Cake can be sweet or savory, fluffy or dense, dry or moist. It's a romantic culinary creation that dates back to 13th century Egypt, when cake was more like bread, sweetened with sugar or honey. It was not until the mid-19th century that the French introduced the dessert course with the gateau, and thus our love began. Cakes have been a symbol of celebration for centuries. There is something about this old-fashioned dessert, a measured combination of sugar, flour, and eggs, that brings back childhood memories of sweet happiness.
With nods from The New York Times and Bon Appétit, Peninsula Grill's Ultimate Coconut Cake is Charleston's own little celebrity. Based on Chef Robert Carter's grandmother's recipe and stacked as tall as the Empire State Building, this cake is the stuff of legends. We thought it didn't get much better than that until recently, when we found the city is full of new sweethearts, yet to be discovered.
Lady Baltimore Cupcake
Downtown. 59 Cannon St.
When talking about Southern roots, there's nothing as "old Charleston" as the Lady Baltimore. Inspired by the early 1900s' fictional creation of romance novelist Owen Wister, the ladies of Charleston's Lady Baltimore Tea Room developed this cake from a Queen Cake recipe. "It is romantic, but not too frou-frou," say Sugar's Bill Bowick. "It is unique, yet old-fashioned with its simple flavors." Sugar has been years in the making, and Bowick has been developing his Lady Baltimore recipe for just as long. Egg whites, almond, vanilla, and simple syrup make an airy, fluffy cupcake version of this classic. Bowick removes the cupcake tops, adds a dried fruit mixture, and tops it all with a seven minute frosting. The end result is the perfect juxtaposition of light and decadent. With its small size and fruit filling, breaking a New Year's resolution with this little bite of Charleston history is easy.
Red Velvet Cake
Mt. Pleasant. 125 Pitt St.
The Red Velvet Cake, although not indigenous to the South, is a Southern tradition and the Village Bakery's version is exceptional. "Cake is comforting," says Executive Pastry Chef Steve Twyman, who uses buttermilk and vinegar in his recipe to produce an incredibly moist cake. Tangy cream cheese frosting is this cake's crowning jewel and balances its sweetness to perfection. Twyman was schooled in England before coming to the U.S. on a work visa, but a human resources error landed him here without a job. Lucky for the Village Bakery, he stuck around. Aside from baking 24 to 30 cakes a week for Village Bakery's sister restaurants (Mustard Seed, Sette VII, Long Point Grill, etc.), Twyman makes an additional 30-35 cakes per week for private orders. Featuring an extensive menu with favorites like coconut, hummingbird, and chocolate peanut butter, the Village Bakery is nirvana for sugarholics.
Hot Butter Rum
Red Drum Gastropub
Mt. Pleasant. 803 Coleman Blvd.
There is something about hot-buttered rum that evokes visions of a warm fire, wooly socks, and a cup of something rich. Red Drum's Executive Pastry Chef Lauren Mitterer creates that cup of richness with her version of hot butter rum. Although Mitterer likes to keep this recipe a secret, the rich combination of flour, sugar, vanilla, and lots of butter that compose the toffee pecan cake is hard to miss. Served in a pool of butter rum sauce and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it's no surprise this dessert has gotten some attention. "The love of cake is instilled in us early," Mitterer says. "How can butter, sugar, and flour not make you happy?"
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
Virginia's on King
Downtown. 412 King St.
Although the pineapple upside-down cake is an American classic, the history of this cake is not entirely certain. For Virginia's Executive Pastry Chef Richard Farr, this cake was a family tradition. "Cake is sensual. It is romantic," says Farr. Although Virginia's has only been open a month and a half, the pineapple upside-down cake, which takes two hours to make, is a customer favorite. A crème caramel base and dried pineapple combined with a traditional sour cream pound cake recipe make Farr's version unique. "I tested the recipe at least 10 times before I was satisfied," he says. "The cake is best served at room temperature because it changes the consistency," he says. Topped with chantilly cream and a maraschino cherry, it is a delicious version of the classic.
Downtown. 60 Calhoun St.
Chocolate cake defines shameless decadence with its luscious taste and dark appearance. Kevin Jordan of Kennedy's Market may not be a trained baker, but he sure knows how to make one sinful piece of cake. After years of practice, Jordan has created a chocolate cake that in one bite constitutes pure ecstasy. "We make everything from scratch," says Jordan. "We sell the mini cakes as quickly as we make them." No wonder. This slice of bliss is blanketed with layers of chocolate ganache, chocolate buttercream, and another layer of ganache. If you're interested in how these cakes are born, Carolina Food Pro foodie tours make regular stops at Kennedy's, so you can see the master at work.