A Vintage Southern Cake, Made Tender with—Wait for It—Jam

There are many excellent ways to enjoy berry jam. Spread it on toast. Slather it on a muffin. Dot your cookie dough with it. Layer it into a tart. Make a cocktail with it. Throw caution to the wind, live wildly, and just eat it with a spoon. Or transform it into a cake!

Photo by Posie Harwood

In this case, the cake in question is a tender spice cake, moist with buttermilk and fragrant with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. The three layers are swathed in a caramel-brown sugar frosting that sets ever so slightly within minutes, crackling pleasantly between your teeth with every bite.

And what about that jam? Swirled into the batter, it tints the cake slightly and sweetens it up. It's very subtle: You'd be hard-pressed to identify the flavor as fruit, but the jam does wonders for the texture of the cake, moistening the crumb beautifully.

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This is an old, classic Southern cake. You'll sometimes find it called Tennessee Jam Cake, sometimes Kentucky Jam Cake, but the concept is the same. I love vintage recipes; there's something romantic about the idea of a beloved dish being passed down through generations. And as a baker, it's comforting to know that the recipe has been tested and tweaked for years, slowly being altered and turned into its most reliable, perfect form.

Photo by Posie Harwood

Decorate this cake any way you like (with beautiful but inedible hydrangea blossoms, as I did here, if you like), but do not skimp on the frosting! Instead of the traditional boiled brown sugar frosting, I like to use a bourbon-spiked version. It adds some intrigue to the cake and helps balance the sweetness of the icing. And you could leave the sides unfrosted, but after one bite of the frosting, you'll want to pile on as much as possible.

What "vintage" recipes do you love? Tell us about them in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Susan Black
    Susan Black
  • Bruce
  • Robyn Johnson
    Robyn Johnson
  • Kristi
  • Beth100
I like warm homemade bread slathered with fresh raw milk butter, ice cream in all seasons, the smell of garlic in olive oil, and sugar snap peas fresh off the vine.


Susan B. November 25, 2016
and i should have added: all the spice cake fans thought it was the best dessert at our thanksgiving!
Susan B. November 25, 2016
sorry for autocorrect... ***layers came out a little flat***
Susan B. November 25, 2016
i made it for Thanksgiving yet, although no my name flat as another commenter noted. would like it to rise more next time i make it. i used a "just fruit" strawberry jam. also, this recipe just made barely enough frosting! i would do 1-1/2 times the recipe next time
Bruce August 21, 2016
Loved seeing this recipe - where I grew up (in KY, 30 mins from the TN line), it was just called Jam Mom always made it with blackberry jam. I mentioned it to a friend in Atlanta years later, who'd never heard of it - seems like southern foods can be as regional as southern accents.
Robyn J. August 21, 2016
Why use inedible flowers ?
It would have looked just as good with violas or violets
Kristi July 25, 2016
Why bother with toxic flowers!?! It's soo easy to miss one, or have a petal or two stay stuck in the frosting. I think it's reckless
Posie (. July 25, 2016
Totally hear you -- you most certainly can simply follow the recipe and frost it, no need for any decoration. Or choose any cake decoration you like, from fancy frosting techniques to cake flags to fresh fruit.
Beth100 July 24, 2016
This looks beautiful and delicious! How is it on the sweetness scale?
Posie (. July 25, 2016
The frosting is pretty sweet but the actual cake is not very sweet at all.
Mindy S. July 24, 2016
I made this cake today....took it to my local organic farm and made some young people VERY happy :) I used apricot and small amt. of blackberry jam. used spelt flour and used homemade kefir since I didn't have buttermilk. Turned out fabulous, however I am thinking maybe using cake flour would give the cake a little more lift. It was kind of heavy and flat. I roasted hazelnuts since I'm in the NW and have some on hand. YUMMMMMM.
PensGirl July 24, 2016
What kind of berry jam do you recommend? Strawberry, raspberry?
Posie (. July 24, 2016
I like raspberry but any kind will work!
PensGirl July 24, 2016
That is exactly what I thought!
Evergreengirl July 24, 2016
This cake looks beautiful - however, the flowers covering it are hydrangeas, which are toxic! Perhaps replace this pic with an image covered with edible flowers?? Borage, violets, cornflowers, all could be added with abandon, and even can be found in this lighter pastel hue.
Posie (. July 24, 2016
Yes, thanks for noting that for everyone! It's true that you can't eat hydrangeas but I do often use them for decoration on cakes and just remove them before eating. Not as practical as edible flowers but they're so lovely. I've eaten many a slice after removing the flowers and survived to tell the tale :)
nancy E. July 28, 2018
Posie, it is your cake you can do as you like. It looks beautiful.