The Great Layer Cake Mystery of 2020

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Tenth Helpings is a humor column from our culture critic, Ella Quittner, illustrated by Olivia de Recat.

“Hit me with a Two,” I said, jogging into the kitchen, mask dangling off my face.

Obligingly, my boyfriend Nate lunged for a foil-tented plate with the focus and agility of a heart surgeon on a Shonda show. “No, no, no, wait!” I said, “That’s not right.”

I wracked my brain, time being of the essence. “Okay, I’ve got it. I need a Three, with some rosettes from the six-inch Four.”

With only moments to spare before my meltdown commenced, he handed me a plate containing a slice of triple-layer cake, mottled with frosting flowers he’d excised from a four-decker Red Velvet lurking in another part of the fridge.

It was the summer of 2020, and my layer cake consumption had reached new heights.

Illustrations by Olivia de Recat

“When we launched with delivery platforms for the first time in June 2020, we were very surprised to see layer cake slices selling even better than our cupcakes,” Magnolia Bakery’s Chief Baking Officer Bobbie Lloyd told me recently. (Real title, I checked.)

I had called to solicit Lloyd’s professional opinion about whether my still-cresting layer cake ingestion levels were “absolutely bananas” and/or “going to turn all of my loved ones against me.” For the few who have never put themselves in a position to feel pervasive irritation every time Carrie Bradshaw is unable to help but wonder, Magnolia Bakery is a New York City institution made famous in part by Sex and the City for its towering cupcakes crowned with cartoonish whirls of Easter egg-colored frosting. So when Lloyd revealed that layer cake had eclipsed the bakery’s most beloved wares, 10 frosting-covered alarms went off in my brain (which is, incidentally, also made of frosting).

I couldn’t help but wonder: Did everyone spend the past year eating just as much layer cake as me?

It seemed, at first, that the answer was yes.

Later that summer, elsewhere in the country, Costco customers revolted when the grocery giant yanked its double-layer sheet cakes from shelves, apparently in response to public safety recommendations to limit gatherings. Shoppers were incensed. They missed their blocky Twos. One went so far as to create a Change.org petition, where devotees penned remarks such as, “Don’t implement policy, Costco, just sell us the cake!!” and “I fear my daughter’s future may hold birthday parties with lesser cake, when all you had to do was not pull your single most valuable creation from its beautiful stainless steel shelf. #BringBacktheSheet”

And as the pandemic waged on and summer turned to fall, Americans appeared to be jonesing harder than ever for their Twos, Threes, and Fours of all shapes and flavors.

“Early on in the pandemic, we put a lemon-lavender layer cake on our menu,” recalled Agatha Kulaga, CEO, Co-Founder, and “Salt Tooth” (also a real title!) of Ovenly Bakery in Brooklyn. “When we took it off the menu in the fall, people freaked out. They wanted this cake. During the shutdown we had so many people emailing us about the recipe, when we reissued our cookbook, we ended up adding the lemon-lavender cake recipe.”

Ovenly also put the layer cake back on the menu, and as of February 2021, cake and cupcake sales were up year-over-year as much as 350 percent, depending on location.

“It’s hard not to love layer cake. It’s instantly fun and festive and evocative of good times and happy occasions,” Shilpa Uskokovic, half of the duo behind microbakery Extra Helpings, wrote to me. Their bestseller, the “Salty, Malty Chocolate Cake” had to be brought back to the menu multiple times over the past year due to customer outcry.

Shawnee Coward of Shawnee’s Goodies, a vegan bakery in Lilburn, Georgia, told me that layer cake had always been a top-seller, but that layer cakes flew off shelves even faster during the pandemic.

It made sense to me that people would turn to layer cake during the pandemic like never before.

Layer cake is perfect. It is a visual delight, with beds of plush crumb swaddled by silky buttercream and glossy jam, presented supine like a three-dimensional centerfold. It has none of the “emotionally unstable but popular on TikTok” energy of cupcakes. It has literally never, ever questioned any of our career decisions or broken our hearts, then driven off in its Mazda SUV to take our college friend on a date. It is a veritable flavor and topping chameleon, making it evergreen, a treat for any day of the year. The English call it “sandwich cake,” for the love of god. That’s adorable!

