Tasting nine cakes—what fun!

Missouri Life held a cake contest to help us make a special cake to present to Silver Dollar City for their 60th Diamond Jubilee Anniversary. If you’d like to help us wish them happy birthday, check either our website or Silver Dollar City’s website to learn when we will celebrate and when you can join us. You’ll be able to taste a cupcake made from our top three winning recipes.

We immensely enjoyed reviewing almost forty entries. We were surprised by the number of oatmeal cake entries, and two of them made it to the top nine. It’s a personal favorite, and I’ve made it now with pecans as called for but also with almonds.

Two chocolate cakes that were submitted were named either Indian Cake or Indian Heritage Cake. If anyone knows why some chocolate cakes were called Indian cakes, please let us know, as we could not ascertain the origin of those names.

Here’s how we chose the winners. First, we divided up the entries among a panel of three judges. Each judge chose her top three cakes. Then three of us on staff baked nine cakes total for the Missouri Life team to taste. We then scored the cakes using a point system to pick the top three.

Our resident chef Amy Stapleton, who also does some catering, advised us that you can freeze cakes. She wraps them in wax paper, then in plastic wrap.

Thanks to Amy and also Rebecca Smith on our staff for baking for our tasting day, and to Sandy Cox, who baked for photography.

Who’s hungry now?


Ozark Black Walnut Cake

Photo by Nicholas Benner.

ANN BELSHE KENNEDY from Liberty submitted the cake that garnered the most points. The rich cream cheese frosting and the easy penuche (brown sugar) filling between the layers added a nice counterpoint to the black walnuts, and it’s showy before and after slicing, too.

Ann’s story about the cake begins with a promise made and ends with a promise kept, with many cakes in between. Ann’s parents, Francis “B” and Bonnie Belshe, were born in humble surroundings in 1920 and were both raised in Richland, in the central Ozarks. Childhood sweethearts, they married in 1941, and then in 1942, packed their car with a few possessions and a shoebox lunch packed by Bonnie’s mother, and headed for New Haven, Connecticut, where B entered Yale University on a scholarship. Bonnie’s mother was nervous about the young couple moving so far away during wartime, and Bonnie promised to write a letter home every week for as long as they were away. Bonnie kept that promise for nearly forty years over the course of many moves until her mother died in 1979. Bonnie’s mother had saved every letter, nearly two thousand, neatly tied in stacks and stored in boxes in her closet. The letters included photos, newspapers clippings, brochures, and other ephemera of everyday life, creating a four-decade social and cultural history. The letters chronicled the coming of age of Ann’s parents, special events, first experiences, political opinions, and of course, recipes!

Among the favorite treats Bonnie baked were black walnut pies, cookies, candies, and this cake. Ann vividly recalls that almost every trip back to Richland included gathering walnuts. Bonnie and B would walk deep into the Ozark woods with a large bag in search of the pungent, heavy, sometimes messy nuts. The letters mention black walnuts many times throughout the years, and Ann recalls her mother drying the nuts in the garage so the squirrels wouldn’t get them, pounding them with a hammer to remove the hulls, driving over them with the car to crack the shells, and finally picking out the nutmeat while watching television in the evening. Bonnie was known for her tenacity in gathering the nuts in all kinds of weather and turning them into all sorts of goodies, shared with friends and neighbors.

The recipe is from Bonnie’s recipe file, and Ann shares it with the hope that it honors the rich treasure of a special part of Missouri.

People who would like to read Bonnie’s letters may find them at AnnBKennedy.blogspot.com.

Black Walnut Cake

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
½ cup shortening
2 cups sugar
5 eggs, yolks and whites separated
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups black walnuts, finely chopped
1 cup coconut
½ teaspoon cream of tartar

Editor’s Note: Ann’s mother used a cream cheese frosting and filling sometimes, and a penuche candy frosting and filling other times. The penuche was from the 1946 Joy of Cooking. We substituted a less time-consuming penuche to use as the filling and frosted with the cream cheese so that we could sample both.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 9-inch cake pans.
2. Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
3. Combine butter and shortening. Add sugar and blend well.
4. Separate egg yolks and whites, saving both.
5. Add 5 egg yolks to the butter and sugar mix, and beat for two minutes.
6. Add flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beating as each is added until mixture is smooth.
7. Stir in vanilla, black walnuts, and coconut.
8. Whip egg whites and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form and gently fold egg whites into the batter.
9. Divide evenly into three 9-inch pans or four 6-inch pans (as shown in our photography) and bake for 30 minutes. Remove pans to cool completely.

