After reading Kim Severson’s fascinating piece on sky-high Alabama layer cakes in the New York Times, I knew I had to get my hands on one while down South for the holidays. Originally, The Astronomer and I had planned on purchasing one of these coveted monstrosities at the local Piggly Wiggly, but we were encouraged by The Astronomer’s mother to make one from scratch—she’s a do-it-yourself kinda gal. I’m always up for a baking challenge, but wasn’t sure my pastry skills were up to snuff. After all, the tallest cake I had made thus far only stacked two measly layers high. On the eve of 2010, The Astronomer and I fired up the oven, buttered a trio of cake pans, and threw caution to the wind—we were aiming for a dozen layers, and any fewer would not do!
The Chocolate Little Layer Cake turned out superbly. The cake was easily the lightest and fluffiest I’ve ever encountered, while the boiled chocolate frosting tasted like hot cocoa. The cake took about three hours to complete, but it was really quite fun to make from start to finish. Next time around, I’m aiming for fifteen layers! For a play-by-play of the entire process, check out the photo set on Flickr.
For the cake
- 2 sticks butter, more to grease pans
- 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup shortening
- 5 eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 5 cups cake flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 5 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 cups 2% milk
For the frosting
- 5 cups granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder
- 1 stick butter, cut into pieces
- 1 15-ounce can evaporated milk
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease three 9-inch cake pans and line with rounds of parchment or waxed paper.
In a mixer or by hand, cream together butter, sugar and shortening until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in eggs one at a time and continue to mix on medium until eggs are well incorporated. Stir in vanilla.
Sift flour, then add salt, baking soda and baking powder. Sift a second time. With mixer on low, alternately add flour mixture and milk in about 4 additions, then increase speed to medium. Beat until smooth, about 4 to 5 minutes, scraping down sides of bowl.
Spread 3/4 cup batter in each pan. Even out the batter using the back of a spoon. Bake 6 to 8 minutes, or until cake springs lightly when pressed with a finger. Flip cake out of pan onto paper towels or cake rack while still very warm. Repeat with second, third, and fourth set of layers. The parchment paper can be reused, but wash or scrape the sides of the pans so that no old batter remains.
When first layers go into oven, start to make icing. Put sugar and cocoa in a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan and mix well. Turn heat to medium-high and add butter and milks, bringing to a boil. Boil for about 4 minutes, stirring continually, careful to watch that it does not boil over. Lower heat to simmer, add vanilla and stir occasionally for another 7 to 10 minutes. If using a candy thermometer, cook to the point just before soft ball stage or about 230 degrees.
Begin icing first layers as soon as frosting is ready. Flip layers over so that top side faces up. Use about 4 tablespoons of icing per layer. Icing will be thin but will firm up as it cools. Stack layers, then continue icing and stacking as layers are baked.
When all layers are iced and stacked, glaze top and sides of cake. Contours of layers will be visible through icing. If icing hardens too much while frosting cake, set back on low heat and stir until it is spreadable.
Adapted from Martha Meadows of Slocomb, Alabama.