After years of eating my way through cake walks, potlucks, bake sales, and every diner, bakery, and dessert shop I come across, it’s rare for me to be surprised by a cake. Yet, while working on a story about the lunch served up in the basement of the First United Methodist Church during the High Point Furniture Market, I came across a kind of cake I had never heard of before. Amid the red velvet, coconut, carrot, and chocolate cakes put out for the hungry diners, there was one variety that surprised me —Pig Pickin’ Cake. Somehow in all my years of eating cake, I had missed that one. Thanks to the Internet, an old church cookbook, and a quick trip to the grocery store, that was rectified later that afternoon with a giant slice of cake and an equally big smile on my cake-eating face. Turns out that I was not slacking in my cake eating, but simply had eaten Pig Pickin’ Cake by another name. The version I had was called Sunshine Cake due to its summery feel. According to Eater, it also goes by names like Mandarin Orange Cake, Pea Pickin’ Cake, and Orange Pineapple Cake, although clearly Pig Pickin’ Cake is the superior name.
The cake reportedly gets its evocative name from the barbecues where it regularly shows up for dessert. According to Deep South Dish blog, the original pulled pork was picked straight off a pig that had been cooked on an open pit. When a barbecue was organized, someone would get the pig roasting, others would bring the coleslaw and macaroni salad and cornbread, and someone would whip up this quick cake for dessert. It was such a standard feature at barbecues in the Carolinas that it soon took on the pig pickin’ name for itself.
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According to the New York Times, I wasn’t the only person to look up a recipe for the cake online. Back in 2014, the Times looked into what recipes people Googled in the lead up to Thanksgiving and it turns out that people in North Carolina Googled recipes for Pig Pickin' Cake more than anything else. It’s a recipe worth looking up.
At its heart, Pig Pickin’ Cake is a yellow cake, but you don’t earn a name like pig pickin’ with plain old vanilla. While recipes vary from family to family, cookbook to cookbook, the gist is this: After whipping up a yellow cake batter (a cake mix is ideal, but you can make it from scratch if you insist), mandarin orange segments are swirled into the batter. They help keep the cake moist and give the cake a light orange flavor. After the cake is baked and cooled, the real magic happens. The cake is covered with a heavenly combination of Cool Whip, instant vanilla pudding, and studded with chunks of pineapple. Some people add coconut, others add vanilla or nuts, but the cake and whipped topping are the real secrets. After a few hours in the fridge, it’s ready for, ahem, pigging out.