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The traditional Christmas cakes of the South layer together love and history

Holiday Food and Entertaining

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Being that it's so damn hot down here for most of the year, it's possible that the only time you bust out your sifter and baking pans and turn on the oven for more than a quick broil is the holidays. It's a little ironic, then, that the tradition of baking beautiful layer cakes for the holidays is so entrenched in the blazing South. And as goes a Southern lady's hair, so goes her cake: "The taller the cake, the closer to heaven."

This year, consider embarking on a sweet sojourn that's a little more advanced than Toll House cookies. There's nothing more inviting than a tall, frosted, three- or four-layer cake on a beautiful cake stand in the middle of the table. There's nothing that says "come in and sit a spell," that signals "home," more invitingly. As Art Smith, noted Southern chef and owner of Homecoming Kitchen at Disney Springs, says: "Everybody loves a cake. It comforts us."

And with what 2016 has been to Orlando and this country – namely, one sucker punch right after the other – we could all use a little comfort.

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Cakes tell us a lot about who we are as a people and how far we've come as a nation. They're passed down from generation to generation, grandmamma to mama to daughter. In 1898, Emma Rylander Lane, an Alabama belle, published the cookbook Some Good Things to Eat. Inside was her recipe for Prize Cake (which later came to be known as Lane Cake in her honor), a four-layer white cake with a thick custard filling, studded with bourbon-soaked raisins. History ate up the Lane Cake, which gave rise to plenty of other Southern namesake cakes, like the "Robert E. Lee Cake." Harper Lee mentions it in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the sweet was a favorite of President Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia before he was POTUS.

From that point forward, lavish layer cakes became a staple of Southern cooking, making appearances at birthdays, graduations, weddings, funerals and always during the holidays. Anne Byrn, a Nashville-based author of the new American Cake cookbook, recently spoke to NPR about the true Americanness of cake. "Cake is an icon of American culture," Byrn said. "Why? Because it is celebratory."

The ingredients in cakes, and their structures – wavy layers jam-packed with sweet fillings and add-ins – also tell the story of an America made of immigrants. Ricotta cheese and almond paste from Italy. Coconut from the slave trade that came through the Caribbean. Chocolate and sweetened condensed milk from Mexico and Latin America. Orange blossom and rosewater from the Middle East, especially Lebanon. Like America, dessert is made better by diversity.

Heather McPherson, former longtime food editor at the Orlando Sentinel and now a food writer, publicist and cookbook author, says, "Layer cakes are a thing because they make an impression from the outside in. They rise like the crescendo in a Sunday morning hymn, they are blanketed with icing that comforts and can cover a multitude of baking sins, and they convey status that transcends a ZIP code."

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