12-Layer Cake. Because It’s Christmas, and You Have People to Impress.

Cake, Chocolate, Christmas, Desserts / Tuesday, December 16th, 2008


When I was a kid, years before the naked Nativity, our local Harvey’s Department Store had a Talking Christmas Tree. A huge fake cardboard tree with rolling eyes and a moving mouth that would “talk” to customers as they passed. The bane of my existence. Every year, when Mom did her Christmas shopping at Harvey’s, I ran past The Tree and hid in the only place where The Tree’s all-seeing eyes couldn’t find me: Ladies’ Lingerie.

Finally, Mom got sick of looking for me cowering in the endless racks of bras and panties and told me to go talk to The Tree. I’m sure she thought I’d just walk up, like all the other kids, and tell it what I wanted for Christmas. But then that googly gaze swirled around and locked right on me: “HU-HU-HU-HEY, LITTLE GIRL! DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL MESSAGE FOR SANTA?”

Something inside me snapped. I took a deep breath, pointed at The Tree’s hideous face and growled, “YOU’RE NOT EVEN REAAAAAAL! STOP TALKING TO MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

I turned around, and my mom was across the store, giving me two thumbs up. She had no idea what I’d said. But after that, giving The Tree what-for became my own personal holiday tradition.

Why make a 12-Layer Cake out of individually baked layers when you could bake thicker cakes and split them? Again, TRADITION! I love the tradition of the stack cake. In Appalachia, many people were too poor to afford wedding cakes, so guests would bring a cake layer with them. Then the bride’s family would spread an apple filing between each cake layer and stack them. The more popular the couple, the taller the cake.

This cake is comprised of 12 pancake-thin layers of butter cake filled and decorated with a pourable chocolate icing, so that you can still see the outline of the layers even after they’re “covered.” (The visible outline is also nice, because you don’t have the pressure of trying to frost the cake so that the sides look straight.) The cake has a lovely, old-fashioned look with just the poured icing, but if you need to take it uptown, garnish the top with a sprinkling of nuts, chopped candies or coconut – and maybe a drizzle of white chocolate.

Tip: To speed up the baking process, pick up 12 cheap aluminum cake pans at the grocery. Then you can skip the washing and cooling between layers.

The Smith Family’s 12-Layer Cake

Adapted from Art Smith

Servings: 16 to 20

  • 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 6 extra-large eggs , at room temperature
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut up
  • 1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Pecan halves, for garnish
  1. Position racks in the center and bottom third of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Lightly butter four 8 1/2- to 9-inch cake pans (you will bake the cakes in three batches), and line the bottoms with rounds of parchment paper. Flour the pans and tap out the excess.
  2. To make the layers, sift together the sifted flour, baking powder and salt. Sift the mixture one more time, and set aside.
  3. Beat the butter and sugar in the bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle blade on high speed until light in color and texture, about 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the bowl and be sure the mixture is well-blended. On low speed, add the flour in 3 additions, alternating with 2 additions of the milk, beginning and ending with the flour, and beat until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl often with a rubber spatula. Beat in the vanilla. Using a scant cup for each layer, spread the batter evenly in the pans. It will make a thin layer.
  4. Staggering the pans on the racks so they are at least 2 inches from each other and the sides of the oven and not directly over each other, bake the layers until they feel firm when pressed in the centers and are beginning to pull away from the sides of the pans, about 12 minutes. Cool in the pans for 5 minutes. Invert the layers onto cake racks, remove the parchment paper, and cool completely. Wash and prepare the pans. Repeat the procedure until all 12 layers have been baked and cooled.
  5. To make the icing, bring the sugar, cocoa, butter and evaporated milk to a full boil in a large saucepan. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the icing has thickened slightly (it will resemble chocolate syrup but will thicken as it cools), about 3 minutes. Stir in the vanilla. Let the icing cool until thick enough to spread, but still pourable.
  6. Place a layer of cake on a wire rack set over a jelly-roll pan. Spread with a few tablespoons of the icing, letting the excess run down the sides. Stack the remaining cakes, icing each layer. Pour the remaining icing over the top of the cake. If you wish, smooth the icing on the edges to cover the sides. Place pecan halves around the top perimeter of the cake. Let stand until the glaze sets. (The cake is best served the day it is made. To store, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 1 day.)


