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Old-school Southern desserts that deserve a comeback

Old-school Southern desserts that deserve a comeback

Nothing can bring back memories of childhood in the South — birthday parties, Christmas gatherings, church potlucks — like a classic dessert. While we love any sweet treat that conjures a connection to the good old days, old-school Southern desserts provide a rich opportunity to innovate. Of course they’re fantastic the way Grandma used to make them, but they’re even better with a few small tweaks to make them feel thoroughly modern. Here’s why these desserts deserve to make a comeback, along with updated recipes that stay true to their oh-so-delicious roots while pleasing your present-day palate.

Hummingbird Cake

The old-school version: A pineapple and banana cake with cream cheese frosting traditionally served at Southern weddings and bridal showers.

Why it’s ready for a comeback: The texture and flavor combinations at play here are surprisingly complex. Sweet pineapple and banana mingle with tangy frosting while pecans lend a satisfying crunch. The hummingbird cake might have enjoyed an ‘80s heyday, but it’s a timeless dessert.

How to update it: Replacing the traditional cream cheese frosting with a decadent mascarpone makes for a creamier cake with a more grown-up flavor.

Hummingbird Cake with Mascarpone Frosting Recipe

Cake batter ingredients

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 8 ounces crushed pineapple, drained
  • 16 ounces pureed bananas
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 2 1/2 cups + 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt


Combine banana, pineapple, oil and vanilla in blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add fruit mixture and whisk until evenly combined. Whisk together dry ingredients, then add gradually to wet mixture and whisk until there are no more dry spots.

Portion cake batter into three buttered cake pans and bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown.

Mascarpone frosting ingredients

  • 3 cups mascarpone cheese
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 cup chopped pecans (plus 2 tbsp for garnish)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla


Using paddle attachment on a stand mixer, cream the mascarpone until smooth, then add the rest of the ingredients and mix until combined.

When cakes are cool, divide frosting equally between each layer and stack. Frost top and sides and sprinkle with remaining pecans.

Buy Oster Planetary Stand Mixer.

Hello Dolly Bars

The old-school version: A ridiculously sweet bar layered with chocolate chips, pecans, coconut and graham cracker crust. The Hello Dolly has long been a go-to indulgence for PTA meetings, birthday parties and Christmas cookie platters.

Why they’re ready for a comeback: There are few treats more comforting than a Hello Dolly bar, but the extreme sweetness can be cloying. Thanks to a flourishing food enthusiast culture that favors complex flavors over excess sugar, it’s time to align this decadent treat with present-day tastes: bolder flavor, a little less sweetness.

How to update them: To tone down the sugar while keeping the flavors intact, swap out milk chocolate chips for chopped dark chocolate (60 percent or higher) and make sure to use unsweetened coconut.

Hello Dolly Bars with Dark Chocolate Recipe

Graham crust ingredients

  • 4 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 5 ounces melted butter

Top layer ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 1/2 cup chopped dark chocolate
  • 1 1/2 shredded coconut
  • 1 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk


In a medium-size bowl, mix salt with graham cracker crumbs. Drizzle with melted butter and stir to combine. Press the mixture onto the bottom of a half sheet pan and bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes. Let cool.

Mix together all of the dry ingredients and spread evenly on top of the cooled graham crust. Drizzle sweetened condensed milk over the dried ingredients. Let sit for a minute or two to allow condensed milk to saturate bars. Bake bars at 325 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until the top is slightly browned and caramelized.

Once out the oven, let cool completely before cutting the bars into 2x2 inch squares.

Buy Lake Champlain dark chocolate.

Pecan Sandies

The old-school version: A staple of childhood Christmas cookie tins, the original sandie is a melt-in-your-mouth shortbread cookie dotted with pecan pieces.

Why they’re ready for a comeback: As many desserts become absurdly complex just to garner more clicks on Pinterest, the sandie’s simplicity is refreshing.

How to update them: With so few ingredients, focusing on the highest quality of each item makes a huge difference. Use the best butter you can find, like Kerrygold, and take a few minutes to candy the pecans before folding them into the dough. The crunch and extra sweetness make a huge difference.

