The Southern Living Christmas Cake

by Lee Ann “Sunny” Brown 


I am in a state of panic! I can’t believe the season is already here. I don’t believe those people who say it has been happening like this every year since we began keeping time. This year really has gone by faster. It must  have something to do with global warming. Anyway, I am panicked because it’s almost time to make the Southern Living Christmas cake, and I haven’t even started on all of my other Christmas obligations yet.

Several years ago, as a special mother/daughter bonding experience, my daughter and I decided that we would make the Christmas cake that is on the cover of the Southern Living magazine. Without any warning, a tradition was born. This cake is a serious undertaking. Not something left to the once-a-year home cook. But, you know, we will do anything, and go to any lengths, to stay in bondage to our children. I mean, how hard could it be, right? They give you all the directions right there.

The first Southern Living “I’ll See this Cake Done Before I Am” Cake that we made was the “Gift Box” cake. It was a three-tiered white cake wrapped with a sparkly red ribbon and big bow on top with gingerbread man cookies decorating the sides. It would be a picture-perfect centerpiece.

My daughter insisted that the cake look exactly as it looks on the cover. Since we wanted this to eat for Christmas Day lunch, I decided that we should make it the day before Christmas Eve. That would give us two days—plenty of time. We opened the magazine, found the recipe, and wrote down all the ingredients we needed.

We went to the grocery store to get what wasn’t in the pantry. As the hours went by, we were finding what we needed until it came to edible glitter. They just didn’t have it. Undeterred, we decided to stop by one of the other grocery stores on the way home. We stopped at three more stores to find edible glitter, to no avail. We couldn’t find it anywhere. Without it, the cake wouldn’t sparkle like the picture. Edible glitter almost ruined our Christmas. In a moment of brief clarity, the spirit of the holidays enlightened me. I cast off the burden by calling my husband and threatening to go all holiday crazy on him if he didn’t find it. Voila, I felt so much better.

Once home, we set up all the ingredients and two days after Christmas we had a beautiful cake ready to eat. Well, it was still Christmas break. And it sparkled. My husband and son loved it, my daughter ate a tiny bite, and I never wanted to see it again.

The next November rolled around and we saw the cake on the cover of Southern Living. My daughter reminded me that we “always” did that, so…. I think that was the year of the cake with the angels around it. I can’t remember, they all run together now.

I naively thought that maybe we wouldn’t be so angry (I mean harried) if we made the cake in November instead of December. But that year’s cake had so many parts to it that it was like building a house. I actually think they built a new house across the street from the ground up in the same amount of time it took us to make that cake.

The Masterpiece-Looking exhausted after the month it took us to construct it!

The Masterpiece-Looking exhausted after the month it took us to construct it!

That particular cake had these darling little “pecans” for a garnish. It’s the garnish that will choke the joy from you every time. You had to get whole, shelled pecans, take some pie dough and wrap partly around the pecans, then brush with a glaze, and bake, to make them look like pecans. The real things would have just been too plain. The whole thing took a good day. There was also a pile of “leaves” adorning the cake. And, as you know by now, they weren’t real leaves. The real ones can’t measure up to the pretend. Besides, they aren’t edible. You had to take cookie dough and cut out leaves, then roll up 300 pieces of aluminum foil in various sizes, drape the dough leaves over the foil balls so that they are “3D” leaves (not flat leaves!), brush with a glaze, and bake. That took another week. The cake was finished in time for Christmas, so it worked out. The only thing was that it was so damn heavy I couldn’t carry it to the table. It also had to be refrigerated. It took up too much room in the already packed kitchen refrigerator so everybody came down to the basement to look at it in the downstairs fridge. We served it there and ate it on the ping-pong table.

My personal favorite has been the Chocolate Gingerbread Toffee Cake. In fact, we made that one the last two years in a row, because I love it so much (and because I forgot about it the first year we made it.) It got left in the basement refrigerator and totally forgotten about for two days. I wept when we found it. My daughter did, too. So we made it again last year.

In the event that this story of pure holiday joy has inspired you to begin your own tradition of making the Southern Living Christmas cake, I have some lessons learned that I am willing to pass along as my gift.

First: Begin saving up your cake baking budget at least six months prior to starting on the cake.

Second: Start getting plenty of rest and mentally preparing for the experience. Since the cake photo will not come out until Dec. 1, you will only have 25 days to make it. You will be in a cake baking frenzy, a haze, an alternate life, until it is done. I advise you to cancel all other holiday commitments until you are finished.

Third: Make room in your refrigerator for the designated cake. Don’t worry about making room in your pantry for all the leftover ingredients—you will never use them again.

Fourth: If you are making any of these cakes, you will have to have everyone over to your house for the holiday meal. I have not found them to be transportable.

And I have a piece of advice for Southern Living, too: I think the Christmas cake issue should come wrapped in a brown paper cover.

Leave a Reply