A couple of years ago, I became infatuated with stack cakes. They aren’t traditional layer cakes—they look more like a stack of pancakes piled up with a sweet filling between the layers. Unless you have a cousin in the hills of East Tennessee or the fields of lower Alabama, stack cakes can be hard to come by these days. The story goes that people in the South were so poor that wedding cakes were built out of layers each guest brought to the ceremony—the more layers, the more popular the couple, I guess! But it’s more likely that stack cakes required less equipment to produce and could be more easily packed for travel or picnicking, which has always been a very Southern pursuit. I’ve also heard that you can measure the skill of the baker by the tenderness of the crumb and how many layers the cake has, but I just find them fun to make.
For the cake:
1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter as many 9-inch round cake pans as you have—you want to create a total of 10 layers, baking 2 or 3 layers at a time. If you only have two or three pans, cool them between batches and butter them again as needed.
2. Sift the flour, salt, and baking powder into a small bowl and stir to combine well. Set aside.
3. Put the chocolate in the top of a double boiler. Fill the bottom of the double boiler with water, insert the top, and set the double boiler over low heat; the water should never be hotter than a simmer. Stir the chocolate with a silicone spatula until it melts, scraping down the sides as necessary. Remove from the heat.
4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large mixing bowl, using a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and creamy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until smooth after each addition. Reduce the speed to low and add the sifted dry ingredients 1 cup at a time, beating until incorporated. Add the evaporated milk and melted chocolate and beat just to combine. Add the water and vanilla, beating until well combined.
5. Place a scant 2/3 cup batter in each prepared cake pan and use the back of a spoon or an offset spatula to spread the batter evenly. Bake 2 or 3 layers at a time for 8 to 9 minutes—a layer is done when you hold it near your ear and do not hear it sizzle. Allow the layers to cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Turn them out onto baking racks, using a metal spatula to ease them out of the pans, and let cool completely.
Meanwhile, for the icing:
Combine the sugar and evaporated milk in a medium saucepan and set over medium-low heat. Add the chocolate and butter and heat, stirring, until they have melted. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, until the mixture has emulsified and is smooth. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla, stirring to combine. The icing will be thin, but it will thicken as it cools. Let cool completely.
1. Place one layer on a cake plate and, using an icing spatula, spread 2 or 3 spoonfuls of icing on top. Repeat with the remaining layers (don’t worry if a layer tears; no one will see it when the cake is finished). Then cover the top and sides of the cake with the remaining icing. Scrape up any icing that runs onto the plate and spread it back on the cake. If the icing hardens before the cake is iced, place the icing back over low heat.
2. Let the cake stand for 1 hour before serving it.
In a cake keeper or cake box, the cake will keep for up to 3 days at room temperature or 5 days in the refrigerator.
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Excerpted from Heritage by Sean Brock (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards.