Okay, buckle in. This is gonna be a long one. (heh)
After Christmas, my mom, grandmother, and cousin came to stay for a few days. I decided this would be a great time for my grandmother, AKA Beanie, to let me document the making of the thin layer chocolate cake for which she is famous. These cakes have been huge in my family for mostly forever…I actually always thought it was just something that only MY family made — my Granny (great grandmother) always made them, and so did Beanie — because I never saw these cakes anywhere else, and it was like a staple for us. It was only about 10 years ago, when I saw the same cake in an issue of Southern Living, that I realized this is not just us. Sometimes I live in a bubble. But still, our family rocks these cakes.
PLEASE NOTE: the above picture is from Delish.com – it is not a picture of the cake we made. This is critical information. However, that IS the same cake type. Mmmmmm.
So, here’s my history with the thin layer cake. I have tried making it on my own three times in my life:
1) I was about 13, I think…and my 13 year old brain decided that the way to thin the cake batter was to add milk. That is incorrect. I ended up with 2 very thick layers, rather than 12 thin ones. It tasted great, still…it just wasn’t a thin layer cake.
2) Probably about 12 years ago: when I made the icing, which is boiled, something charred in the bottom of the pan, so my icing had little burnt flakes all through it. That’s not attractive on a cake.
3) Probably about 10 years ago: The layers were thin…the icing was good…I iced it all up and then left it on top of the stove, in my glass cake stand with the lid on. The surface heat from the stove, as well as just the weather that day, melted the icing…so when I came back an hour later, the layers had all slid down into a spiral of goopy icing. Still tasted great, but was no longer really a “cake”, at least in form.
So, Beanie agreed and packed up all her pans and pan racks and brought them with her. This is how it goes:
That’s Beanie. Those are her pans. There are 12. I think you follow the logic. Her first step is to cut out 12 circles of wax paper to fit the pans…
…and then it’s time to spray like you’ve never sprayed before. She told me to be sure that I had a full can of Pam because she swore we would use it all. We didn’t. But we did use a lot. The way it goes is first you spray the heck out of the bottom of the pan…then place a wax circle in there…then spray the heck out of that wax circle.
These layers are super thin, so you really do need that much non-stickfulness to help insure the layers don’t come out of the pan in pieces.
Now it’s time for cake making. Beanie only uses this mix:
She’s tried other mixes, but nothing works as well. The cake gets mixed up per the instructions on the box, EXCEPT that you add 1 Cup, and then a little more, of water, rather than 2/3 C as the mix calls for. Once your batter is ready, it gets spread out over your 12 cake pans. That’s a lot of pans.
Beanie has a very methodical way of completing this step. She sorta plops a random amount in each pan, for about 9 pans (I think),then goes back and spreads it out very thinly in each. What’s interesting is that as she spreads, she scoops off excess and dumps it in an empty pan, or one that needs a little more, or whatever…and so, as she goes from pan to pan, she’s more evenly distributing the batter. She also wipes off the edge of each pan with a paper towel as she goes…she’s like a machine.
Now, we bake. We did 6 layers at a time, 3 on each rack, and baked them for the time indicated on the cake box. At least I think we did…I’ve since forgotten. But I know it was a pretty short time, about 8-10 minutes…I would just recommend that you keep your eye on them to make sure nothing is baking too quickly.
Here’s where things get fun. As soon as the layers come out of the oven, go ahead and start popping them out of the pans. Remember all that spraying we did earlier? Totally worth it. We used a knife to get under the edge of each layer, and then the whole thing slid out pretty easily. We got them all out of their pans and onto the racks…
…and then it was time to remove the wax paper. Flip them over and find a loose edge, then just start peeling…just be careful, since you want the paper to come off without pulling little pieces of cake with it.
Although sometimes that still happens. If it does, just keep the little pieces that come apart – you can use them to fill in spaces when you put your layers together.
While the layers cooled, we started the icing. This is amazing stuff, and pretty simple. Start by melting your butter, and once that’s good and melted, add sugar and cocoa and get that all stirred up really well. It’ll be kinda dry, but not for long…
…because you’ll add canned milk (evaporated, not condensed) to get things going. After you get the milk really well mixed in, add a dash of vanilla, and then let it boil.
Definitely keep stirring as it builds to a boil. Once it starts boiling, let it boil for 6 minutes, and NEVER stop stirring. After 6 minutes, remove from heat, and be ready to start icing your layers RIGHT THEN. As this icing starts to cool, it stiffens and becomes sort of fudge-like…which you can sort of see on this spoon:
So you have to work quickly before the icing gets too stiff to spread. Just put down your first layer and give it an even coat…then the next, then the next, and so on, and so forth.
Now, hopefully, you’ll be able to measure out the icing evenly enough to have plenty left once you get to the top. Of course, after all the layers have been put into place, you want a nice coating over the entire cake. Well…that didn’t work out for us. My cousin, Damon, was taking care of the icing, and we ran out with about 3 layers left to go. So, no problem, we decided to make another half batch of icing. Since the pot we used for the first batch hadn’t been washed, I just grabbed a different pot. THIS IS CRITICAL.
The half batch of icing cooked up just as expected…it was smooth and creamy and chocolatey…so we got back to the cake. We were able to finish the layers, then move on to the outer coating.
So far, so good. It had only taken 2-3 minutes to get to this point…which was plenty of time before the icing started to stiffen…and then something got weird. The icing started to stiffen QUICKLY…like, as soon as Damon started trying to spread it all around. He got one pass around the sides…
…and then the icing was so stiff that it seemed to just be tearing the cake. Beanie gave it a go and was able to get it all covered…it just wasn’t pretty.
We can’t explain it. My best guess is that the 2nd pot we used was too thick of a metal or something…that’s the only difference between the two batches of icing. This is also further proof that the universe does not want me to carry on this cake tradition. Beanie said she had never seen that happen before…it’s a mystery. Just know that her cakes usually come out much prettier and look a lot like that Delish pic I included up top.
So, at the end of it all, we had a pretty goofy looking cake…
…that still tasted pretty awesome.
Thin Layer Chocolate Cake
Cake: use Duncan Hines Butter Golden cake mix; follow the directions on the box, EXCEPT use 1 Cup water (and then a little more), instead of 2/3 C water.
1 stick butter
2 cups granulated sugar
6 TBSP cocoa
1 cup canned milk (evaporated)
1 tsp vanilla
Melt butter in your pot over medium-high heat. Once melted, add sugar and cocoa and mix well. After mixing, add milk and stir well, then add vanilla. Continue stirring until icing comes to a boil; let boil for 6 minutes, stirring constantly. After 6 minutes, remove from heat and begin icing cakes immediately.