24 February 2012

50 Woman Game-Changers - Edna Lewis

"Edna Lewis" - oil painting by Elayna Shakur

There is nothing like a beautiful cake and Edna Lewis's Famous Coconut Lane Cake is just that! This cake attests to the rich tradition of Southern cooking and Ms. Lewis's place in preserving it.

This is a cake that is rich with eggs, butter and sugar, coconut, pecans, and chopped raisins - three layers of confection worthy of gracing a table at a garden party with big jugs of iced tea served on the side. I made it to share with friends at a small weekend dinner party. Folks will certainly be 'wowed', don't you think?

Edna Lewis is considered the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking. Her fame at translating traditional southern dishes to restaurant fare is well documented. She was born before the Great Depression in a small Virginia town that had been incorporated by her grandfather and several other freedmen. She moved North to Washington DC and then on to New York City as a young woman, where she worked as a laundress, seamstress, and finally as a part-owner and cook in a Brooklyn-based restaurant- Cafe Nicholson. Her fare became extremely popular with 'transplanted' Southerners the likes of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, plus a large circle from the artist and bohemian culture of the time. 

Cafe Nicholson dinner party in the back garden - photo by Karl Bissinger
reprinted from a New York Times article

As Edna became more well-known within NYC foodie culture, she drew the attention of Craig Claiborne (another Southern boy) and Judith Jones. When Ms. Lewis had the misfortune to break a leg that forced her to leave restaurant cooking for a recuperative period, Judith Jones urged her to use the time to document some of the most traditional and famous of her recipes and The Edna Lewis Cookbook was the product. Three more cookbooks followed over the years, as well as Edna's work with a group of Southern cooks and chefs - The Society for the Preservation and Revitalization of Southern Food was born. She worked in restaurants up and down the Eastern seaboard, gathering foodlore and traditional recipes along the way. Her cookbooks concentrated on traditional southern foods and the history behind the recipes. After years of work in the food industry, she retired to Decatur, Georgia, where she passed away in her sleep in February of 2006. Her recipes and commentary on southern life and history are well documented and her place in the world of food is secure.

Her cake is not for the faint of heart. It is chock-a-block full of butter, sugar, and eggs. The butter and sugar must be whipped with a bit of milk and vanilla until the mixture is smooth. A cake flour and baking powder mixture is then beat in with more milk and vanilla to make a thick batter.

Egg whites, whipped to a soft meringue, are folded in to lighten everything up. The final product is a light and airy sponge batter ... the cake bakes quickly- a mere 25 minutes or so ... and when it's done, three layers cool while a cooked icing is given a brisk whisk over boiling water ( I was afraid to do the egg yolks and sugar over direct heat).

While the egg yolks and sugar cooked up over a hot water bath, I took a minute or two break from whisking to finely chop pecans and golden raisins.  Once the sugar crystals had melted and the egg and sugar mixture was thickened with melted butter (an obscene amount!), the raisins, nuts, and coconut were turned into the thick icing with a hefty shot of bourbon and vanilla. The result - a lumpy sweet concoction! Letting it cool a bit helped with the icing, but it was still a messy affair of getting the icing to cling to the sides of the cake. I ended up slapping it into place and wrapping the cake with waxed paper to hold the icing in place until it cooled enough to firm up and hold itself in place.

Fortification while the icing firmed up ...

What a beautiful result ... Edna Lewis's Famous Coconut Lane Cake

Edna Lewis’s Famous Coconut Lane Cake

 Serves 8 to 10

Cake Ingredients:

16 tbsp. (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
2 c. sugar
3 ½ c. cake flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 c. milk, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
12 large egg whites, whipped to a soft peaks
⅛ tsp. cream of tartar

 Icing Ingredients:

12 egg yolks
1 ½ c. sugar
12 tbsp. butter, melted
1 ½ c. chopped pecans
1 ½ c. unsweetened coconut flakes
1 ½ c. chopped raisins
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
Scant ½ c. Kentucky bourbon

 Making the Cake:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 325° F and butter and flour three 9-inch cake pans. Place a round sheet of parchment paper in the bottom of each pan.
  2. Mix the cake flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and set aside.
  3. Mix the vanilla extract and milk in a measuring cup and set aside.
  4. Beat the sugar and softened butter in a deep mixing bowl until creamy and thick. Add a bit of the milk and vanilla to soften the mixture.
  5. Alternate flour mixture and milk mixture, beating between each addition to make a thick batter.
  6. Separate the eggs and place the egg white in a clean metal bowl with the cream of tartar. Beat with very clean beaters until the meringue forms soft peaks.
  7. Turn ⅓ of the meringue into the thick batter and stir it in to loosen the batter more.
  8. Gently fold the rest of the meringue into the batter – JUST until the meringue is incorporated.
  9. Turn the batter evenly into the three cake pans and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the centers bounce back when touched lightly . You can use a cake tester too for testing doneness.
  10. Let the finished cakes rest for a few minutes. Then, run a knife around the edges and turn them out onto racks for cooling. Gently remove the parchment paper bottoms while the cakes are still warm.
Making the Icing:

