Julia Child once said that "a party without a cake is just a meeting." Many of us ask for a delicious chocolate cake on our birthdays, but have you ever asked for a layer of cake for every year you've been alive? This storied 18-Layer Chocolate Cake comes from our Test Kitchen Pro Ivy Odom, who shares her fond memories of growing up with this classic Southern cake. A tradition specifically below the Gnat Line in the southeastern states, this layered chocolate cake varies based on which birthday you're celebrating. You likely haven't seen it anywhere north of Macon, in Georgia. So, if you've seen it as seven or ten or fourteen layers – now you know why. Ivy's great-grandmother would make this exact cake – it's her recipe – for Ivy's mama and uncle every year, starting with twelve layers. She got all the way up to eighteen layers, which is what this recipe creates.
One of the most important things about this cake is the moist cake layers. The layers are made of a soft, Southern winter wheat flour (such as White Lily) that's been sifted to allow for lots of air in the baking process. If you live somewhere that doesn't have access to this flour, Ivy recommends using cake flour and double-sifting it to ensure that the flour is airy enough for your cake. Your saving grace with this recipe will be using disposable cake pans that have been sprayed and lined with parchment paper circles. Spray on top of the parchment, as well, so that your cake layers will come easily from their pans. Ivy's been working on this recipe since she was 13 years old, and to her, it's been "a really cool way to honor my mama and my grandmother." Between each cake layer, spoon 1/4 cup of chocolate icing. Once you've stacked all of your layers (and it takes practice!), you can frost the whole cake with chocolate.
LITTLE LAYER CHOCOLATE CAKE
Serves 12 (serving size: 1 slice)
Active 1 hour 30 min. Total 2 hours
24 oz. evaporated milk
6 cups granulated sugar, divided
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 Tbsp. light corn syrup
1 tsp. Kosher salt, divided
2 ½ cups (5 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, divided
6 large eggs
3 tsp. vanilla extract, divided
4 ½ cups soft winter wheat all purpose flour, such as White Lily
2 Tbsp. baking powder
2 cups whole milk
9 8-inch round disposable aluminum pans
18 8-inch rounds parchment paper
1. Preheat oven to 425°. Prepare 9 8-inch disposable aluminum pans with cooking spray and rounds of parchment paper.
2. To prepare icing, in a large saucepan, whisk together evaporated milk, 3 cups sugar, cocoa powder, corn syrup and ¼ teaspoon salt over medium heat. Attach a candy thermometer to pot and cook, whisking occasionally, to just at soft ball stage (234-236°F), about 15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, cream 1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter and remaining 3 cups sugar using a large heavy duty stand mixer. Add in eggs, 2 at a time, until well incorporated, about 2 minutes. Add in 2 teaspoons vanilla. Sift together flour and baking powder in a medium bowl. Add remaining ¾ teaspoon salt to sifted flour mixture. Add flour mixture and milk alternately in 3 additions, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Scrape down sides of mixer bowl with a rubber spatula and mix to incorporate fully, about 1 minute.
3. Once chocolate icing reaches soft ball stage, reduce heat to simmer and add remaining cup (2 sticks) butter and remaining teaspoon vanilla. Stir to melt butter, about 2 minutes. Maintain a very low simmer until first round of cake layers are out of oven.
4. Using a kitchen scale, add 4 oz batter to each prepared pan. Using an offset spatula, spread batter as evenly as possible on bottom of pans. Bake 4 layers at a time for 5 minutes in preheated oven. Remove from pan by placing a wire rack on top of pan and inverting pan to release cake layer. Remove parchment from cake layer and place first layer on cake stand. Remove icing from heat.
5. To assemble cake, pour about ¼ cup hot icing onto first cake layer, just enough to make a very thin layer of icing, but not enough to seep over sides of layer. Repeat with remaining 7 layers.
6. Prepare same cake pans with more cooking spray and rounds of parchment; weigh out 4 oz batter for each pan and spread layers as before. Bake 4 layers at a time for 5 minutes in preheated oven; continue layering cake with icing and baked cake layers. For top layer of icing, pour enough icing over top to seep over sides of cake. Use an offset spatula or small rubber spatula to spread a generous layer of icing to fully cover sides and top of cake. (Icing will be thicker at this point, and you will have some leftover). Let cake set at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day before slicing.