Murder of the Layer Cake
The concept of stacking cake layers first appeared in this country about 1800. Cake baking at home didn’t really take off until after the invention of Stewart’s Oberlin cast-iron range in 1834, the first such to be manufactured specifically for home use. Prior to that, baking in a fireplace was difficult to say the least. After the Industrial Revolution that followed, mass-produced baking necessities such as baking powder and soda, sugar and corn syrup, and butter and shortening were shipped by train across the country and made affordable. In the 1920s, when easy-to-regulate gas and electric ovens appeared, baking layer cakes in the United States became a mania. It became the dessert of choice for every meal or celebration of any significance. The popularity of birthday and wedding cakes—a tradition we inherited from the English—goes back to colonial days, but up until now, they could only be enjoyed by the wealthy.
As to who killed the layer cake, there are several suspects. One is Duncan Hines—not the man who traveled the country reviewing restaurants, but the corporation that bears his name and popularized the cake mix in the 1950s. Many brands of cake mixes existed prior to World War II, but they were more about quick than quality. When Proctor & Gambles (who made Crisco) took over the Duncan Hines food brand, they formulated a mix that produced a cake with texture and taste that gave homemade a run for its money. Considering the amount of effort it took to make each, the cake mix easily won the race.
Even with the advent of the mix, convention remained to make a cake with two round layers assembled and iced with frosting. Someone soon discovered cake was easier made still as a single layer in a rectangular pan and thus emerged the sheet cake. Seemingly as appealing as convenience was, simplicity was not. Thus began an era of wackiness in adding extra ingredients to cake mixes to make them better—everything from pudding mix to condensed tomato soup. Dump Cake—a cake made by “dumping” all the ingredients directly into the baking pan—raised efficiency to a new level. My favorite example of cake creativity gone amuck is the Kitty Litter Cake baked in a litter box and decorated with cookie crumbs, Tootsie Rolls and a pooper scooper.
Still, there were those not satisfied with the flat, rectangular cake no matter what went in it or on top of it. In 1966, Ella Helfrich took second place at the annual Pillsbury Bake Off with her Tunnel of Fudge Cake made in a Bundt pan, a distinctive fluted and rounded tube mold manufactured by Nordic Ware in Minnesota. This cake and many more baked in the decorative pan became ridiculously popular leading Pillsbury to license the “Bundt” name with Nordic Ware.
Another death knell for the layer cake was the coming sophistication in taste in the 1960s. Julia Child changed how we ate, introducing Americans to French food and desserts like chocolate mousse, soufflés and crepes. If cake was on the menu it inevitably was the single layer, flourless chocolate variety or likewise fancy and flourless torte—neither really a proper cake!
The next blow came in the ’80s with the cheesecake epidemic. I have nothing against cheesecake. For many years, pumpkin cheesecake was one of my favorite holiday desserts. That was until cheesecake proliferated restaurant menus. No doubt that it was easy to make and could be flavored with just about anything elevated its esteem.
Most recently there has been a curious magnetism for cupcakes. Heretofore, they were something once only served at a child’s party or taken on picnics where transporting and serving a full-size cake would be impractical. With outlandish flavors and a surfeit of frosting, they have become the glutton’s petit fours. No matter how pretentious or overly decorated they may be, a cupcake is small while a layer cake is grand.
Occasionally dining out a real, honest-to-goodness layer cake pops up on the menu, but mostly it’s something I enjoy at home. I know it’s only a matter of time—like everything else in my past—until it’s rediscovered.
RECIPE: Nannie’s Fudge Cake
My grandmother made many fine cakes. A specialty was jam cake—a sort of spice cake with caramel frosting. My favorite, however, was her fudge cake.
Butter and flour for the pans
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/4 cups buttermilk, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
Chocolate Frosting (see recipe below)
Preheat oven 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch round cake bans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. Lightly butter the paper and dust the pans with flour.
Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Combine the buttermilk and vanilla. Using the paddle attachment in an electric mixer, beat the butter at medium speed until whipped. Gradually beat in the sugar until well combined and light colored. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the sifted dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk mixture, a third of each at a time beating after each addition until well blended. Beat in the melted chocolate.
Divide the batter evenly between the three pans, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula. Bake the layers in the preheated 350-degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove the layers to racks and cool for 10 minutes, then invert, peel off the paper liners. Then invert the layers again on to the racks (so they are top side up) and cool completely. Fill and frost with Chocolate Frosting.
Serves eight to ten.
RECIPE: Chocolate Frosting
2-1/2 sticks unsalted butter
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 egg yolks
20 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled
In a saucepan over medium heat melt the butter with the water and cocoa, stirring until smooth. Let cool.
Add the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla and stir until smooth. Add the egg yolks and continue to stir until completely smooth. Stir in the chocolate and stir until well combined and a spreading consistency. Use immediately.
Makes about 4 cups.