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We see a steady stream of baked goods come through this office. There’s a table in the art room where we plop everything from leftover brownies from weekend gatherings to Swedish cookies our Scandinavian-born staffer totes back from overseas. Then there’s the leftovers from photo shoots and the goods that various people drop off as thank notes for recent articles. While we’re always always grateful for our mid-afternoon (and sometimes mid-morning) sugar fix, we recognize a standout batch of cookies or cake when we taste them. 

A couple weeks ago, managing editor Lauren Brooks Johnson raised the bar. She baked a cake for a fellow staffer’s birthday, choosing this Italian Cream Cake recipe in part because the birthday girl doesn’t like chocolate. 

I tell you, this was the kind of cake that made conversation quiet and birthday revelry pause. I didn’t believe it was this good until I tasted it myself. But Sweet Monday, it was heaven—and I'm not even a crave-sweets gal. I think I went weak in the knees, the way you feel faint on a really good first date or when you spot the right dress. A non-staffer, who happened to wander by and sneak a bite, immediately conducted a full search of the office, hunting down the baker so he could thank her in person.

In short, this cake seemed too good not to share. Lauren has tweaked the original recipe to suit her tastes, and we can all attest she's as good an editor in the kitchen as she is here at work.

P.S. I say serve it to out-of-towners as a way of showing off our Southern pecans. 

Italian Cream Cake
adapted from the Junior League of Hampton Roads Cookbook, My Mama Made That.

“My mom lived by—and helped publish—cookbooks from the Hampton Roads Junior League, located in the Tidewater area of Virginia where I grew up. She was also more of a cook than a baker, but I’ve since found that I love baking, especially cakes. When I
got married, I discovered that my husband's family often had birthday cakes just out of a box (gasp!).
So I offered to make each birthday person a home-baked cake of their choice from then on, and now I regularly turn out strawberry shortcake, lemon cake, carrot cake, chocolate stout cake, and more throughout the year. As for this Italian Cream Cake, it’s a variation of one I found in the Hampton Roads cookbook, with my adjustments to the amounts of ingredients like vanilla and coconut.” —Lauren Brooks Johnson, Charleston magazine managing editor 

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
2 cups sugar
5 egg yolks
1 cup buttermilk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup shredded coconut
5 eggs whites, stiffly beaten

Pecan Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 16 oz. box (around 2 ½ cups) confectioner's sugar
2/3 cup pecans, chopped and toasted (or more, to taste)

1/2 cup pecans halves 1 Tbs. corn syrup

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Trace the bottom of a round, nine-inch cake pan onto parchment paper. Cut and repeat to make two, one for each cake pan. Place in bottom of the pans and grease with butter or shortening.

In a medium bowl, sift the flour and the baking soda together. In a separate large mixing bowl, cream the butter and shortening until light. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the egg yolks and beat until smooth and well-combined. Add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla and coconut. Gently fold in the egg whites.

Pour batter into the parchment lined cake pans. Bake for 60-65 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 15 minutes. Invert onto wire racks to cool completely.

To prepare the frosting, beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla in a mixing bowl until smooth and creamy. Add the confectioners' sugar and beat until smooth. Stir in the chopped pecans.
To assemble, spread the frosting between the layers and over the top and side of the cake.

Combine pecan halves and corn syrup in a small bowl, tossing to coat. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake in a 350º F oven for eight minutes. Arrange on top of cake.

Lauren’s Tips:
* I like to divide the batter among three cake pans rather than two (in this case, I use eight-inch cake pans, rather than nine). Just cut back the baking time to around 25-30 minutes.

* Beat the cream cheese mixture and the confectioner’s sugar well, until it becomes really creamy. This will appear visibly lighter when ready.

* Cake layers can be made one day ahead of time and refrigerated. Ice before serving.

(Cake photo by Ann Catherine Campbell; Lauren's photo by Kelly Bozard)