I really love the way technology makes it possible for us to share our recipes these days. What we used to do through cards and letters, newspaper and magazine clippings, or simply by word of mouth, we can now accomplish within seconds. Just a quick Google search and virtually any recipe ever thought of appears on your screen.
I’m even more grateful that technology is helping us to preserve our old heritage recipes like the one I’m sharing with you today.
These beautiful multi-layer cakes have, for as long as I can remember, always been a part of family reunions, church dinners, and most holidays in the southwest corner of Georgia where I grew up. You may think at first glance that they’re standard cake layers that have been split and filled, but they’re not. Not at all. Each little thin layer is baked separately. To make it even more different from traditional layer cakes, it’s iced with warm icing while the layers themselves are still warm. Totally goes against the conventional method, doesn’t it?
In the small town where I grew up, lots of ladies make these cakes for a little extra income on the side. They come in two versions – chocolate or caramel. Some of them make a fairly brisk business of it especially around Christmas.
Now way back when, these cakes were made by cooking each layer in a hoecake pan or iron skillet on top of the stove, but now most everyone cooks the layers in the oven. It just goes faster when you can bake three or four layers at one time, you see. If you’re really experienced with little layer cakes, you can get as many as fourteen layers from your batter. I got ten this time. I need to practice more.
The recipe that I have is so typical of old-time recipes. It assumes that the cook pretty much knows what to do and only the bare essentials are given. For instance, the instructions for the batter read “Mix well. Grease 8″ pans with Crisco. Put 2 large cooking spoonfuls in each pan. Bake at 400 for 10 minutes.” That’s it. And the instructions for the icing are “Place over low heat until all is dissolved. Do not boil. Be sure all sugar is melted.” Well, alrighty then!
I’ve tried to re-write and modernize the instructions a bit for you.
A few years ago, Kim Severson of the New York Times did a story on these little layer cakes. I had the pleasure of hearing Kim speak at FoodBlogSouth. She’s a very accomplished food writer and has received numerous accolades, including several James Beard Awards. In her story, she talked about how the cakes were made only in one area in Alabama and on Smith Island near Maryland. Well, I can assure you that they are part of the fabric of at least one small southwest Georgia town as well :-)
Before starting your baking, make sure to have all the ingredients at room temperature. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and go ahead and prep your 8″ cake pans with shortening and set them aside. How many layers you bake at once depends on how many pans you have and can fit into your oven without them touching. Some people use the disposable cake pans for this, but I don’t see the need. I just wipe them out and re-grease between each set of layers.
Now, unlike other cakes, you actually start your little layer cake by making the icing first.
Place a large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat. The heat should be barely medium-low. If in doubt, go lower. Add the sugar, baking chocolate, evaporated milk, butter, and vanilla all at once. Cook until the sugar is completely dissolved, stirring occasionally. It is important that the icing does not boil and that you make sure that the sugar is completely dissolved and no grainy texture remains.
Meanwhile, make the batter. Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs all at once and beat until well incorporated. Add the flour and water alternately, beginning and ending with flour. (Note: the batter will appear to be curdled after each addition of water – this is normal.) Mix in the vanilla.
Pour approximately 3/4 cup batter into each prepared pan. Smooth the batter to the edges. Bake for approximately 10 minutes or until layers are barely golden on top. Remove from oven and turn out onto cooling racks.
Clean the pans, grease them and repeat baking. When second set of layers goes into the oven, begin icing the cake.
Place a still-warm layer on a cardboard round set atop a cooling rack inside a baking sheet. Spread 1/4 cup icing on the layer spreading it gently to the edges. Top with the next layer and repeat. (Note: the icing will be thin and fairly runny. It will drip down the sides of the layers. This is to be expected. Any excess icing should be scraped up and returned to the pan and all of it used in the icing of the cake. This is why I strongly recommend icing the cake set on a cooling rack in a baking pan.)
When all layers have been stacked and iced, spread remaining icing over top and sides of the cake. If the icing becomes thick, return the pan to very low heat until it returns to spreading consistency.
Smooth the icing around the sides of the cake, but realize that the contours are supposed to be visible on the outside of the cake.
I’m quite interested in knowing whether my readers have ever seen this type of cake or whether it really is localized to the southeast Alabama-southwest Georgia area. If you have a minute, please leave a quick comment. Thanks!
What I was cooking…
- One year ago: Coconut Meringue Pie
- Two years ago: BLT Bites
- Three years ago: Fresh Salad Greens with Classic Vinaigrette