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Magic Cake has a seemingly simple batter, that is mixed and baked as a single entity. (See link for the full recipe and method). When it is baked, it separates into three distinct layers:

  • A dense bottom layer
  • A custard middle layer
  • A cakey top layer

enter image description here (Photo and baking by Rfusca)

What is the science behind this? How does the single batter separate and create three separate and well defined layers?

As many photos of various magic cakes show (such as those at the recipe author's Part II, page), there is a definite edge effect on the layers, so it is not simply separation of components due to differing density.

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And for those wondering, they really are three well defined layers - its not a gradual progression from one layer to the next. –  rfusca Feb 27 at 16:53
    
NB tracking through a couple of links and translating from Spanish, this is a Romanian cake called prajitura desteapta, which allegedly means intelligent cake (although Google translate seems to prefer smart cookie). –  Peter Taylor Feb 27 at 16:55
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Those wiley Romanians! –  SAJ14SAJ Feb 27 at 17:01
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A comment on some variations of the recipe posted on the same site says "The egg whites should be folded into egg yolk mixture veeery gently with spatula or wooden spoon. Do not use mixer for that purpose. In the end you will get liquid part in the bottom of the dish and egg whites floating on top" - is that enough clue for someone to be able to explain how it works? –  Kate Gregory Feb 27 at 22:25
    
It is probably a hint, anyway. –  SAJ14SAJ Feb 27 at 22:45

2 Answers 2

In case you are interested, the magic comes at least partly from the milk. I accidentally forgot to add it (but other than that, I followed the recipe to the letter), and I ended up with a regular vanilla cake, no layers at all. I imagine this cake part should've been the (partly) the upper layer.

As milk is heavier than some of the other ingredients, it sinks to the bottom and creates the custard layer. I would like to expand this answer, with a remark on what we call 'flantaart', translated as 'custard pie'. There is one batter, and after baking, a well defined crust and a custard on top. I'll look it up when I get home, to look for similarities between the two recipes.

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Cook's Country has a recipe for Magic Chocolate Flan Cake with two layers that actually switch places (top to bottom) during baking. I know it's not the same as your Magic Cake, but they explain how it works just below the recipe instructions. My hunch is that some of the same principles are at work in your cake.

http://www.cookscountry.com/recipes/7229-magic-chocolate-flan-cake

In case you don't have a login there:

While our Magic Chocolate Flan Cake is baking, the cake layer and flan layer switch places in the oven. Amazingly, they don’t mix together; they just reverse positions. How is that even possible? Our science editor explained that the combined baking soda and acidic buttermilk in the cake layer produce gas, making the cake less dense than the flan. The (lighter) cake layer rises and the (denser) flan layer sinks. The water bath is critical, too. Since the water comes only halfway up the Bundt pan, only the top half of the pan gets hotter than the boiling point of water. As the cake batter slowly heats up from the surrounding hot water, it expands (from the gas), pushing the flan layer higher. The eggs in the flan are thus exposed to more heat at the top of the Bundt pan, so they cook and start to solidify. The solidifying flan can’t fuse with the (still fluid) cake batter, and since it is denser, the flan sinks and the batter seeps up at the edges of the pan. Once the lighter cake batter rises to the top, it is exposed to the higher temperature at the top of the Bundt pan and it finally sets.

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That is certainly interesting in its own right, but not an answer, as the magic cake comes from a single homogeneous batter. –  SAJ14SAJ Feb 27 at 22:12

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