Tipsy cake a Wilson tradition

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This tipsy cake was made by from the Brett family recipe for a story that previously ran in The Wilson Times. Times File Photo
This tipsy cake was made by from the Brett family recipe for a story that previously ran in The Wilson Times. Times File Photo

Who knew Googling “tipsy cake” would yield hundreds of pictures and thousands of recipes? Certainly not me!

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.

Her recipe was an original — and perhaps a regional favorite (assuming you know regional means Wilson) — but I wouldn’t know with certainty because I’ve never had tipsy cake any other way and (true confession) 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 at their home. Today a non-Wilsonian might call it a trifle and serve it in a clear (trifle) bowl, but here it’s 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 perfect mountain of nothing but homemade whipped cream piled high on top. It looks simple (although it’s not so simple to make) and it was loved by all the adults at the “big table” in the dining room 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, and the flavored whipped cream was generously dolloped on top. After the plates were emptied and their bellies were full, I could hear the adults “law-have-mercying” adding, “That dessert was so delicious and full of scuppernong wine, I feel tipsy!” The cocktails and champagne served before dinner that assisted their “light-headedness” may have conveniently been forgotten.

After my grandmother passed away, tipsy cake disappeared from our family holiday meals, but once my father started his 80th decade, sentimentality overcame practicality, and he decided it may be time to start making tipsy cake again. To see Dad — the kitchen-averse, man’s-man, ex-football player — cooking anything was a hilarious study in contrasts, but he was serious about getting his mother’s recipe exactly right — or as right as he could possibly get it. Memories of his family, their holiday meals together, their love of tipsy cake was all the encouragement he needed to start back with his mother’s labor-instensive tipsy cake tradition.

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 he couldn’t make them from scratch. To atone for the store-bought cakes, an entire afternoon was spent blanching almonds to produce skinless, 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 boxed mix), and 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. He’d make brandy-flavored Cool Whip ignoring the fact his mother only used fresh 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 of tipsy cake 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. But for those of you Southerners who want an old-fashioned tipsy cake recipe, here is my grandmother’s original with everything made from scratch.

However, it’s 2017 and you probably have enough to do with the Amazon-shopping, present-wrapping and turkey- and dressing-prep so “Pig” sponges, Jell-O custard 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.

scuppernong wine (or sherry)

1/4 to 1/2 cup almonds — blanched and without skins (don’t skimp on almonds)

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

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 two prepared pans and bake at 350 degrees 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 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 my grandmother’s original recipe doesn’t include that 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.