Generally, I have a feeling that cakes are about bakeries and pies are about home. I know that is silly but it is simply a sense. When I think about cakes, generally, I think about big multi-tiered affairs and fondant and weddings and all of that. And when I think about pies I think about grandmas and steam rising from hot apple filling and pies cooling on windowsills and all of the Norman Rockwell stuff.
However, there is an exception. There is a cake, a category of cakes really, that buck my mental trend and qualify as belonging to the “honorary pie family” simply because they evoke a similar down home, family feel. This hybrid is the sheet cake. I love sheet cakes. Family reunions, church pot lucks, teacher’s lounges…they are the breeding ground for all manner of cakes that are 1) portable, 2) feed a million people, 3) inexpensive, and 4) warm the heart, 5) in which the focus is on the “goodness” of the dessert and not the “fabulosity,” 6) that anyone can whip up in an hour, 7) and that doesn’t require special equipment to make or a special van to transport.
So yes, I have a special appreciation for the genre. But more than that, my absolute, all time, forever, highest ranked, favorite cake in the universe is a humble sheet cake. Specifically, my favorite cake in the whole wide world is the Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake. I will often make this cake myself for my own birthday because this is what I want on my birthday and because I love making it. When I fantasize about the perfect meal, it always ends with this cake. It is the best cake. Yes, I know you might like something else. But we are talking about me. Got it. I might have to start a whole new category on PIE for sheet cakes. If you look around, you will find several stores that sell sheet cake pans that come with a strong plastic cover so they can be transported and/or kept fresh for days. Get one.
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cups water
½ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa
½ cup low-fat buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
12 tablespoons butter
½ cup low fat (2%) milk (and a bit more if needed)
½ cup unsweetened cocoa
6 cups powdered sugar
½ cup chopped pecans (or way more, like a cup to 1½ cups)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 15 x 10 inch jelly-roll pan with spray. Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl and stir well with a whisk. In a small bowl, combine the buttermilk, the vanilla and the eggs and give it a little stir. In a small saucepan, combine the water, the butter and ¼ cup of cocoa. Bring the saucepan to a simmer, stirring frequently. Remove it from the heat. Pour the hot chocolate mixture into flour mixture and beat until well blended. At first it looks rather stiff, but with a few more turns of the wrist it comes together. Add the buttermilk mixture and beat until well combined. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 17 to 18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Place the pan on a wire rack. If you use a 9” x 13” pan, it will take about 22 minutes.
This is not a perfect looking icing to a cake decorating fanatic. You are pouring warm icing on a warm cake and it sort of piles up at the edges and the pecans distribute themselves willy-nilly. You can optimize the looks by doing several things. You can use whole pecans, and a lot of them, which is lovely but makes the pieces a little more difficult to slice. You can also sift the cocoa and separately sift the powdered sugar to minimize lumps. I use a whisk for the entire batter process, but sometimes I will get out my hand mixer on the icing if it isn’t behaving. But no matter what you do, this is one of the most delicious cakes in the world. The warm icing on warm cake procedure creates this middle ground that is not quite cake and not quite icing. My mouth is watering just typing the words. If I’m feeling generous, sometimes I’ll let the kids put M&M’s on half of it. I took these photos over the course of 3 bakings of the cake, so if you notice that the cake looks slightly different between the photos…good eye.
All recipes for Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake are quite similar. It is like Snickerdoodles. You know you are in the right ballpark when all of the recipes you research start looking the same. This one is slightly different in that 1) it doesn’t use any shortening, 2)instead of adding boiling water to the recipe, you boil up lots of the ingredients together, and 3) I use lower fat ingredients where possible. I actually came by the basics of this recipe in Cooking Light. To reduce the comical number of calories in the cake, they used low-fat ingredients, but they also cut back drastically on the amount of icing they made for the cake. I very much liked the flavor of this version but found that when I was using a bona fide sheet cake pan, the limited icing recipe just didn’t get me where I needed to go. So, I doubled up on the icing and it was perfect with a little left for bowl licking. Don’t feel like you have to use every last drop. So as my recipe is written above, there is ample icing for a sheet cake. Any calorie savings has been nullified by my tinkering. But it is the best combination of all the Texas Sheet Cake recipes I have ever come across. This is what I eat on my birthday. This is what I bake when I need comfort food. This is what I like to make to take to family functions, as it is tops with me and I hope you like it, too.