If you're looking for the ultimate layered cake treat, try out my family's seven layer chocolate cake. Thin layers of vanilla cake sandwiched with a chocolate fudge frosting. This cake is famous amongst my family and friends and is sure to be a showstopper for you too!
What is Seven Layer Chocolate Cake
The name is a bit misleading. The cake itself is made up of vanilla layers, sandwiched together with a chocolate fudge frosting. The chocolate here is definitely indulgent enough to justify the name! This recipe is from my mother's side of the family, passed down from her mother in North Carolina.
A Seven Layered Smith Island Cake
Only in recent years have I learned that our layered chocolate cake bears a striking resemblance to the state dessert of Maryland - the Smith Island Cake.
The Smith Island Cake is a vintage cake recipe, taking its name from Smith Island in Maryland. Traditionally made with eight (or more) thin layers of vanilla cake, it is sandwiched with a fudgy frosting, very much like my family's seven layer version. The roots of the Smith Island cake are believed to be in Bavarian layered tortes. Fudge frosting replaced buttercream for the sake of the cake's durability in being sent to watermen at work.
How to Make Thin Cake Layers - Some Tips
One of the key aspects of my seven layer cake (or any Smith Island Cake), is the thin cake layers. There are a couple of dos and don'ts for these, which may not be immediately obvious:
Don'ts for Making Thin Cake Layers
- DON'T try to make one large cake and slice this into thin layers. The cake will be flakey and dry.
- DON'T forget to measure the amount of batter you are putting in each cake tin. These don't have to be exactly precise, but you need to split the batter as evenly as possible. Especially when you are making several thin layers, you need to have an idea of how much batter can go in each tin to ensure the right number at the end.
- DON'T overbake. Keep a close eye on each cake layer. These cook quite quickly and can burn easily if left unattended.
Dos for Making Thin Moist Cake Layers
- DO ideally have multiple of the same sized cake tins. I have two 9" tins, so can only make two cake layers at a time. If you have three or four, you will be able to measure out and prep more layers, so the baking process may go more quickly.
- DO spread the batter evenly by tilting the tin and gently nudging the batter with a spatula to reach the edges.
- DO prepare your counter space. Have parchment paper and extra flour at the ready for flipping out your cakes.
- DO dust the top of your baked cakes with some flour before flipping out onto the parchment to cool. These cakes are super moist, so a bit of flour will help to avoid the cake layers from sticking to the parchment as they cool.
- DO use a toothpick to loosen around the sides of the baked cake before removing from the tin.
- DO flip your cakes out quickly and with force. I basically flip and smack the cake tin onto the counter (over parchment) to ensure the cake comes out in one quick go. If you are too hesitant, the cake layers may stick more and crack.
Tips on Checking Doneness
For these thin cakes, doneness may be a bit harder to judge than a traditional cake. This is because you won't rely on a toothpick inserted into the centre. You are looking for a few main signs to know the layer is done:
- Little holes on the top forming. Think of these a bit like a pancake - you want to see the little holes to know that the base is cooked through.
- Lightly golden edges.
- Gently touch the top of the cake, it should be firm, but a bit tacky to the touch. While it may be lightly sticky, it shouldn't still be batter.
Using the Same Cake Tin for Multiple Layers
For the home baker, making several thin cake layers almost inevitably requires reusing the same cake tins multiple times. This can be quickly and easily done with the help of extra butter, flour and a spatula or paper towel.
Each time you flip out a cake, the tin should be mostly clean on the bottom, but often a little bit of crumb may remain. Use the spatula or paper towel to wipe this away. Then rebutter and flour. As the tin may still be quite warm, the butter will melt quickly, but you should still be able to coat the base and sides.
Chocolate Fudge Frosting
The chocolate fudge frosting for the seven layer chocolate cake is definitely the highlight. Decadent enough that my family refers to this as a chocolate cake, even though the layers themselves are vanilla!
To make the fudge frosting, you do need one piece of specialist equipment: a food thermometer. This can be a traditional candy thermometer or an instant read version. I've used both over the years - the instant read is a bit easier to handle in a standard sized saucepan.
Making Fudge Frosting
The process for this frosting is very straightforward, though a bit labour intensive. Place sugar, butter and evaporated milk into a deep sided pot. Cook this over a medium heat, stirring as the sugar dissolves.
Once the sugar dissolves, you are going to continue cooking this and stirring. You are essentially making a candy, and will be aiming to approach the soft ball stage (234°F).
As the mixture continues heating, it will start to boil and bubble, so be careful as the liquid is very hot. You should be stirring with a long handled spatula or whisk to try to avoid too much splatter hitting your hand.
Continue checking the temperature. Once your thermometer reaches about 230°F, remove from the heat and add your chocolate. Stir to melt the chocolate.