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37 thoughts on “12-Layer Cake. Because It’s Christmas, and You Have People to Impress.

  1. Oh dear God! That cake looks too good to eat. I may be giving it a try in a gluten free version. Thank you for the inspiration.

  2. This 12-layer cake will impress! Wow! Wouldn’t you love to hear stories from other kids that experienced the talking Christmas tree? You had your own little childhood personal-empowerment moment thanks to that tree.

  3. Oh goodness, this looks sinfully decadent. What a perfect cake that seems only fit during the holidays. I guess that’s why I like this time of year so much :)

  4. I remember that. Not you yelling at it, but whispering to me how much you hated it every time we’d go to Harvey’s around christmas. To me it was the only thing interesting in Harvey’s.

  5. Ooh…I love (you think I am going to say the chocolate cake, right, but if so you know me not by now…LOL) the story of the stack cake…just the sort of historical lore I appreciate, and who knew I was going to tune in today to find it here? So, thanks…and the white drizzle and peppermints are really really lovely…I think those would look very nice on a white cake, don’t you? Tee hee. I can so see you shouting at that tree.

  6. Talking trees like that give Christmas a bad name. The cake looks great though — hell, my family would be impressed if I could even pull off 6 or 7 of those layers!

  7. […] Old Fashioned, Twelve Layer Cake. Well, this would be one way to impress those in-laws. A bit of work maybe, but Rebecca gives some good tips along the way and you end up with an absolutely beautiful creation. She doesn’t actually cut into it for the post so there is no real way to verify that there are twelve layers, but I’ll trust her just this one time.  I wouldn’t want to cut into that bad boy if I made it either. It’s just too pretty. (@ Ezra Pound Cake) […]

  8. I saw this recipe one year and fleetingly thought about making it! FLEETINGLY! Love your tip about using disposable baking pans. Looks delicious and Christmas-y.

  9. I want to work in a bakery so I can learn all of these wonderful things like you did. I can make something that tastes out of this world… but man is my presentation lacking.

  10. Have you ever watched Rolie Polie Olie (before the Disney Channel dumped it without warning a few years back?) Olie’s mom used to make a chocolate cake up to the ceiling. Every layer had polka dots(and was about 3 layers thick, and she has 22 of them–something like 66 layers high). My son wanted one JUST LIKE IT for his birthday. No exceptions. I made it as tall as I could. Afterwards, my Brother-in-law said I could have cheated it up with stryofoam layers on the bottom, with icing. I figured I cheated enough by using m&ms for the polka dots . . .

  11. Oh sweet Jesus! My paternal grandmother used to make these when I was a child and there was nothing better than a slice of this with an 8-oz. Coke! (Thank God I am genetically predisposed to being of reasonable height and weight, because my childhood eating habits would have caused me to waddle otherwise!) Sadly, Grandmother Smithie took her recipe to the grave. A few years ago, I found "her" cake in a little restaurant in Georgetown, SC along with a caramel variety . . . the first bite brought tears of joy and remembrance to my eyes. As Fate would have it, the restaurant closed shortly after my discovery, and my figure remains intact despite the fact that my sweet tooth mourns its passing! My daughter is a great baker, so I think I will ask her to try making this before she goes away to college this fall.

    Thanks so much for sharing the recipe and the story about its history. Smithie would have loved to have known that history as she was quite the raconteur!

  12. I do these old fashioned cakes also. They are also very pretty made square. I sometimes do 8 layers instead of 12. The cake top fits over it much better. My Grandmother use to make a cake like this and used a cooked lemon cheese icing to pore over the layers. A wonderful cake also….Of course no one can do them like our Grandmothers. peggie

  13. hey this recipe sounds amazing. But how do you get the cake from off the rack onto a plate once you've iced it? Is that not a precarious undertaking? Any tips?

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