How The Atomic Cake Became The Infamous Birthday Cake Of Chicago

If you've struggled to pick one flavor for a perfect birthday cake, bakers in Chicago came up with an answer for you. The Illinois classic Atomic Cake offers multiple cakes packed into one. The exact order of the layers sometimes varies depending on what recipe you use, but it's traditionally composed of banana cake, banana cream, yellow cake, strawberry glaze, chocolate cake, chocolate ganache, and whipped cream frosting. Why stop at one cake when you can have three?

The invention of this culinary monstrosity has been debated, but this cake is decidedly a Chicago-based recipe attributed to bakeries on the South Side. The Atomic Cake emerged in the 1950s and has become associated with celebrations and birthdays ever since. "I was told that in the '50s, this guy named Frank or George, who worked part-time for my grandfather, came up with it," Calumet Bakery owner Kerry Moore told the Chicago Tribune. Moore's family-run bakery has become one known for the cake.

Some theorize that the cake's recipe resulted from a bakery collective, but a baker named George Kremm has also been linked to the cake's invention; furthermore, phone book advertisements list Kremm's Liberty Bakery as the "Originators of the Atomic Cake." The exact recipe was never written down since head bakers would direct assistants and add ingredients themselves as a form of job protection. As for its name, the Atomic Cake could be derived from Chicago's Atomic Era, when in 1942 the first nuclear reactor was erected in Hyde Park, yet even this connection is hazy. Hearsay also suggests that the Atomic Cake wasn't popular on the city's North Side, so it remained a delicacy of South Side bakers.

How to assemble an Atomic Cake

Despite its long history, the recipe for Atomic Cake hasn't changed much since the 1950s. The cake is composed of three cake layers: layer cake or banana cake, then yellow cake, then chocolate cake. Bavarian cream and bananas — like the filling of a banana cream pie — rest atop the first layer, then sliced and glazed strawberries with strawberry cream on top of the second, and finally chocolate fudge on the third. The whole cake is crowned with whipped cream. Sometimes, it's topped with chopped nuts and cherries.

Due to how labor-intensive and complicated the cake is to make, Atomic Cake has to be ordered in its entirety. So if you're hoping to sample a single slice, you'll need to adjust your expectations (or bring some friends). For home bakers keen on making the cake, beware that not only is the dessert a lot of work to put together, but your sliced bananas will eventually brown and turn unsightly.

For those interested in sampling it but who can't stomach an entire triple-decker dessert, some bakeries offer an assortment of Atomic Cake flavored offerings. This ranges from cupcakes to trifle cups of the treat — even kits for home bakers to try putting together this behemoth dessert for the next celebratory occasion.