Sunday, July 15, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: South Carolina III - Good Morning, Baltimore, er, Charleston?

In one of the most well-worn cookbooks on my bookshelf, John Shields lists many of the desserts you will find in the Chesapeake, from Hot Milk Cake to Chess Pie.  And there's one glaring addition to Chesapeake Bay Cooking [1998] that should catch the eye of anyone living within five miles of Fort McHenry: the Lady Baltimore Cake itself.

Official Name: State of South Carolina
State Nicknames: The Palmetto State
Admission to the US: May 23, 1788 (#8)
Capital: Columbia (largest)
Other Important Cities: Charleston (2nd largest), North Charleston (3rd largest), Greenville (6th largest)
Region: South, Southeast, Lowcountry; South Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT NationsChestnutCrabcake
Bordered by: North Carolina (north), Georgia (southwest), Atlantic Ocean (southeast)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: boiled peanuts (snack food), collard greens (vegetable), grits (food - okay, this is unofficial), milk (beverage), peach (fruit), rockfish / striped bass (fish), summer / wood duck (duck), white-tailed deer (animal), wild turkey (wild game bird)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Southern foods, particularly Lowcountry foods in the southern / eastern half of the state (especially purloo, Gullah cuisine); seafood (shrimp, crabs, typically boiled or in soups); Lady Baltimore cake; different types of barbecue, including its unique mustard barbecue (between Columbia and Charleston)

Shields notes that Lady Baltimore Cake is

...famous throughout the South...[and] is said to have originated as a centerpiece for afternoon teas in the late 1800's.  The ladies I've spoken to lately don't hold many teas, but they swear by this cake for first communions, bridal showers, and your more "upper crust" Tupperware parties. [Shields 1998:238]
While I admire Shields for trying to claim Lady Baltimore cake for the home team, and wished he were successful at it, the thing is: it isn't a Baltimore tradition.  In fact, I have never seen it served in Baltimore at all (maybe other parts of Maryland, but not here).  There's a simple explanation for this: Lady Baltimore cake comes from Charleston, South Carolina.  James Villas, author of The Glory of Southern Cooking, says the following about this almond-y cake with the meringue frosting and fruity filling:
What is for sure is that [Lady Baltimore cake] is in no way connected with the city of Baltimore but, rather, with Owen Wister's 1906 romantic novel Lady Baltimore, in which the cake is described.  In reality, the luscious cake was most probably created in Charleston, South Carolina, by Alicia Rhett Mayberry around the turn of the twentieth century and not named till after Wister's novel was published.  Some, on the other hand, believe it could have originated in a Charleston tearoom of the time called Lady Baltimore.  Whatever its origins, the cake's fame spread quickly throughout the South, and today the versions are multiple. [Villas 2007: 352; link added by me]
James Villas has more than a few recipes from Maryland in this cookbook, but his Lady Baltimore cake is not one of them.  Simply put: it ain't from Bawlmer, hon.  But don't you wish it was?

Out of the various recipes I found, including John Shields' and a fairly complicated one from Matt & Ted Lee in their cookbook The Lee Bros. Southern Cooking, I stuck with Villas' version, featured on pages 352 and 353 of his cookbook.  It's less complicated but still will take a while.  And you will need both a stand mixer and a hand mixer - or failing that, a hand mixer and a lot of patience.

The Recipe: Lady Baltimore Cake

For Villas' interpretation of Lady Baltimore cake you will need:

First, the recipe for the actual cake part of the cake:

* butter (had it - about a stick and a half)
* sugar (had it)
* vanilla and almond extracts (had 'em both)
* cake (or soft) flour (White Lily worked well with this)
* baking powder (had this too)
* milk (and this)
* egg whites (I needed to buy extra eggs for this, and I'm glad I did after that little accident with the egg yolks getting into the egg whites)

For the icing, a double boiler, Divinity-style icing:

* more egg whites
* water
* sugar
* cream of tartar
* vanilla and almond extracts
* figs (the recipe calls for seedless.  I did not get these.  I bought a dollar's worth of figs in the bulk foods section at Wegman's - typically $6 a pound)
* pecans (it's so nice to find this stuff in bulk - $1.50 for bulk pecans at Wegman's, typically $19 per lb but I didn't need a whole pound of them)
* golden raisins (again, bulk, Wegman's: about 50¢ for the quantity I bought, $3.30 per lb.)

