The Most Decadent Southern Desserts Throughout History
No one does rich and decadent sweets quite like the people in the southern United States. From gorgeous layered cakes to heavenly pies, southern desserts can satisfy even the most intense sweet tooth. It also doesn’t hurt that many traditional Southern desserts are insanely easy to make; the ingredients are often super simple and accessible.
And like all classic recipes, these sweet treats reflect the rich culture and complicated history of the region.
These desserts’ stories also shed light on the most common food practices through the ages. For example, in 1927, the chiffon cake became a nationwide sensation because it contained an ingredient that wasn’t conventionally used in cakes. Many recipes were also introduced by immigrants and altered over the decades.
The South obviously knows a thing or two about comfort food. Just take a look at popular main dishes of the region. You’ve got barbecue, fried chicken, and casseroles — just to name a few. We can’t forget about the side dishes like collard greens and mashed potatoes, either. The Southern United States is literally comfort food heaven.
And in true Southern fashion, this roundup consists of nothing but cakes and pies. Ready to meet your new favorite dessert? Check out these 11 awesome Southern treats throughout history.
1. Chess Pie
When it comes to classic Southern desserts, chess pie is a must.
Chess pie is a custard-based pie, and it’s extremely sweet and rich. The filling, which is similar to a cheesecake base, is made of basic ingredients. It contains eggs, butter, sugar, and flour. Sometimes, more adventurous dessert chefs add ingredients like chocolate or lemon juice for extra flavor.
The dessert can be traced back multiple centuries.
In fact, the first printed recipe for chess pie was allegedly written in the 1700s! According to Southern folklore, the pies had to be baked with ample amounts of sugar, so they could be stored in a pie chest (instead of a refrigerator). And when said with a Southern drawl, “chest” sounds a lot like “chess” — hence the name.
2. Tarte à la Bouillie
Even if you can’t say the name, you’ll love the taste.
And in the 18th century, French immigrants brought the yummy tarte à la bouillie to Southern Louisiana. Tarte à la bouillie, which translates to “burnt milk tart” is made of a sweet dough and rich custard. The filling is also simple yet divine, much like the custard in Chess pie.
It calls for everyday staples.
So if you have sugar, milk, eggs, and vanilla extract you can create your own version of this dessert. Some home bakers like to add a lattice, fruit, or even mint on top of their creamy custard pies. Oh, and if you’re left with extra sweet dough? Make cookies, of course.
3. Lane Cake
It has a simple name, but it’s anything but boring.
Lane cake, also called Alabama lane cake, has its roots in — you guessed it — Alabama. In the 19th century, a Clayton, AL, woman named Emma Rylander Lane created the cake. She published the recipe in her 1898 cookbook, Some Good Things to Eat. At the time, Lane called it “prize cake.”
And she wasn’t exaggerating.
In fact, lane cake was so popular, Harper Lee mentioned it in her award-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Made of white sponge cake layers, the Alabama delicacy is suitably stuffed with a rich filling of butter, egg yolks, raisins, sugar, and whiskey. Some variations might use brandy or bourbon instead of whiskey.
4. Lemon Icebox Pie
If you love a little citrus tang in your desserts, this is the treat for you.
Also known as lemon icebox cake, this tangy dessert is the epitome of classic Southern goodness. People called it an “ice box” pie because of the way it was traditionally made and stored. Basically, before electric refrigerators became a standard home appliance, people used iceboxes to store perishable foods in the summer. Accordingly, easy no-bake pies like this one were left to solidify in coolers especially in the warmer months. This lemon version typically includes luscious ingredients like egg yolks, condensed milk, and lemon juice.
5. Banana Pudding
We know you know this one.
But do you know its origins? Banana pudding is popular throughout the entire country, but Southerners have a special fondness for it. The dish is made of vanilla wafers, sliced bananas, and custard. And while it’s easy to think Nabisco was the mastermind behind this iconic dessert, home cooks actually deserve the credit.
Up until the late 1800s, though, it was rare to find bananas in the States.
