Who knew Googling "tipsy cake" would yield hundreds of pictures and thousands of recipes? Certainly not me until I recently did it. If you add "trifle" to the search - and after all, a tipsy cake is the Southern cousin of an English trifle - you'll have even more hits, but none remotely similar to my grandmother's Tipsy Cake (capital letters de rigueure for this perennial family favorite). Her recipe was an original - and perhaps a regional favorite although I wouldn't know for certain because I've never had Tipsy Cake any other way and I've never lived anywhere else.

My Hackney grandparents loved Tipsy Cake and the proof was it was served - and ooohhed and ahhhed over - at every Thanksgiving and Christmas meal. It didn't look exactly like the picture above, but there was a close resemblance. Today a non-Wilsonian might call it a trifle and serve it in a clear (trifle) bowl, but at their house it was always Tipsy Cake. My grandmother served it in a heavy, tan, clay bowl - not as fancy as a crystal serving piece but nicer than a mixing bowl - with a mountain of unembellished snowy-white whipped cream piled high. It looks simple (although it's not so simple to make) and it was loved by all the adults at the dining room table and grandchildren with an adolescent taste for spirits sitting at the near-by card table. Plates would be served with a large scooped out mixture of cake, almonds, custard and whipped cream with flavored whipped cream generously dolloped on top. Once everyone was full of the boozy confection, it wasn't long before hearing the "law-have-mercies" followed by "that dessert was so full of scuppernog wine, I feel tipsy mah-self!" Perhaps the champagne and cocktails served earlier were conveniently forgotten.

After my grandmother passed away, Tipsy Cake disappeared from our family holiday meals but once my father turned 81, he became very sentimental and decided it was time to make it again. Memories of his family, holiday meals together and their collective love of a favorite food were all the encouragement he needed to re-start his mother's labor-intensive tradition. To see my father - the big, ex-football playing, kitchen-averse, man's-man - fussing over a dessert was a humorous study in contrasts but he was serious about getting his mother's recipe exactly right - or as right as he could possibly make it.

In the fall, he would spend weeks asking different friends if they had any homemade scuppernong wine they could spare. A few days before he would put it all together, he'd sneak over to the Piggly Wiggly to buy sponge cakes to hide the fact that he couldn't make them from scratch. To atone for the sin of store-bought cakes, an entire afternoon was spent blanching almonds to produce perfect creamy-white orbs. I didn't have the heart to tell him they could be purchased from Whole Foods skinless and ready to go. Finally he'd make custard (from a box mix) and only then was he was ready to put it all together in a bowl that was as similar as he could find to the one his mother used all those decades ago. And for the topping, he'd flavor Cool Whip with brandy ignoring the fact his mother only used freshly whipped cream prepared just before serving the dessert.

I never cared for Tipsy Cake - the wine and brandy flavors overwhelm the cake for my liking - but Dad would slowly savor every bite and serve the leftovers after every meal until the entire bowl was gone. Many of my Hackney and Brame cousins still talk about that Tipsy Cake and how much they love it just as my father did. I prefer a simple trifle - with fruit or chocolate - but that's heresy in my Tipsy-Cake-lovin' family. For you Southerners who may want this old fashioned dessert, below is my grandmother's original recipe if you want to make it from scratch. However, it's 2017 and there's already plenty to do with Amazon shopping, present wrapping and turkey and dressing prep so "Pig" sponge cakes, custard from a box mix and Cool Whip shortcuts are acceptable during busy holidays - and the end result (according to my father) is just as delicious and will make you as happy, satisfied and..... well......ummmm....just as tipsy as the original.

Mary Hunter Hackney's Tipsy Cake Recipe

What you'll need:

Sponge cakes (see recipe below)

2/3 cup of homemade scuppernong wine (or Sherry)

1/4 - 1/2 cup almonds - blanched and without skins (don't skimp on almonds - more would be fine)

1 quart of custard (see custard recipe below)

1 pint of freshly whipped cream (or more, if needed)

Sponge Cake Recipe:

3 eggs, separated

3 Tablespoons of hot water

1 teaspoon lemon extract

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup of sugar-divided

1 cup of flour

(Store bought sponge cakes can also work fine)

Sift dry ingredients together. Beat egg whites until stiff. Slowly add in 1/2 cup of sugar into the stiffened egg whites. In another bowl, add water and extract to yolks beating until very light and then add remaining 1/2 cup of sugar. Gently mix in flour mixture into yolk mixture and lastly gently fold in beaten egg whites. Pour into 2 prepared pans and bake at 350* until done.

Hunt's Custard for Cake:

1 quart of milk

4-6 eggs

1 cup of sugar


Scald milk and pour over eggs beaten with sugar. If 6 eggs are used no flour is needed but if 4 eggs are used, add 1 Tablespoon of flour to the sugar. Return to double boiler and cook custard until somewhat thickened. Flavor with vanilla.

Note: Scalding milk isn't hard, and although it's not considered necessary these days due to pasteurization, it's a good way to cook custard and here's how it's done: Heat the milk until bubbles appear around the edge of the pan, stirring constantly. Then cool it about 5 minutes before slowly beating it into the eggs. Remember to temper the milk in the eggs so the eggs don't curdle. You can easily Google information on scalding milk and tempering eggs if needed.

Assembling Tipsy Cakes: While cakes are hot sprinkle scuppernong wine over them. Stick almonds in cakes. When cool, put cakes in large bowl and pour custard over them. (Note: I would add whipped cream between the cake layers too, but that makes it more trifle-like and my grandmother's original recipe doesn't include this step.) Top with homemade whipped cream and let stand for a few hours to overnight. Serve with whipped cream flavored with wine or brandy. Flavor whipped cream with 1 Tablespoon of sugar and 2 Tablespoons of brandy.


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