How Layer Cakes Became An American Darling

Layer cakes are a relative newcomer as cake types go. InĀ cake history, the most ancient ones were more akin to sweet breads while fruitcake has been around (and was very possibly being regifted) since the Middle Ages. Frosted cakes joined the lineup in the 17th century, but baking multiple layers and sandwiching them together with filling didn't really catch on until another 200 years had passed.

Some of the earliest U.S. layer cakes, among them jelly or apple stack cakes, were more like piles of pancakes stuck together with fruit or jam. By the late 19th century, though, more widespread use of cast-iron stoves, as well as the invention of baking powder, made it possible for home cooks to fine-tune their baking. Layer cake recipes were published in American cookbooks from the 1870s onwards, but food historian Stephen Schmidt told The New York Times that the true golden age of such cakes lasted from the early 20th century up through the 1930s.

Layer cakes no longer reign alone at the top of the charts

So, what killed the layer cake? Well, nothing, technically, since they are obviously still around. Nonetheless, the introduction of boxed cake mixes in the 1930s as well as their widespread adoption in the post-WWII era led to more emphasis on home baking being quick and effortless. There's no denying that one-pan sheet cakes are a lot less hassle than cakes that have to be stacked, filled, and covered on all sides with frosting. As for layer cakes on restaurant menus, they were on their way out by the 1960s when Julia Child taught us to expect continental desserts such as chantilly aux framboises or charlotte malakoff au chocolat.

By the late '90s, The New York Times was calling the layer cake "endangered," quoting several restaurant chefs who explained that it wasn't fancy enough for fine dining and that if they dared serve it at all, they needed to disguise it with frills and furbelows. Some 30 years later, layer cake is still not something you might find on the menu of an elegant eatery, although a diner might set you up with a slice. Layer cakes remain on the radar of home cooks, but even here they've got competition. They must share the spotlight or even be outshined by such popular options as cheesecakes, bundt cakes, pound cakes, sheet cakes, upside-down cakes, and no-bake eclair "cakes" made with pudding and graham crackers.