If you were reared south of the Mason Dixon line, you’ve more than likely heard of the soda-pop cake. What type of soda that cake is made from depends heavily on what part of the South you happen to be located in. If you hail from the mountains of North Carolina, you’ve probably enjoyed a two-tier made of Cheerwine more than once in your life. As a native San Antonian, your grandma might have whipped up a Big Red cake for your birthday. Every region has a version, with the universal pièce de résistance being the Coca-Cola cake.
Soda cakes are as much a Southern comfort food as a giant piece of fried chicken served on a side porch with a tall glass of iced tea. The soda cake’s history dates back to World War II, when rationed sugar was scarce and the easiest way to sweeten a baked good was by using the stuff most readily available. Some conspiracy theorists have a more sinister idea: that soda cakes were conjured up by the Coca-Cola Company as a way to further saturate an already saturated market. Not a hard concept to swallow seeing as Coca-Cola itself didn’t have any trouble getting its hands on ample supplies of sugar during those desperate times.
I personally started baking the Dr Pepper version in 1999 after seeing the recipe in a cookbook called A Gracious Plenty by John T. Edge. Even though it wasn’t an old family recipe, I only had to read the ingredients to feel like I was home again. There was something about the kitsch of the name that made me want to become known as “the chick who makes the Dr Pepper cake.” It was Thanksgiving of that year that I first created one for an office potluck, and it was hands-down the winner of the day. A Gracious Plenty became my culinary bible for all things Southern.
The book’s author is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi; he has a less complicated theory about soda cakes. “Using soda in baking is a playful way to use what’s at hand,” laughs Edge. “In the South, a Coke was always at hand. In Texas, Dr Pepper was always at hand.” He attributes the cakes’ longevity and popularity to good old Southern
ingenuity. “Using local ingredients doesn’t always mean that it has to be something grown in the ground.” Too true, too true.
Cheryl Holmes of Abilene, Texas, started making her 7Up cake when she was pregnant with her first son, James, some 38 years ago. “A friend from Brownwood gave me the recipe on a hand-typed card, and it just kinda stuck,” remembers Holmes. Years later, when James went on to attend Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, his Yankee classmates would quiz him on his favorite dessert, and when the 7Up cake was mentioned, he always got a resounding, “Ewwwwww.” Even though soda pop in a cake might be an acquired taste, the goodness of one that is well-made is undeniable. “My boys grew up always `wanting` me to bake one,” Cheryl says. “The cake has a lot of hold to it and ships well, so even when they were away at school, I’d send some off as a surprise.”
Those who didn’t grow up enjoying these treats from the past still find them tasty, comforting, and most of all, fun. For me, the idea of baking my favorite soda into a cake conjures a joy only the memories of my Easy-Bake Oven can match. (Hey, come to think if it, does Diet Dr Pepper work?) Though I often find the actual soda flavor in these cakes to be vague, the added sweetness and the nostalgia it evokes are enough to make them a hit at your next get-together. Be it made from Coca-Cola, Royal Crown, or an
Orange Crush, nothing screams I’M SOUTHERN like a big ol’ soda cake for the holidays. •
Dr Pepper Chocolate Cake
Excerpted in A Gracious Plenty by John T. Edge, from the cookbook A Taste of South Carolina.
4 c flour
½ c cocoa powder
3 t cinnamon
1 t salt
2 t baking soda
4 c sugar
1 lb. unsalted butter
2 c Dr Pepper
1 c buttermilk
4 t vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two tube pans. In a large bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, and sugar. Heat the butter and Dr Pepper in a large saucepan until the butter melts. Add the eggs, buttermilk, and vanilla; mix well. Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and beat until smooth. The batter will be very thin. Pour into pans and bake for 60 minutes. Frost with Dr Pepper icing. Yield: 2 Tube-pan cakes
Dr Pepper Icing
1 stick (¼ lb.) unsalted butter
½ c Dr Pepper
6 T cocoa powder
1 c chopped pecans
2 t vanilla
2 lbs. confectioners’ sugar
Heat the butter and Dr Pepper together; do not boil. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
From Cheryl Holmes’ type-written recipe.
2 sticks oleo (That’s butter or margarine to you young’uns.)
½ c Crisco
3 c sugar
3 c flour
1 c 7Up
1 t vanilla
½ t salt
Cream Crisco, oleo, and sugar. Add eggs one at a time. Add flour and rest of ingredients. Mix. Bake in tube pan at 325 for 1 ½ hours. Yield: 1 Tube-pan cake.