I baked this cake for Dolly Parton’s birthday.
I know what you’re thinking.
No, I don’t actually know Dolly Parton and, you’re right, her birthday isn’t until January. But the guys over at Baked have a new book out and, to promote it, they’re holding a contest with one simple rule: “Bake your version of the ultimate cake for Dolly Parton’s birthday.”
So here it is.
The truth is, I didn’t really know much about Dolly Parton before I decided to enter this contest, but a little sleuthing (i.e., a quick Google search) told me that she has a weakness for potatoes. I thought about making a cake with plain old russets, but decided to go with sweet potatoes instead because, even though this is a cake for Dolly, I’m the one eating it and sweet potatoes seemed a little more appealing.
Also, did you know North Carolina is the number one producer of sweet potatoes in the United States?
I wanted to make Dolly’s birthday cake a true Southern showpiece and, ultimately, sweet potatoes just made more sense than spuds more closely associated with places like Idaho and Ireland.
This cake is a riff on Lady Baltimore Cake, a Southern classic (despite the name, the cake probably originated in Charleston, S.C.) with a filling of dried fruit and nuts. My version, the Sweet Potato Lady Cake, is a moist-but-sturdy three layer cake with a cranberry and pecan filling and swirls of billowy, white frosting. The springy layers taste faintly of sweet potatoes and warm, fall spices.
My layers came out a little bumpy. You can avoid this by carefully folding in the egg whites and smoothing your batter out neatly when you pour it into each pan.
The frosting here is a basic Italian meringue. It’s easy to make but does require a candy thermometer. I used to think that any recipe that called for a thermometer was too fussy to bother with, but eventually I saw the light. This three-ingredient frosting (four, if you count water) whips up quickly and is fairly foolproof, so don’t let the need for a thermometer throw you off.
Plus, did I mention it tastes like marshmallows?
This is a pretty cake, full of autumnal flavors and — although the recipe is fairly lengthy — not complicated to make. It would be a great addition to a holiday table, especially if you’re not particularly fond of pie or sugary, sweet-potato side dishes. It also makes for a lovely and unusual birthday cake, whether you’re celebrating with someone you actually know or, like me, you just wanted an excuse to bake a cake.
The cake layers here are lightly adapted from the book "Sky High, Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes." The main changes I made were to cut back on the sugar and add a bit of salt to the batter. The original recipe calls for buttering the cake pans, then lining the with parchment and buttering the parchment. I skipped the parchment, but if you don't trust your cake pans you might prefer to play it safe and line them.
The frosting is a classic Italian Meringue, I use a ratio of 1 part egg whites to 2 parts sugar, by weight, but I added volume measurements here for those of you without scales.
This cake is definitely at its best the day that it is made. After 24 hours or so the layers start soaking up moisture from the filling and become significantly more dense. The frosting also begins to deflate. Having said that, leftovers will keep, covered, for a couple of days at room temperature. We've been eating them quite happily.
- 1 large sweet potato (about 12 ounces)
- 3 cups cake flour
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 5 large eggs, separated
- 2 cups sugar, divided
- 1 stick plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups milk (I used a mixture of skim and whole, because that's what I had around)
- 1 cup dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup pecans, toasted and roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons orange juice or bourbon
- 5 egg whites (about 6 ounces)
- 1 2/3 cup sugar (about 12 ounces)
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- water, as needed
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Pierce the sweet potato in several places and bake on a foil or parchment lined baking sheet until very soft, about one hour. When the sweet potato is cool enough to handle, peel it and remove any dark spots. Puree in a food processor until smooth, then measure out 1 cup of the sweet potato puree and set aside.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Butter three 9-inch cake round cake pans and set aside. (If, like me, you only have two round cake pans, you can bake in shifts, reusing one of your pans. It's not ideal, but it works. Make sure the pan is clean and has cooled to room temperature before you reuse it and stash the batter in the refrigerator while waiting for the first layers to come out of the oven.)
In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until frothy, then raise the speed to high and slowly add 1/4 cup of the sugar. Continue beating until until the egg whites are stiff but not dry. Set aside.
In another large bowl, combine the sweet potato puree, butter, vanilla and 1 3/4 cups sugar. Beat until light in color, then beat in the egg yolks one at a time, making sure to stop and scrape down the bowl from time to time.
Reduce the mixer speed to low and add 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then 1/2 of the milk. Repeat until you have none left, ending with the dry ingredients.
Fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the batter. Then gently fold in the rest of the egg whites. You don't want streaks in your batter, but don't overdue it either or you'll end up with a sad and heavy cake.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean and the layers are starting to pull away from the pan slightly. Let the layers cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely, right side up.
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar with just enough water that it looks like wet sand. Cook over medium heat, without stirring, until a candy thermometer reaches 240 degrees. If sugar crystals begin to form on the sids of the pan, wipe them away with a wet pastry brush.
While the sugar syrup heats up, beat the egg whites using an electric mixer until they form soft peaks.
When the sugar reaches 240 degrees, remove from heat and, with the mixer on low to medium speed, slowly and carefully pour the sugar syrup into the egg whites. Add the vanilla, raise the speed to high and beat unit the meringue is glossy, holds stiff peaks and has cooled to room temperature.
Put the dried cranberries in a small bowl, add the bourbon or orange juice, stir and set aside for at least one hour.
When ready to frost the cake, stir the pecans into the cranberries, then fold about 1/3 of the frosting into the fruit and nut mixture.
Spread 1/2 the filling over one of the cake layers, going almost but not quite to the edge. Top with a second layer and repeat with the remainder of the filling. Place the third layer on top and generously frost the top and sides of the cake with the Italian meringue.
This cake is best the day that it is made. Leftovers will keep for a couple of days, covered, at room temperature, or possibly a little longer in the refrigerator.