And for many, layer cake is sentimental, something of a weighted blanket for the soul.

“Over the past few years, especially with the pandemic, people are facing so much stress. Layer cakes are nostalgic. They’re something most people [in the United States] experienced in some form as a child,” said Kulaga.

Illustrations by Olivia de Recat

“Layer cake is more than a dessert,” Catarah Coleman, co-owner of Southern Girl Desserts in Los Angeles, told me. “It’s a reminder of the good ole days. There’s something about them that keeps people ordering them.”

Lloyd agreed. “My mom grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. There was always cake in my house,” she said. To this day, despite all of the flavor combinations she has helped to conceptualize at Magnolia, Lloyd’s favorite layer cake is her mother’s chocolate-with-fudge-icing: “Between nostalgia and flavor, that’s a home run.”

Layer cake far predates the 1940s, of course. Its origins are murkier than you’d expect—yet another exciting quality of layer cake: benign drama—but the American version seems to have originated in the late 1800s with Boston cream pie and jelly cakes, according to Anne Byrn’s American Cake. Before that, layer cakes like sarawak and spekkoek existed in Indonesia and Malaysia, and Germany’s spit-roasted (!!) baumkuchen can be traced to a cookbook published in 1581.

Byrn writes that the “Edwardian dessert extravaganzas” that were special-occasion layer cakes really took off in the United States in the early twentieth century, thanks to a confluence of kitchen technology improvements and an influx of 15 million immigrants who brought new recipes and flavors. Then, Crisco hit American shelves in June 1911, and it’s been a well-greased climb to the top from there.

While nostalgia might be one piece of the layer cake puzzle, Claire Saffitz, general famous pastry person (not a real title, I’m just lazy) and author of one of 2020’s best-selling cookbooks Dessert Person, speculates that there’s more to it.

Saffitz, who grew up on boxed funfetti mix, told me that for her, a big part of layer cake’s appeal is engaging in a fantasy.

“I’m more trying to fulfill an imaginary notion of what a layer cake is than any real layer cake from my childhood,” she said. She points to images from Martha Stewart Living, urgently thumbed through in her early years, and her mother’s cookbook collection for the fictitious cakes that live inside her brain and inform her recipes.

This concept of layer cake as immersive fantasy tracked, considering my mom recently called about an unrelated matter and then spent 22 minutes describing the “Lady Baltimore,” a cake she has never actually had, but which she purports to have thought about every day for 59 years. Before we hung up, she spent another nine minutes describing her mother’s Lady Baltimore, a layer cake molded into the shape of a lamb and piped with white icing to resemble a fluffy coat of fur. To her knowledge, said cake has never existed.

Most of us have a Lady Baltimore, it seems. Mine is a layer cake wherein each layer is actually a disk-shaped Dunkin’ Donuts chocolate cream–filled doughnut, with raspberry Bonne Maman serving as the grout, and additional chocolate cream piped around the top and edges, finished with a sprinkle of Maldon salt. You would probably have to freeze it to get neat slices, then let it come to room temp to serve, but let’s not dwell on the fine points!

I asked Nate about his Lady Baltimore. He reported that it would be a Four with alternating chocolate and vanilla ice cream layers, with “fudge as the glue.” My friend Allegra described her personal Lady Baltimore as “strawberry shortcake turned into layer cake with a graham cracker-y crumble and berries… all over.” My friend Ajay replied to my inquiry simply: “Mint Chocolate Chip Cake.”

Illustrations by Olivia de Recat

When I reached out to my sister Clementine to inquire about her Lady Baltimore, she immediately sent me six text messages describing “some sort of hybrid between a white wine yellow cake w choc frosting [sic] and a buttercream-flavored cake w some sort of fruit btwn the layers and/or jam [double sic] and also a creamy fruit frosting.” She promptly followed up to ask, “Are you there?????”

I was not.

When Sasha Piligian, former pastry chef at Los Angeles’ Sqirl and current layer cake trailblazer, founded her microbakery May Provisions in spring of 2020, she found herself fielding lots of requests for peoples’ Lady Baltimores.

“There wasn’t a menu when I launched,” she said. “People were DMing me on Instagram. It was a conversation. People would be like, ‘I like lemon, or coconut, or chocolate,’ or whatever, and I would pitch them on a cake idea. It was a fluid, loose conversation.” Cake sales are up some 100 percent since launch.

