Deliciously Retro: The Layer Cake
Cakes themselves have a long history, well before the introduction of the cupcake (which dates back at least to the 1800s). For centuries we’ve been weighing (or measuring) fats, solids, liquids and flavorings and baking them until they rise to perfection. The layered cake, though, is much more modern – one of the first recipes for slicing and stacking cake with layers of frosting or jams appeared in Cassell’s New Universal Cookery Book in 1894.
During the post-war boom it became popular to present cakes much more elegantly, and using layers was an easy way to create an appealing design. While specialty tools might be used to halve and even the tops of cakes, one could also use a knife or, like my mother sometimes did, fishing line. Of course, some bakers would simply bake the layers separately, and trim the tops if necessary. Many recipes featured in magazines used this method.
The layered cake is timeless. Though a successful presentation requires patience, any home baker can make one. Varying colors and flavors would be used based on its purpose – a birthday, for example, might be celebrated with a vanilla cake with strawberry frosting, while a wedding cake was most always white.
Creating a layered cake was also a statement of talent. Post-war advertising reminded traditional housewives that creating eye-catching treats would better prove to their husband their “gifted” kitchen abilities.
Cake advertising in the ’50s and ’60s most often depicted the layer cake – from the most basic creations to elegant creations. Ad designs shifted from depicting product packaging and a finished cake to more elaborate settings. Some ads integrated modern fashions, further enticing women to bake a certain kind of cake.
Major brands, like Betty Crocker, Pillsbury and Swans Down, competed heavily through magazine advertising throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Many advertisements included exclusive recipes from specialty kitchens.
Of course, final presentation and serving of a layered cake was also key, so cake stands and specialty slicers became staples in modern kitchens. Specialty carriers were used when transporting this dessert to another location.
While cupcakes have become acceptable substitutes for more elegant gatherings – like weddings – there was a time when they were considered nothing more than a “quick” dessert or treat, and layered or towered cakes were for celebrating life’s memorable events.
While new flavors, cake pan designs and recipes continue to emerge, the layered cake itself remains a timeless treat. From the backyard birthday party to the most elegant of weddings, this modern concept – with all its simplicity – is always embraced as a fine ending to any meal.
Did your mother or grandmother used to take great pride in building a layered cake? Do you carry on this timeless tradition? We’d love to see those vintage pictures or recipes.