A few years ago, the New York Times ran a story about ladies in southeastern Alabama who bake fantastic multi-layer cakes to give away every December. A transfixing photograph illustrated the piece, a portrait of a grandmotherly Southerner and her so-called “little layer cake,” a towering confection of 14 yellow discs sandwiched with what appeared to be solid, glossy fudge.
As a native Californian, I find recipes from elderly Southern women far more mysterious and alluring than recipes from, say, Alice Waters. The cake went onto the list of things I want to bake someday, a list I consult every few days as I do not want to die before I make Sussex pond pudding, apple stack cake, or syllabub.
It took almost three years before I got around to the little layer cake, which I decided to bake for the joint birthday of my son and niece. I’m a fairly confident baker, and I figured I’d get the cake knocked out before everyone else got up the morning of the party. I’m not sure when it dawned on me that I had underestimated the challenges of this cake, but by the time I was struggling to stretch one last spoonful of dry, crumbling icing over 10 half-broken, lopsided circles of cake, everyone else had been up for hours and I had a pretty good idea.
This is the kind of situation in which, if I were still a child, I would have a tantrum. “This is a disaster,” I said to my daughter, Isabel. “I’m going to throw it away and make something else.”
Isabel studied the cake. She popped a shard of icing in her mouth. “That’s really good,” she said. “I’ll finish the cake for you, Mom.”
That was the last I saw of the cake until the party. Isabel boiled more icing and patched that piebald dessert. With all the lights turned down for the candles that night, the cake looked homely but edible.
Still, I was a tiny bit embarrassed by that cake. I’m too old to be serving cakes that look like they were assembled by a chimpanzee.
Funky looking though it was, the cake was extraordinarily, dangerously delicious. The icing hardened into a delectable, fudgey plaster that insulated the skinny vanilla layers, keeping them moist. A week later, we ate the last slice and the cake tasted as fresh as if it had come out of the oven that morning.
I was about to cross the little layer cake off the baking bucket list, but paused. Something I have always disliked about myself, and have disliked more than usual in 2012, is that, as my father would say, I do a lot of things half-assed. Exhibit A: little layer cake.
I set aside the next morning to try the recipe again. I made myself sit down and consider everything that had gone wrong – lopsided layers, broken layers, layers stuck to cooling racks, insufficient icing – and devise strategies to fix them. Then I set about baking the cake, not quickly this time, but correctly.
And that second cake – with all 12 layers intact – was mighty and gorgeous. In the spirit of the Alabama ladies, I gave it to my neighbors, whom I love, and who had recently done me a favor. There was nothing half assed about this second cake, I thought smugly. Or was there? Couldn’t the layers be even thinner? Weren’t there still some kinks in the recipe? Was this really the very best I could do?
The next day I made the recipe for a third time and this time eked out 14 perfect layers. I took this third cake to a friend’s housewarming party and was embarrassed by all the gushing praise for that little cake. Embarrassed and very pleased.
I thought about making yet another cake the next day, to push myself. I wondered what else I could do to make the cake even tastier and prettier, and who else in my life deserved a little layer cake. Then I stopped myself. The holidays are coming and this year, like the ladies in Alabama, I am giving cakes.
The following is adapted from the recipe that originally appeared in the New York Times. I made half again more icing than called for because you don’t want to run out. However, once you have made the cake a few times, you will probably be able to cut back to the original proportions.
Little Layer Cake
For the cake:
- 1⅓ cups unsalted butter, plus more to grease the pans
- 2½ cups sugar (17 ounces)
- 5 eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 5 cups cake flour (19.5 ounces)
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 5 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 cups whole milk
For the icing:
- 7½ cups sugar
- ⅓ cup plus half of ⅓ cup cocoa powder
- ¾ cup unsalted butter, cut into bits
- 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk plus ½ of a 12-ounce can evaporated milk
- ¾ cup whole milk
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Generously butter three 8½- or 9-inch cake pans. Cut out 14 rounds of parchment paper. Line the pans with three of the rounds.
In a mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes. There must be no lumps of butter left in the batter; the cake layers are very thin and butter lumps will create holes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating constantly until well incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the vanilla.
In another bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder for 30 seconds.
Sift the flour into the batter, alternating with the milk, in four installments. Beat for 4 minutes more
Scoop about ⅔ cup of batter into each of the three lined pans. Avoid getting batter on the rims of the pans and use an offset spatula to smooth the batter until very flat. This is crucial if you don’t want lumpy layers.
Bake the three cakes for about 6 minutes until firm, but still pillowy. Turn out onto wire racks immediately. Peel back the parchment to break the seal, then immediately drop the parchment back on the cakes. Remove any big crumbs from the pans, place new parchment inside, and bake 3 more layers. (The pans may need more butter eventually, but probably not until the fourth batch of cakes.)
While you are baking the subsequent layers, you want to gently flip the cooling cakes off the racks, otherwise they will stick. Lay them on a clean surface, parchment side down. Repeat until all 14 layers have been baked and cooled.
While you are baking the last cake layers, in a large, heavy-bottomed pan, whisk together the sugar and cocoa. Add the butter and milks and, over medium high heat, bring to a boil. Stirring constantly, boil hard for 4 minutes. Lower the heat to a simmer, add the vanilla, and boil for 10 minutes more, or until the icing registers about 230°F on a candy thermometer.
Place a wire cooling rack over a rimmed cookie sheet and place a layer of cake on the rack. While the icing is still very warm, pour ¼ cup on the layer of cake and spread gently with an icing spatula. Top with another layer and repeat until all the layers are iced and stacked. Once the cake is assembled, pour some icing over the top of the cake. Spread over the top and let it drip down the sides, gently spreading icing. Continue pouring and spreading until the cake is completely iced. You will waste a good amount of icing as it runs into the drip pan; try not to worry about that. Also, the contours of the layers will show even after the cake is iced, but that is part of the charm.
When the icing is cool and firm, which takes a few hours, with a bench scraper or wide spatula, carefully ease the cake off of the rack onto a serving plate.