So bakeries were reporting a banner year for layer cake. Surely, that meant people were eating a ton of it during the pandemic.

“Surely,” I said to Nate, my mouth full of a Two. “That’s what it means.”

But as I tried to corroborate exactly that, things took a sharp, sharp turn.

First, PR reps got cagey.

Someone on the global PR team for Whole Foods, for example, responded to my inquiry about layer cakes expressing that she was “unfortunately unable to provide sales information” but that she hoped I had a great weekend.

A member of the Duncan Hines communications team called 2020 a time of “unprecedented category growth,” but when pressed for detail, wrote back “I’m so glad this is helpful!” and declined to provide any hard numbers.

Then came The Poll: an informal survey I conducted, like most great scientists of our time, in my Instagram story. “Over the past year,” I asked, “has your layer cake consumption increased, or decreased?”

Smug from the early results (60 percent: “increased”), I went to bed dreaming of my Lady Baltimore. The next morning, however, I was awoken by Nate, standing over me. He was not holding cake.

“The Poll,” he said. “You’d better look.”

Overnight, voter patterns had changed, resulting in a final split of only 45 percent of respondents saying their layer cake consumption had increased, and 55 percent reporting that their layer cake consumption had decreased.

Decreased???? What in fuck’s name was going on? If bakery sales of whole layer cakes and layer cake slices were booming, but more than half of my social media community reported they were eating less cake, where was all of the cake going?

Illustrations by Olivia de Recat

Was I responsible for the entire layer cake boom? I did some back-of-the-envelope math and quickly realized that at most, I could be responsible for .000015 percent of the nation’s cake sales, even after assuming that one third of the cakes I purchased in 2020 were Sixes. So what was accounting for the other 99.999985 percent? Was everybody lying? Or were people buying layer cake for reasons other than consumption? Were they ordering those Lingua Franca-esque cakes with benignly inspirational fodder scrawled across their pillowy tops in pink icing, merely to photograph? Could there be a great run on smashing one’s face into a cake?

I asked Piligian if she could estimate what portion of her customer base was purchasing May Provisions cakes solely for face-smashing.

“I am not aware of whether anyone has smashed their face into one of my cakes,” she said. “But I would love to know.”

Saffitz told me that someone once asked her to smash her face into a cake on camera. “I was horrified and said no,” she recalled. “It offends my sensibilities.”

So were my Instagram followers just a biased group? Were they perhaps eating these cakes in fugue states, unaware of their actual consumption levels? I set out to find more answers.

Unfortunately for my editor (whom I suspect began to regret giving me the go-ahead on this investigation the moment I FaceTimed her on a Friday night to ask if she thought the illuminati was involved), this took the form of me co-opting the Food52 Instagram account. It was high time for The Second Poll, with a much wider pool of respondents.

Thousands of people responded to my inquiry: “In the past year, have you consumed more layer cake or less layer cake?”

The results of The Second Poll were stunning. Only a cool 32 percent said they had consumed more cake, with a glaring 68 percent reporting lower cake consumption levels.

When a benevolent Instagram user Direct Messaged me to report that she only consumed layer cake once all year, but that she consumed the entire cake, I realized immediately it could be a clue.

“It could be a clue!” I called out to absolutely no one, and set out with another question to Food52’s followers: “If you have consumed more layer cake in the last year, how much more layer cake have you consumed?” I selected a slider feature so respondents could report their increase in intake from “barely” to “three times as much.”

In an outcome that made me gasp like a little old lady in film noir, the average answer was exactly in the middle, which, due to my dumb poll design, we can only interpret as “one point five-plus times as much cake.”

So, while additional research must be done to confirm, early indications suggest that people like me may have been eating all of the extra cake.

But perhaps it’s more complicated than that. Perhaps, like my one true love herself, the answer lies in layers.

For example, Coward of Shawnee’s Goodies posited that it seemed like more cakes were being purchased from her bakery as gifts for other people over the past year, and that perhaps the recipients were not actually eating the cakes.