Easy Penuche Filling
(from TheSpruceEats.com)

½ cup butter
1 cup brown sugar, packed
¼ cup whole milk
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted hot water, optional as needed

1. In a saucepan, melt ½ cup butter. Add brown sugar. Bring to a boil and lower heat to medium-low. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
2. Remove from heat, let cool a minute, then add the milk. Bring back to a boil, stirring constantly.
3. Remove pan from the heat and cool mixture to lukewarm.
4. Add sifted confectioners’ sugar while beating until thick enough to spread between layers. If too thick, add a little hot water.

Cream Cheese Frosting

½ cup butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
½ to 1 cup black walnuts
½ to 1 cup coconut

1. Beat first four ingredients together. Mix in black walnuts and coconut, reserving some of each for the top. Frost top and sides of cake. Sprinkle the top with black walnuts and toasted coconut, gently pressing into frosting.

The Cake Contest Judges

SUSAN MANLIN KATZMAN studied cooking with the top chefs of France, Italy, and Southeast Asia after earning an English degree from Washington University. She has taught cooking classes, syndicated recipe columns to over 125 major metropolitan newspapers, authored five cookbooks and developed recipes and food-related programs for businesses and philanthropic organizations. Today, Susan contributes feature articles to local, national, and international publications. She also produces SweetLeisure.com, a prize-winning lifestyle blog offering recipes and travel suggestions from around the world.

NINA MUKERJEE FURSTENAU has been a baker since she was old enough to turn on the oven unsupervised. She is the author of the award-winning Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland; Tasty! Mozambique; and Savor Missouri: River Hills Country Food and Wine, in addition to numerous articles and essays in magazines and newspapers. She taught food journalism at the University of Missouri Science and Agricultural Journalism program (2010–2018), was a Fulbright Global Scholar (2018–2019) researching her next book on food culture, and is currently editor of the University of Iowa Foodstory book series.

SANDY COX, owner and baker of Treat You Sweet in Boonville, is the wife of an Air Force officer and a mom. She started baking for fun, and eventually, friends asked her to provide treats for their events. She served large corporate clients in Washington, DC, before moving back to Missouri. She specializes in decorated sugar cookies but enjoys making cupcakes and other small treats, as well. She baked and decorated these three cakes for our final photography. Her son joined the Air Force last year, and her daughter will join the Army this year. She looks forward to sending them care packages filled with sweet treats. See her cookies at Treat You Sweet on Facebook.


Aunt Iris’s Wedding/Marguerite Cake

Photo by Nicholas Benner.

CECELIA DOTSON from Salisbury took home second place. The Dotson family celebration cake story begins with her husband’s Aunt Iris from Concordia. Aunt Iris and her good friend, Ora, baked and decorated wedding cakes in the 1950s and 1960s for local brides. Aunt Iris did the baking, and Ora created the sugar bells and floral decorations. Cecelia’s husband remembers that he, Iris’s daughter, and Ora’s daughter were not allowed in Ora’s dining room when a cake was being assembled. They were sent outside to play.

The recipe used was a closely guarded secret. Once baking for customers ceased, though, Aunt Iris shared the recipe with Cecelia’s sister-in-law, Connie, who also kept the recipe secret but brought the cake to family gatherings. Finally, Connie shared the recipe with Cecelia after she had been married into the family for several years.

Once she received the recipe, Cecelia used it for petits fours, cupcakes, two-layer cakes, and a few wedding cakes. Her youngest daughter, Alane, chose this white cake with fluffy pink icing (a seven-minute frosting) for her birthday. Cecelia also used Aunt Iris’s cake for Alane’s wedding cake but with raspberry curd filling.

She makes a six-layer cake with lemon filling for refreshments for her P.E.O. Chapter at Salisbury. Since the P.E.O. flower is the white and yellow marguerite, the cake assumed that name. The Marguerite Cake became a favorite of Cecelia’s niece for her birthday. Two years ago, Cecelia gave her niece’s daughter the recipe, and now she’s sharing it with Silver Dollar City visitors and Missouri Life readers, too.\

Aunt Iris’s Cake

²⁄³ cup egg whites at room temperature
3 teaspoons baking powder, divided
²⁄³ cups cake flour, sifted
¾ teaspoon salt
²⁄³ cup shortening
2 cups sugar
1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon clear vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line one 9×13-inch, two 8-inch round, or two 15×10-inch jellyroll pans with parchment paper.
2. Beat eggs whites and 1 teaspoon baking powder until stiff but not dry peaks form. Set aside.
3. Mix flour, remaining 2 teaspoons of baking powder, and salt, and set aside.
4. Cream shortening and sugar.
5. Begin adding flour mixture alternately with water to the sugar mix, ending with the flour mixture.
6. Add vanilla.
7. Gently fold beaten eggs whites into batter.
8. Pour into pans and bake. If using a 9×13 pan or two 8-inch round pans, bake for 35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. If baking in jellyroll pans, bake for 12–15 minutes until set in the middle. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes before releasing.

