Southern-Style Cola Cakes
For moist, rich, light-as-air baking, just add soda pop
By Jamie Feldmar
AS THE SCHOOL YEAR starts, so, too, begins high season for birthday-party baking, and the search for something novel to plant your candles in. If you grew up in the South, chances are you’re familiar with at least one or two examples from the wide repertoire of cola cakes. I happen to hail from north of the Mason-Dixon, but my dessert-loving Aunt Debbe has made a rich Coca-Cola sheet cake for years, much to the chagrin of any calorie-counting friend or relative who crosses her path. I figured that everyone knew about this exceptionally moist and fluffy breed of baked good—until I found that my Yankee friends stared blankly when I waxed nostalgic about Aunt Debbe’s recipe. “You mean a cake with soda in it?” they asked, eyes wide.
Yes, Virginia, there are many cakes with soda mixed right into the batter. Dennis Hunter, a partner in SemiSweet Bakery in Los Angeles, believes his West Virginia-bred grandmother came up with her 7-Up pound cake during the Great Depression. “Baking soda and baking powder weren’t available, so she figured out that the carbonation in 7-Up could work as a substitute,” he said. Today, Mr. Hunter and partner Sharlena Fong use his grandmother’s recipe, which has a light, lemony flavor and a slightly caramelized sugar crust on top. “People get angry when we don’t have it,” Ms. Fong said.
Lee Gregory, chef and co-owner of the Roosevelt in Richmond, Va., came across many recipes for cola cakes while researching the history of Southern Mid-Atlantic cooking prior to his restaurant’s opening. “We started with a Coke version and ran with it,” he said. Some customers are confused by the name: “They expect it to taste like Coke, but the cola is in there more to help with leavening and moisture.” Iced in chocolate and dotted with marshmallows and pecans, the Roosevelt’s Coca-Cola cake “feels like something you’d have at a family reunion or church supper,” Mr. Gregory said.
Other chefs take a more modern approach. Matt Lewis, co-owner of Baked in Brooklyn, N.Y., sampled his fair share of cola cakes during his college days at the University of Alabama. But for Baked, he wanted to create a Bundt cake that tasted more like a root beer float. “We use an all-natural root beer that has a lot of traditional spicing, and then add root beer schnapps, which has that strong root beer punch,” he said, noting that the alcohol burns off during baking. The result is a refined take on the Southern staple. “Grandma’s cola cake had a lot more cola in it, making it very sweet,” Mr. Lewis said. “Ours is a little more subtle.”
Root Beer Bundt Cake
Make this cake the night before serving to let the flavor intensify. For a more pronounced root beer taste, swap out ½ cup of root beer for root beer schnapps. And whatever you do, do not use a diet root beer.
Total Time: 1¼ hours Makes: One 10-inch Bundt cake
For the cake:
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups flour, plus more for dusting pan
2 cups root beer, preferably a natural brand such as Sprecher or Boylan
1 cup dark cocoa powder
1¼ cups sugar
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
1¼ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
For the frosting:
2 ounces 60% chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup natural root beer
2/3 cup dark cocoa powder
2½ cups confectioners’ sugar
What to Do
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan.
2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat butter, root beer and cocoa powder until butter is completely melted. Add sugars and whisk until dissolved. Remove mixture from heat and set aside to cool.
3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.
4. In a small bowl, whisk eggs until just beaten, then whisk into cooled cocoa mixture until combined. Gently fold flour mixture into chocolate mixture. Do not overbeat. Mixture will be slightly lumpy.
5. Pour mixture into Bundt pan and bake, rotating pan halfway through baking, until a toothpick inserted into cake comes out clean, 35-45 minutes.
6. Remove from oven and let cake cool in pan. Once completely cool, use a knife to gently loosen sides of cake from pan and invert onto a cooling rack.
7. Make frosting: Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse in short bursts until frosting is shiny and smooth. If necessary, thin with 1-2 tablespoons whole milk, pulsing to combine.
8. Use a spatula to spread frosting in a thick layer over top of cake. Let frosting set before serving.
—Adapted from Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, Baked, Brooklyn, N.Y.
7-Up Pound Cake
This lemony cake stays moist for days.
Total Time: 1½ hours Makes: Two 8-by-4-inch loaf cakes
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
Zest from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
7 ounces 7-Up
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting cake
What to Do
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter two 8-by-4-inch loaf pans. Cut two pieces of parchment into 13-by-9-inch rectangles. Cut 2½-inch squares from each corner. Parchment should cover bottoms of pans with four flaps that come up sides.
2. In a large bowl, cream butter with an electric mixer or a stand mixer with paddle attachment. Mix in sugar and beat until combined.
3. Beat in eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition until fully incorporated.
4. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking soda and salt.
5. Add 1 cup flour mixture, lemon zest and juice, vanilla and 3 tablespoons 7-Up to butter mixture and beat until just combined. Continue alternating additions of flour mixture and 7-Up until batter is combined, taking care not to overbeat.
6. Divide batter between loaf pans and bake until golden or a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Remove from oven and let cool completely in pans.
7. Serve at room temperature, dusted with confectioners’ sugar.
—Adapted from Dennis Hunter and Sharlena Fong, SemiSweet Bakery, Los Angeles
The mini marshmallow and pecan garnish is optional, but adds a playful touch.
Total Time: 1¼ hours Makes: One 9-inch cake
For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring the pan
1 cup butter, plus more for buttering the pan
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup Coca-Cola
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
For the frosting:
½ cup butter
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons Coca-Cola
1 vanilla bean, halved and seeds scraped, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups mini marshmallows
1 cup pecans, roughly chopped
What to Do
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans.
2. Sift flour, sugar and baking soda into a large bowl.
3. Melt butter in a small pot over high heat. Add melted butter, Coca-Cola and cocoa powder to flour mixture. Whisk together until just combined.
4. Add buttermilk and eggs, whisking just until smooth.
5. Divide batter between the cake pans and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 25-35 minutes. Let cool in pans 10 minutes, then invert onto cooling racks.
6. Meanwhile, make frosting: Melt butter in a small pot. Remove from heat and pour into a large bowl. Add confectioners’ sugar, cocoa, Coca-Cola and vanilla bean seeds, whisking until smooth. Let frosting cool until slightly stiff, about 10 minutes.
7. Spread a thick layer of frosting on top of one of the cakes. Place remaining cake on top of frosted cake. Cover entire cake with remaining frosting. Top with marshmallows and pecans.
—Adapted from Lee Gregory, the Roosevelt, Richmond, Va.