  1. Prepare the fruit, nuts, and coconut and stir together in a bowl.  Set aside.
  2. Melt the butter in a measuring cup and have ready beside the stovetop.
  3. Place the egg yolks and sugar in a deep heavy saucepan. Whisk over medium heat until the sugar crystals have dissolved.
  4. When the sugar no longer makes a ‘gritty’ sound against the side of the pan, add the melted butter and whisk briskly until the icing thickens and coats the back of a spoon without dripping off quickly.
  5. Add the fruit and nut mix and stir well. Continue cooking for about a minute. Stir in the bourbon and vanilla extract.
  6. Remove from the heat and cool to a spreading consistency.
  7. When ready to ice, place one layer on a pretty platter and shield the platter with strips of waxed paper. Place ¾ c. of icing between each layer and use the rest of the icing to ice the sides and top of the cake.
  8. Store the cake in a cool place until serving.

Now it's time for you to check in with all my blogging cohorts to see what they have made in honor of Edna Lewis - # 36 on Gourmet's List of 50 Woman Game-Changers!  Head on over to Mary Bergfeld's blog, One Perfect Bite ! Visit the other sites too ... and think about joining us on this blogging journey! It's great fun and has tasty rewards all the way around!


  1. Wow! This cake looks absolutely yummy!

  2. It may not be for the faint of heart but it is definitely a cake that could adorn any celebration and make it better. I am finding Ms. Lewis to be a wonder and am saving everyone's recipes and going through them. You cake is southern-delicious and my world is already better because of it!

  3. This cake is a masterpiece. I'm not the best cake baker so I think I will ask my sister to make this for Easter.

  4. Hi Sue, what a delicious cake! I read Sue's post (The View From Great Island) about Mrs. Lewis earlier today. What a pleasure it was to read about her! I love the biography you gave also, and I'm inspired to read more about this wonderful woman.

    Don't feel bad about the butter, I once baked a cake that used 1.5 lbs of butter - yes, 6 sticks!!! And it was delicious!! LOL!!! I like my friend Susan's suggestion (From Beyond My Kitchen Window) to make this for Easter! Gee lots of references to Susan's in this comment!!! LOL!!

  5. This is one amazing cake Susan. Southern cooking epitomized and and blown out of the water.

  6. You did a super job with this write-up, photos (the one of Cafe Nicholson is fabulous) and recipe, Susan. How could anyone take a look at this cake and not want to make it immediately? Beautiful!

  7. This really looks amazing and I can see why the cake was/is so popular. She was an amazing woman and you picked a great recipe to represent her cooking and style. I am sorry to be so late in my response. I thought I had commented yesterday. You asked about coconut milk. I use unsweetened. Have a great day and enjoy the weekend. Blessings...Mary

    1. Thanks, Mary! I posted later in the day yesterday, so no worries! I'm glad you came back to see this cake though! It's a winner!

  8. Hello -
    I am a filmmaker in Atlanta. I just wanted to let you know I produced a 21 minute documentary about Edna Lewis. The film is called "Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie".
    "Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie" is viewable in its entirety on Internet via my website at


    Just go to 'Watch Now' under the film's title and click on it.

    You can also view it at this Library of Virginia website:


    You can find more information about the film and the story of Miss Lewis

    here: http://www.bbarash.com/film/fried_chicken_sweet_potato_pie.html

    Please let me know if you have any questions.

    Bailey Barash

    1. Thanks for the links! This woman is such a treasure. Like all individuals there are many layers to her personality. I chose to only concentrate on her contributions to cooking and Southern foodways, but her sense of style, her political and social sensibilities, and her quiet dignity in maintaining and living life as she wanted to are certainly inspiring also! Her young friend Mr. Peacock was very lucky to know her!

  9. Susan, this is such a delightful cake! This was actually my first choice for Edna week but since I'd been high on desserts the past week, I decided to go with a non-dessert dish. But, I'm definitely going to try this some time in the future. It sounds like a real treat! Lovely picture walk-through of the whole process! :)

  10. I am not much of a cake eater, but this cake has me drooling!

  11. I was wowed. Definitely. Saw the photo and thought oh my word - nicely done!

  12. Wonderful cake! By the way, are the pies on the side bar there just to make me drool or is there a link to the recipes somewhere. They do look wonderful.

    1. Look in the labels sidebar for recipes for the pies that are pictured ... you can search by ingredient and come up with the posts for them.

  13. I love Edna Lewis' cooking. As a southern cook, I do a classic southern coconut cake in my cookbook as well.


  14. Can't wait to try this version of Lane Cake. Lane Cake is considered the state cake of Alabama. It was created by Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, in the late 1890s.


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