Sybil Pressly’s Buttermilk Cake with Old-Time Fudge Icing

During her years as innkeeper and executive chef of the historic Mast Farm Inn in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Sybil Pressly put her mother’s chocolate-frosted buttermilk layer cake on the menu and never took it off. Comforting and somehow familiar, even when you taste it for the first time, this cake belongs in your recipe box, whether it’s extensive or just a folder on the bookshelf. Mrs. Pressly uses these same yellow layers for her famous pineapple cream cake and her shortcake. The cake has never let her down, but she warns all cooks that this heirloom chocolate icing simply will not work on a rainy day.


Buttermilk Cake

  • 3 cups (all-purpose) flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk (see Note)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pressly’s Old-Time Fudge Icing

  • Three 1-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate, or ½ cup cocoa
  • 3 cups light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Light corn syrup
  • teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup evaporated milk or half-and-half
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


To make the cake, heat the oven to 375°F. Grease and flour three 8-inch round cake pans. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda, and stir with a fork to mix well.

In a large bowl, combine the softened butter and the sugar, and beat with a mixer at high speed until very light, fluffy, and smooth, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each one.

Add about a third of the flour mixture, and then half the milk, beating at low speed just until the flour or the milk disappears. Mix in another third of the flour, followed by the rest of the milk, and then the rest of the flour in the same way. Stir in the vanilla, and divide the batter among the 3 prepared cake pans.

Bake at 375°F for 20 to 25 minutes, until the cakes are golden brown and spring back when touched lightly in the center. Cool the cakes in the pans on wire racks or on folded kitchen towels for 10 minutes. Then turn out the cakes onto wire racks or plates, top side up, to cool completely.

To make the frosting, first place a bowl of ice water and a metal spoon by the stove. Place one cake layer, top side down, on a cake stand or serving plate. Have the other two layers handy so that you can ice the cake as soon as the icing is ready.

Break the chocolate squares into big chunks, and then combine them in a medium heavy saucepan with the brown sugar, corn syrup, salt, and evaporated milk. Bring everything to a boil over medium heat, stirring often to help melt the chocolate and prevent it from sticking and burning. Continue cooking the icing at a gentle boil, until it reaches the soft-ball stage. This means that a generous dollop of the icing dropped into cold water forms a soft little clump, which can be rolled between your fingers into a tiny ball. The temperature on a candy thermometer will read 236 to 240°F.

Remove the pan from the heat. Without stirring, add the butter and vanilla to the pan on top of the icing, and let the frosting cool to lukewarm. Then, mix it at medium speed until it loses its shine and thickens enough to spread on the cake.

Quickly cover the first cake layer with icing, and place the second layer on top of it, top side down. Cover it with icing, and then place the third layer over the second, top side up. Pour the icing over the cake and quickly spread it over the sides and top. If the icing hardens while you are working, add a little milk and stir well to soften it again.