But thanks to the advancement of steamships and trade, Americans were able to enjoy more imported bananas. And by the 1880s, banana pudding with sponge cake was a popular dessert. Eventually, folks started to make no-bake versions of the pudding with vanilla wafers instead of sponge cake, and Nabisco decided to print the recipe on their boxes. The rest, as they say, is history.
6. Chiffon Cake
A Los Angeles insurance agent-turned-baker created this sweet.
Harry Baker was the baker in question. The year was 1927, and the chiffon cake was the first of its kind. Whereas traditional cakes used shortening or butter, this version used vegetable oil instead. The egg whites were also separated from the egg yolks and beaten on their own.
Baker produced a moist and airy cake the country went crazy for. He kept the recipe a secret for two decades. But in the late 1940s, he agreed to sell it to General Mills. The cake became a signature Southern dessert, and it often comes in flavors like lemon, orange, and coconut.
7. Coca-Cola Cake
Coca-Cola cake has been a Southern favorite since the 1950s.
After all, Coca-Cola is a Southern invention, and folks in the area know a thing or two about rich desserts. It only makes sense that a cake made of cocoa powder, buttermilk, sugar, and actual Coca-Cola would become a regional favorite.
What does the soda do, though?
It’s actually an imperative item. The Coca-Cola’s carbonation makes the batter insanely airy and fluffy. And here’s a fun fact; folks in the deepest Southern states absolutely love Coca-Cola so much that they refer to all types of soda as “coke.”
8. German Chocolate Cake
Despite its name, German chocolate cake hails from… Texas.
According to Southern Living, Mrs. George Clay submitted the recipe to the Dallas Morning Star in 1957. One of the ingredients was Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, a product named after its creator, Samuel German.
And the cake is intense.
In true Southern fashion, German chocolate cake features layers of luscious chocolate cake separated by coconut-pecan filling. The cake can be left “naked” or coated with chocolate frosting or more coconut-pecan filling. Either way, you can be sure that it will taste amazing.
9. Tunnel of Fudge Cake
A Tunnel of Fudge cake is just that.
It’s a tunnel of nutty chocolate cake filled with gooey fudge. Typically, walnuts or pecans are used. The cake is also baked in a bundt pan to create that tunnel-like shape. And while some bakers top their creations off with a sprinkle of powdered sugar, others use a simple chocolate glaze.
The mouthwatering dessert was invented in Texas.
Mrs. Ella Rita Helfrich, a homemaker in Houston, TX, created the chocolatey treat. It also won her second place in Pillsbury’s 1966 Bake-Off competition. The first place winner was quickly forgotten, but the Tunnel of Fudge cake is one of the most popular Pillsbury recipes. In fact, Helfrich is credited for the popularity of the bundt cake pan.
10. Mississippi Mud Pie
We don’t know the exact history of this one.
But while the complete origins of Mississippi mud pie aren’t clear, one thing is for sure: It’s a staple in Southern cuisine. The treat is usually made of layers of chocolate cake, marshmallows, pudding, and sometimes ice cream. Marshmallows, pecans, and chocolate frosting are often used as toppings, but there have been many different versions over the years.
And why the slightly unappetizing name?
The Mississippi dessert is named after the muddy waters of the Mississippi River. Sometimes, the layers are placed in a cookie crust, creating an even tastier variation. When that happens, it’s called “Mississippi mud cake” or “chocolate lasagna.”
11. Hummingbird Cake
This cake is almost as whimsical as it sounds.
In 1978, Southern Living published the first-ever recipe for the hummingbird cake. And while Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, NC, submitted the recipe, the cake actually originated in Jamaica. In fact, the lush treat is named after Jamaica’s national bird, the hummingbird.
Hummingbird cake is a multi-layered creation.
Each sheet features spiced bananas and pineapples with pecans. It’s also covered in cream cheese frosting and topped with even more pecans. Some versions use a bundt cake pan, but others get super creative and incorporate the same ingredients into pancakes. We’ll take five, please.