before serving.

Adapted from “Southern Cakes” by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, $19.95)

Per serving, based on 10: 1,028 calories (percent of calories from fat, 34), 11 grams protein, 164 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 40 grams fat (16 grams saturated), 135 milligrams cholesterol, 615 milligrams sodium.

Japanese Fruitcake

Serves: 14

This spectacular layer cake combines a recipe from the family cookbook of Ellis Bros. Pecans in Vienna with one from Nancie McDermott’s “Southern Cakes.”

For the cake:

3 1/4 cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup butter

2 cups granulated sugar

4 eggs

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

3 tablespoons molasses

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped pecans

1 1/2 cup cold water, divided

2 cups granulated sugar

1/3 cup lemon juice

zest of one lemon

2 tablespoons cornstarch

3 1/2 cups coconut

14 pecan halves, toasted (optional)

Lemon slices (optional)

Generously grease and flour four eight- or nine-inch round cake pans. Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift flour and baking powder, and set aside. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, until well incorporated. Add about a third of the flour mixture, and mix well; then about one-third of the milk. Continue alternating flour and milk, mixing until smooth. Add vanilla, and mix well. Pour half the batter into two of the greased baking pans. Add cinnamon, allspice, cloves, molasses, raisins and pecans into the remaining batter, and mix well. Pour the spiced batter into the two remaining pans. Bake at 350 for 20 to 25 minutes, until the cakes are golden brown and pulling away from the side of the pan. Pull from oven and cool on a wire rack.

While cakes are baking, make the filling: Place one cup of the water in a heavy medium sauce pan, and bring to boil over medium heat. Stir in sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest and coconut. Bring back to a gentle boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer for about six to eight minutes, stirring occasionally. Dissolve the corn starch in the remaining half cup of cold water, and add to simmering mixture, stirring well. Simmer gently for about three to five minutes, until the mixture has thickened. Allow filling to cool completely before assembling cake.

When ready to assemble cake, place a layer on a cake stand or serving platter. Poke holes in the cake, and spoon coconut mixture all over, spreading evenly. Repeat with remaining three layers, alternating spicy and plain layers, and letting the filling spill over onto the sides. Spoon any filling that accumulates around the bottom of the cake back over the top.

Cover and chill until ready to serve, preferably overnight. Remove from refrigerator about an hour before serving. If desired, garnish the cake with pecan halves and a lemon slice or slices.

Per serving: 654 calories (percent of calories from fat, 36), 6 grams protein, 101 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 27 grams fat (15 grams saturated), 97 milligrams cholesterol, 249 milligrams sodium.