Marguerite Cake Lemon Filling 

Prepare the lemon filling in advance and chill the filling overnight. The filling can be used with the two 8-inch rounds or with jellyroll pans. Cut each of the two jelly roll cakes into three sections, making six thin layers.

Lemon Filling

¾ cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup water
1 teaspoon lemon zest
¹⁄³ cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon butter

1. Mix sugar, cornstarch, and salt in saucepan. Gradually stir in water. Cook, stirring constantly until mixture boils and thickens. Boil 1 minute and then remove from the heat. Add lemon zest, lemon juice, and butter. Add a couple of drops of yellow food coloring if desired. Cool. Spread ¼ cup of lemon filling between each of the six layers, or all between a two-layer cake.

Butter Cream Frosting

4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
¹⁄³ cup butter, softened
¼ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla (clear or regular depending on the color you prefer)

1. Combine all ingredients with mixer and beat until well mixed and creamy.
2. Ice with butter cream and adorn with a few of your favorite sprinkles.


Indian Cake

Photo by Nicholas Benner.

DARLENE LUEBBERING from Wardsville submitted the third place cake. Her sixtieth birthday month is the same month, May, as Silver Dollar City’s sixtieth birthday, and Silver Dollar City is one of her family’s favorite places to visit in Branson.

Darlene is the second oldest of nine siblings and grew up on a two-hundred-acre farm that raised cattle and hogs. Her family had a large garden and canned a lot of produce. She learned at an early age to help out in the kitchen preparing meals. Every Saturday, her mother made seven loaves of bread, which would last through the week. Darlene’s sisters and she made the desserts, and Darlene loved to make cakes. Her late mother’s go-to cake for special occasions was a rich, moist chocolate cake called “Indian Cake.” She does not know the origin of the cake or why it was named that. Darlene made this cake recipe in her Grandma Minnie’s cast-iron lamb cake mold at Easter. She said that it was a tricky mold, but she persevered.

Sometimes, when the family didn’t have all the ingredients for the icing, they would eat the cake warm from the oven with homemade butter or sweetened whipped cream. Her mother would cut the cake into twelve pieces and they would each get one piece. The extra one left over would go into her father’s lunch box the next day.

Indian Cake

½ cup butter, unsalted
2 cups of granulated sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup cold strong coffee
½ cup Hershey’s cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, not flavoring
2 cups unbleached flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup of boiling water

1. Cream butter and sugar together until well blended and fluffy.
2. Add eggs one at a time, blending well after each.
3. Add coffee, cocoa, and vanilla. Mix well.
4. Sift flour, baking soda, and salt together, and add to creamed mixture. Blend until smooth and creamy. Turn mixer to the slowest speed and slowly add boiling water. Cake batter will be thin-looking. Pour into a 9×13-inch or a 10×14-inch well-greased cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30–35 minutes. Check after 25 minutes with a toothpick, which should be clean except for crumbs (no liquid batter).


1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup sweetened coconut

1. In a medium-size saucepan on medium high heat, blend evaporated milk, sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla. Cook 3–5 minutes until thick, stirring often to ensure it doesn’t stick or burn. When thick and creamy, take off the burner and add sweetened coconut. Stir well. Let cool 20 minutes. Pour over a warm cake and serve.

Editor’s Note: For photography, we made the cake without the frosting in a bundt pan. But we made it as directed for tasting day. We assure you, the frosting is delicious.

The Others in the Top 9:

Cast-iron Skillet Cake

Photo by Corin Cesaric. 

1 15-oz. can cherry pie filling
1 20-oz. can crushed pineapple, with juice
1 box yellow cake mix
1 stick butter, melted 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Spray a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with non-stick cooking spray.
3. Pour the cherry pie filling and crushed pineapple, with juice, into the skillet and mix thoroughly.
4. Sprinkle dry yellow cake mix over the top of the fruit mixture.
5. Drizzle melted butter over the top of the dry cake mix.
6. Bake 40-50 minutes or until the top is golden brown. 