Start by buttering ypour cake pans - I had two 8" pans, though Villas suggests 9" ones.

With your stand mixer, not your hand mixer, cream the butter and some of the sugar together (exact measurements in Villas' recipe).

Next add the vanilla and almond extracts and continue to blend.

Next, alternate by adding sifted cake flour and baking soda...

...and milk.

Mix until smooth and set aside.  If you only have one bowl with your stand mixer, scrape out the batter into a bowl and clean it out so you can whip your...

...egg whites!  You will need four.

Mix those egg whites (the highest setting on mine was what I needed to use) until stiff peaks form.

Add sugar and continue to mix until smooth and shiny.

See?  Stiff and shiny.  Er...

Fold the sugary egg whites into the rest of the dough.

Divide the dough evenly into your cake pans...

...making sure to thump them on the bottom to get rid of gas bubbles.

Bake in a preheated 350° oven for about 40 minutes.

Now would be a good time to make that icing.  Start with a double boiler - I went with one of the stand mixer bowls in a glass pot.  Put the egg whites, water, sugar and cream of tartar.into the double boiler and...

...mix with your hand mixer on a fairly high setting (I alternated between the "icing" and "egg whites' settings) until it forms peaks, about five minutes.  Do this while the water is simmering underneath.

Stir in your vanilla extract.

Chop your figs and pecans...

...and mix with a third of the icing.

This part ended up less like icing with fruit and nuts and more like fruit and nuts coated in icing.

Let's take those cakes out of the oven.

Turn them out onto a cooling rack.

Assemble the cake when cooled: put one layer on a flat plate and smooth out the fruity icing.

Place the other cake on top, smoothing out any goopiness as needed.

Ice the top and sides with the fruit-free icing.

How to describe this unusual, delicate and gorgeous cake?  I can't.  It is something for a special occasion, lush almond flavoring in the cake, the fruit and pecans jumping out in the middle, and light whipped Divinity frosting all over.  Wow!  Let's hear it for this Lady Baltimore!

- - - - -

Next, we're heading northwestward from the Lowcountry to the Black Hills.  And it's safe to say that most of the foods of South Dakota are more or less unknown, well, anywhere outside of South Dakota.


Food Network.  "True Grits".  Episode of the show Good Eats (Alton Brown, host). Food Network, 2004.

Dabney, Joseph.  The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking: A Celebration of the Foods, History, and Romance Handed Down from England, Africa, the Caribbean, France, Germany, and Scotland.  Cumberland House: Naperville, Illinois, 2010.

DiRuscio, Mike.  "Transcription of Good Eats: True Grits".  Good Eats Fan Page (, 2004.  Includes correspondence between DiRuscio and Alton Brown about the episode.

Lee, Matt, and Ted Lee. The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners.   W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2006.

Opala, Joseph A.  "Introduction to The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection".  The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection, online version of the pamphlet, United States Information Service: Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1986.  Online access available through the Gilder Lehrman Center, Yale University.

Prather, Ramsey.  "Lowcountry Cuisine: South Carolina's coast is home to one of the country's richest culinary traditions."  Coastal Living (  Date unknown.  Copyright 2012 Time Inc. Lifestyle Group. All Rights Reserved.

Shields, John.  Chesapeake Bay Cooking.  Broadway Books: New York, 1998.

Villas, James.  The Glory of Southern Cooking.  John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, 2007.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "South Carolina" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "South Carolina".