(WASHINGTON POST) - My friend Abbie Argersinger is an accomplished cook and baker. Visiting in her Austin, Texas kitchen recently, swapping recipe ideas and talking about all things food, we came around to what to bring to a get-together. Call it research.
Abbie couldn't say enough about Texas sheet cake. She's from Rhode Island, but she has lived in Texas long enough to praise the "just right-ness" of the recipe everyone seems to know there, typically made with cinnamon and pecans.
I hadn't thought much about sheet cakes until that moment.
Certainly, they were the centerpiece of many of my childhood parties, birthdays celebrated with square portions of single-layer, frosted cake. I'm pretty sure cupcakes nudged sheet cakes over a few years back, but there are times when a sliver of cake, not an entire cupcake, is all I want. For a big crowd, sheet cakes can be more adjustable and accommodating than a box of cupcakes.
There is another reason I got to thinking about sheet cake: decorating, or specifically the lack of it. Some people were born with a star-tipped pastry bag in their hand while others, like me, are ham-handed with buttercream roses. A sheet cake needs nothing more than a table knife or, preferably, an offset spatula, to spread frosting from corner to corner. A dusting of chopped nuts around the edges is fancy enough.
A sheet cake is most often baked, carried and served out of the pan, but which one's best? Search the web for recipes and some are made in a 22cm-by-33cm pan while others call for a baking sheet - a whopping 45-by-18cm. In testing, I found that a 25-by-33cm pan produced the sheet cake of my dreams - a ratio of about half cake, half frosting. The grocery store had two options on the baking aisle, one with a cover.
GINGERY PISTACHIO CARROT SHEET CAKE
For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup rye flour
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp fine sea salt
½ tsp baking soda
2 tsps ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch ground cloves
½ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs
½ cup buttermilk, preferably full-fat
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp finely grated orange zest
1 cup grapeseed, canola or vegetable oil
450g carrots, grated, (about 3 packed cups)
½ cup crystallised ginger, chopped
1 cup shelled, roasted, salted pistachios, chopped, plus more for garnish
For the frosting:
225g cream cheese, at room temperature
113g unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tsp finely grated orange zest and ¼ cup fresh orange juice (from 1 large orange)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1. For the cake: Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius. Grease the baking pan with cooking oil spray, making sure to coat the corners well.
2. Combine the two flours, baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in a medium bowl.
3. Whisk together the two sugars and the eggs in a separate bowl until lightened and smooth.
4. Whisk in the buttermilk, vanilla extract and zest, then add the oil, whisking until the mixture is well incorporated. The oil should not be pooling on the surface.
5. Stir in the carrots, then fold in the flour mixture until no streaks remain.
6. Stir in the ginger and pistachios. Scrape the batter into the pan, smoothing the surface. Bake (middle rack) for 35 to 40 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
7. Transfer the cake (in its pan) to a wire rack to cool.
8. Meanwhile, make the frosting: Combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for several minutes, until fluffy and lightened. Stop to scrape down the bowl.
9. On medium-low speed, add the confectioners’ sugar a half cup at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Add the orange zest, juice and vanilla extract; beat on medium speed until well incorporated. The yield is about three cups.
10. Use an offset spatula to spread the cream cheese frosting evenly over the surface of the cake, making sure to reach the edges. Use more pistachios to garnish around the edges. Refrigerate until the frosting has set.
11. Bring the cake to room temperature before serving straight from the pan.
Yield: 18 servings
Variation: To make a non-dairy Cashew Cheese Frosting, first soak 2¼ cups raw cashews in water for three hours, then drain, rinse and place in a high-powered blender (like a Vitamix). Add ⅓ cup liquefied/warmed coconut oil, ½ cup honey, 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest and ⅓ cup fresh orange juice, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice and ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt. Blend on high for three minutes, until smooth. Let stand for 20 minutes to firm up before using it to frost the cake, or refrigerate for five to seven days. The yield is three cups.
It's not that any old cake recipe will work as a sheet cake. A fluffy yellow cake will dry out quickly. This is the time for buttermilk, plenty of eggs and a carrot-laced batter that bakes into a delicious spicy crumb. Because my recipe is oil-based, the cake will remain dense and moist - yet not mushy - far longer than one made with butter.
Because carrots are the centerpiece, how they are broken down is important. Too finely grated, their flavour gets diminished. So use the large-holed side of a box grater or the food processor's grating disk.
Some people like to mix in pecans. Others like pineapple or coconut, and still others prefer golden raisins. It's a big world, people: Add what you like to your carrot cake batter, but don't overdo it. This is not granola. A mere cup and a half of extras is all this cake will tolerate.
I'm happy with how chewy crystallised ginger and rich, buttery pistachios cosy up to the carrots here. There's texture, there's spice and there's the pretty green of the nuts.
Also, I am one of those people who claim cream cheese frosting is the raison d'etre for carrot cake, and therefore I like to smooth an orange-scented version across the top. Searching for a frosting that might accommodate a broader swath of eaters, and swayed by the smooth texture, buttery flavour and flexibility of nut-based cheese, I've included a frosting variation: a nutty, honey-sweetened, nondairy frosting. (If you're looking for an entirely dairy-free dessert, omit the buttermilk in the cake recipe. The crumb will become slightly more dense but will not otherwise suffer.)
Because this cake is refrigerated and has staying power, it is as delicious on Day 3 as it is on Day 1. That makes it a sensational solution for a houseful of guests and a handy treat for a long beach weekend. As a special bonus, if you're in an unfamiliar kitchen, this cake stirs together without any special equipment.
Sheet cakes are humble and marvelously useful. As my friend Abbie says: "Sheet cake is easy to put together ahead of time. You can even bake it in a pan from the grocery store, which means if you never see the pan again, it's no biggie."