Marble Cake 

Photo by Corin Cesaric.

2 cups sugar
1 cup butter
1 cup milk
3 cups cake flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
6 egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks
2 teaspoons vanilla
red food coloring
lemon flavoring
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon allspice

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream butter and sugar together. Add milk alternately with dry ingredients. Fold in egg whites.
3. Remove 2 cups batter and divide equally into two small bowls. To the remaining larger amount of batter, add 2 teaspoons vanilla.
4. To one of the 1 cup batters, add 2 drops red food coloring and ¼ teaspoon lemon flavoring.
5. To the other 1 cup batter, add ½ teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon cloves and ¼ teaspoon allspice.
6. In a greased and floured tube pan or bundt pan, place 1/3 of the white batter, then spread all the pink batter in evenly. Add another 1/3 of the white batter, then spread all of the spice batter in evenly.
7. End with the remaining 1/3 white batter on top. Take a knife and cut through the batter one time around the pan to marble.
8. Bake for 50-60 minutes. 

Granny’s Oatmeal Cake 

Photo by Corin Cesaric.

1 ¼ cups boiling water
1 cup sugar
1 stick salted butter
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup quick oats
1 1/3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg, freshly ground 

1. Pour boiling water over the quick oats and butter, then cover and let stand 20 minutes.
Add eggs and vanilla, stir to combine.
3. Add the dry ingredients, stirring just enough to bring it together, don’t over mix.
4. Pour into a greased and floured 9 x 13-inch baking dish.
5. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. 


6 tablespoons butter
½ cup sugar
1 cup coconut
1 cup pecans, roughly chopped
¼ cup half and half 

1. While cake is baking, mix topping ingredients together.
2. Spread on top of the cake as soon as it is done.
3. Place under broiler until golden, about 5 minutes.
4. Monitor the cake as nuts brown more quickly than coconut. 

“Land of Big Red Apples” Apple Cake 

Photo by Corin Cesaric.

1 stick unsalted butter, melted and at room temperature
½ cup light brown sugar
½ cup sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons milk
1 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups apples, peeled and diced  

Optional add-ins: 
½ teaspoon nutmeg or  ½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
2 tablespoons peanut butter
¼ cup raisins
½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans
In place of apples, use 1 cup applesauce 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a pan with parchment paper.
Mix melted butter and sugars together in a bowl. Add eggs, vanilla, and milk.
3. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture. Add the apples.
4. Spread the batter into the pan.
5. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Try one of these toppings: streusel crumble, vanilla glaze, apricot glaze, a dusting of powdered sugar, or any kind of frosting. 

Skillet Coffee Cake 

Photo by Corin Cesaric.

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 large can crushed pineapple
½ cup brown sugar
¾ cup chopped walnuts
1 ½ sticks butter
1 can evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Mix 1 ½ cups sugar, eggs, salt, baking soda, and crushed pineapple in a large mixing bowl.
3. Pour into a large buttered (12-inch) skillet.
4. Mix ½ cup brown sugar and ¾ cup chopped walnuts and sprinkle on top of the batter.
5. Bake for 30 minutes. Poke holes in the top of the cake while warm.
6. In a saucepan, bring the butter, the evaporated milk, and ½ cup sugar to a boil for 2 minutes; add the vanilla at the end.
7. Pour over the cake while warm. 

A Legacy Cake 

Photo by Corin Cesaric.

2 ¼ cups cake flour, sifted before measure
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup butter or shortening
3 egg yolks
2/3 cup milk
2 egg whites, beaten with half an eggshell of water added to each white 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
After sifting flour, add baking powder and salt, then sift three times.
3. Cream sugar and butter.
4. Add well beaten egg yolks, then add flour mixture and milk alternatively.
5. Fold in beaten egg whites lightly.
6. Fill two 10-inch round cake pans evenly and bake for approximately 20 minutes.

Brown Sugar Icing (referred to on the recipe as Carmel)

¾ cup butter
1 ½ cups light brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons milk
3 ¾ cups confectioners sugar, or enough to make a spreadable consistency
¾ teaspoon vanilla

1. Combine butter, brown sugar, and salt.
2. Boil 2 minutes over low heat, stirring constantly.
3. Add milk bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cool slightly.
4. Add sugar and beat until thick enough to spread. 

View all cake entries here.