Tip on Temperature
The original recipe calls for the fudge frosting to hit the soft ball stage. This is a candy temperature and relates to the solidifying of the final product. While the goal is for the frosting to be fudgy and solidify, I find that bringing this all the way to 234°F makes it extremely difficult to spread on the cake quickly enough. I recommend that you take the mixture from the heat early at 230°F. The pan will retain heat, so will still be cooking this a bit even though you've removed it. This will allow the frosting to be more easily spreadable and you should be able to cover all seven layers less stressfully!
Assembling Seven Layer Chocolate Cake
Due to the fudge frosting, you need to assemble this cake quite quickly. The frosting will begin to solidify and can become unspreadable if allowed to cool too much. This should be less of a problem if you have removed this from the heat a few degrees short of the official soft ball stage.
Dollop some of the frosting out onto a layer and spread evenly across. You want enough to cover the layer, but do avoid using too much in case you run out!
The frosting recipe is normally enough to cover each layer and the top, but not the sides of the cake. If you make a cake in a smaller diameter (7" or 8") you may also be able to cover the sides, assuming the frosting has not begun to solidify and seize. Traditionally this cake is naked on the sides to show off the layers.
Some Options and Alternatives
There are some options and alternatives to note when making this recipe.
1. Cake Diameter
I usually make my cake using a 9" tin, but you can make this in smaller sizes. I have used 7" and 8" round tins previously and even once made mini versions of this cake in 4" heart-shaped moulds. Using a different shape and size will change the baking time and may change the number of layers.
2. Type of Chocolate for Fudge Frosting
I tend to make my Seven Layer Chocolate Cake with a dark chocolate frosting. My Granny's recipe calls for semi-sweet morsels and I have also made this with milk chocolate in the past. The chocolate you use can be personal preference.
You can use chocolate chips or bars of chocolate - just be sure to chop this up well so that it is easy to melt into the milk.
FAQs for Seven Layer Chocolate Cake
The seven layer chocolate cake, much like the Smith Island Cake, is remarkably durable and long lasting. It can be kept stored in an airtight container at room temperature for about a week. As it is not made with buttercream, you don't need to worry about refrigerating it.
The cake can be frozen, but the frosting may cause the layers to separate when defrosting due to condensation, so I would not recommend this.
You may not have floured the tin enough or the layer may not have quite been done enough. In most cases, you can still salvage the broken layer - just reposition the pieces together as one of the middle layers when stacking the cake. The fudge frosting will help to stick this back together and no one will notice a bit of cracking on the side!
Unfortunately, the frosting being a fudge means that it will solidify and can't really be brought back once it has begun to firm up. You can try to reheat and melt this over a low heat with a bit of added water, but this will dilute the flavour and may cause sugar crystals to form. It is generally easier to just make more than to try to fix the mix.
If you are worried about the frosting firming too quickly as you start assembling, frost a layer to be the top of the cake first and set this aside. You can then know that you have a nice looking layer of smoothly frosted cake to go on top, even if other layers begin to seize up as you are stacking. You can often mould the solidifying fudge frosting to cover layers if necessary, but these don't make for pretty tops to the cake!
If you like this recipe, you might also like these vintage recipes:
Or these chocolate faves:
Seven Layer Chocolate Cake
- instant read thermometer
Ingredients for Cake Layers
- 5 eggs
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup superfine granulated sugar or caster sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2½ cups all purpose flour or plain flour
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup soured milk made by putting 1 tablespoon white vinegar in a measuring cup and topping up to 1 cup with whole milk, mix and leave for 10 minutes before use. This is a classic buttermilk substitution.
Ingredients for Frosting
- 2 cups caster sugar
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- 6 oz chocolate morsels, milk or dark dependent on preference
- Preheat oven to 325°F (165C/150C Fan)
- In a medium bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt with a fork. Set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine butter, sugar and vanilla. Beat until well blended.
- Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
- Add flour mixture and soured milk alternating the two and mixing well after each addition.
- Grease and flour 9" cake tins (as many as you have available)
- Pour about 1 cup of batter into each cake tin and carefully spread evenly to the edges.
- Cook each layer for approximately 10 minutes, watching carefully for signs of burning. These are very thin layers and should be lightly golden around the edges, but not browning on top.
- Remove the layers from the oven and immediately flip out onto parchment paper, dusted with flour - repeat the baking process until you have finished making your layers (this recipe should yield seven). Allow the layers to cool completely.
- For the frosting, combine sugar, milk and butter in a medium saucepan and cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture reaches approximately 230°F as measured on an instant read or candy thermometer.
- Remove from the heat and add chocolate morsels, stirring until the mixture is smooth and chocolate melted.
- Spread some frosting on each layer of the cake and stack these. Move quickly as the frosting will start to harden. The frosting should make enough to sandwich each layer in chocolate, but will not go around the sides of the cake.