Pecan Sandies Recipe

Candied pecans (makes extra for snacking, and trust us, you’ll be glad) ingredients

  • 3 cups pecans
  • 1/4 cup egg whites
  • 1 cups sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper


Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Whisk egg whites in a bowl until frothy, then add sugar, salt and pepper until all combined. Fold the pecans into the egg white mixture, and spread onto an ungreased baking sheet. Put pecans in the oven and set a timer for 8 minutes. When timer goes off, move the pecans around with a spatula so that none of them stick to the tray. Continue to re-arrange pecans on the sheet at 5-minute intervals until the pecans are dry and there are no shiny spots left on the baking sheet. Remove from oven and let cool completely.

Cookie ingredients

  • 1/2 cup chopped candied pecans
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla


Combine butter and sugar and beat until fluffy. Add flour 1/2 cup at a time while mixing at low speed. Stir in candied pecans. Shape dough into two 1½-inch thick logs, wrap with parchment paper and chill about an hour until firm.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut dough into 1/4 inch slices and place on lightly greased baking sheets. Bake for 20 minutes or until tops are slightly browned. Cool on wire racks.

Buy Pearson Farm Georgia pecans.

Cola Cake

The old-school version: The cola cake has been the cover star of many a 1960s issue of Good Housekeeping. Soaked in the syrupy sweetness of Coca-Cola, it is an iconic Southern indulgence.

Why it’s ready for a comeback: The humble cola cake is a delicious, conversation-starting dessert that’s perfect for large groups. Bring a cola cake to a party, and you’ll instantly be the most popular person there.

How to update it: Skip the traditional Coca-Cola and upgrade to something with a more defined flavor. Fentiman’s Curiosity Cola is a great option that’s widely available, but a bottle of your favorite locally-brewed cola would be great as well.

Cola Cake Recipe (adapted from Taste of Home)

Cake ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 bottle (about 10 ounces) of cola
  • 1 cup butter, cubed
  • 1/4 cup baking cocoa
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Icing ingredients

  • 1 can or bottle (12 ounces) cola
  • 1/2 cup butter, cubed
  • 1/4 cup baking cocoa
  • 3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 13x9-in. baking pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda and salt.

In a small saucepan, combine cola, butter and cocoa. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add to flour mixture, stirring just until moistened.

In a small bowl, whisk eggs, buttermilk and vanilla until blended; add to flour mixture and whisk until smooth.

Transfer to baking pan. Bake 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

In a small saucepan, bring cola to a boil. Cook 12-15 minutes or until liquid becomes thick and syrupy. Stir in butter and cocoa until butter is melted. Remove from heat, add confectioner's sugar, and stir until smooth. Pour immediately over hot cake. Let cool before serving.

Buy Fentimans Natural Soda in Curiosity Cola.

Banana Pudding

The old-school version: A cool, creamy marriage of bright yellow pudding with banana chunks and Nilla Wafers. The perfect ending to a diner counter lunch or a Sunday dinner with family.

Why it’s ready for a comeback: No comeback is necessary. Nothing is more comforting than banana pudding.

How to update it: Give the dish a grown-up twist by adding a splash of rum to the pudding.

Spiked Banana Pudding Recipe


  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2 tablespoons rum
  • 30 Nilla Wafers
  • 4 soft bananas


In a medium-size bowl, separate eggs, gradually add cornstarch, and blend after each addition until it is all incorporated. Add rum and whisk.

In a sauce pot, bring milk, sugar and vanilla to a gradual simmer while stirring. When it is hot, temper the egg yolk mixture with a cup of the warm milk mixture. Add to the pot and whisk on medium heat until the mixture begins to thicken.

Once thick, put over an ice bath and add in the butter a little at a time, mixing after each addition until it is all incorporated. Put in a container with a piece of cling wrap directly on top of the pudding to keep it from forming a skin.

Once cool, layer pastry cream with bananas and top with Nilla Wafers.

Next Article:
A Southern spin on deviled eggs
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