Regional differences could have been at play, as well. My Ohio-based in-laws have purchased a layer cake for every holiday over the past 14 months (including, most recently, an excellent-looking Cassata cake). Meanwhile, my Northern California-based father complains that my mother has brought nary a single layer cake into the house since 2019. Coleman of Southern Girl Desserts in Los Angeles says their layer cake sales peaked in winter of last year.

And it’s also possible that the illuminati is involved, despite what my editor thinks.

In any case, layer cake had a hell of a year, and early anecdotes from the bakery owners I spoke with indicate no signs of slow-down. (As Coleman recalled to me, “Recently, a customer requested a cake made in the shape of a cigarette tray and had us write: Maybe this year you’ll quit!”)

The only thing we know for certain at this stage is that layer cake is our sweet, sweet princess, and we should not squander her.

As Saffitz put it, “You could have a single layer with frosting over it and you could just eat a lot of it. But it’s somehow not the same as having three layers, all with frosting, stacked on top of one anther, decorated. They’re not equivalent. A layer cake is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Here lie miscellaneous monthly musings from our culture critic, Ella Quittner. Send her tips to [email protected] or via Instagram DM.

All jokes aside, the most important thing I’ve been reading about is how to help with the devastating second wave of coronavirus cases in India. This list of verified organizations, from Divia Thani CN Traveler (via Sonia Chopra’s newsletter), is a good jumping off point for donations. Chopra and Rachel Gurjar also wrote about how food businesses are lending a hand, which contains a number of additional organizations and initiatives.

On The Docket: What To Read, Watch & Listen To

  • Did you hear the one about how Epicurious went beef-free, and half the internet had beef with it? (Crickets, you say?) Then, Eleven Madison Park ditched all meat, which had everyone talking tweeting very fast.
  • In the “relatable crimes” arena, a man was recently arrested after dating 35 people at once, in a ploy to “get more birthday gifts.” It’s only relevant to Tenth Helpings if you believe the bit about photographs showing him with “two small cakes,” which, yeah, I do!
  • Have you made Yewande Komolafe’s kunun gyada yet? She had me at “tamarind purée.” I can’t wait to use the bag of shelled peanuts languishing in my pantry this weekend.
  • Look, this is earnest of me, but I watched all of The Baker and The Beauty in two days. I now regularly fall asleep thinking of magnificos.
  • I really enjoyed this piece by Annie Hariharan about fermented home-brews in Malaysia, and I suspect you will too.
  • Everyone and their roommate appears to be roasting a chicken that purports to also be pastrami from Molly Baz’ new cookbook, Cook this Book. I will be making said pastrami-chicken and reporting back. Have you tried any recipes? Let me know in the comments.
Photo by Ella Quittner

The Happenings: Veggie Sandwiches + My Mouth

Friends and family alike have muted my phone number in recent weeks as my obsession with vegetable sandwiches has reached new heights. There’s no telling how many photos they’ll receive from me in a given day of oozing, rainbow-toned sandwiches propped up lovingly as if they’re my children. Since temporarily moving to Los Angeles, I’ve sampled several so far, including the Ira Glass at Wax Paper, a sprouty joint from Clark Street Bakery, and an especially hearty boy with pickled carrots from Valerie.

I’m now locked in an all-consuming race against time (by which I mean my eventual mortality) to create the perfect vegetable sandwich at home.

So far I have set the following rules:

No limp bread. Bread must either be toasted, or must be carved in wide swaths from a sturdy loaf. Soft bread results in avocado all over your mousepad, also known as a huge bummer.
Something must be pickled. Ideally, more than one thing would be pickled, but no fewer than one layer must be piquant and puckery, to balance out the vegetal flavs.
Fat is a must. A shitty fact of life is that most raw vegetables are neither creamy, soft, nor velvety. A veg sandwich without a soft or creamy or velvety element is essentially just a bread salad. Enter: avocado and cheese (or an excellent plant-based cheese). You could also add a fried egg, or a technically less fatty but still creamy element like tofu.
Condiments take it home. But you knew that, didn’t you? Currently I’m on a mayo-chili crisp run, don’t tell my Dijon.

What are your best vegetable sandwich tips and recipes? If you let me know in the comments, I promise never to say “flavs” again.

A Food Meme For The Ages

Not technically a meme, but I can’t and won’t stop watching!

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.





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