Everything We Learned While Testing 15 Sheet Cake Recipes
Two base cake recipes are all you need to get started.
A perfect sheet cake is the stuff dreams are made of. It's a huge rectangle of fluffy cake nestled under a thick layer of creamy frosting — what’s not to love? But here’s the real secret behind sheet cakes: They’re one of the easiest things to make — it's just one big cake, after all! You only need one 9x13 baking pan to bake it (which you likely already own for brownies), and there’s no extra stacking or trimming of layers required. Plus, you can serve it directly from the pan its baked in. It looks just as awesome with one candle in the middle of it, as it does with 50! While sheet cakes might be the go-to for kid’s parties, they can also be sophisticated enough for those of us who are kids at-heart.
The overall plan was for us to come up with one master vanilla cake, one master chocolate cake and a big batch of vanilla and chocolate frosting to go with each one. We would then use those base recipes as a jumping off point for other flavor and topping variations.
We were all very excited, but after the first dozen pounds of butter, we realized that getting the right texture for a sheet cake would be trickier than we had originally thought.
You see, a sheet cake should be fluffy and light, and also sturdy enough to hold a thick layer of frosting without toppling over or crumbling when cut or dug into by a fork. Our early recipe testing attempts gave us delicious but insanely tender cakes that wouldn’t stay together, gummy-textured cakes that were far too moist and cakes with high domes in the center and low edges on the sides that would make frosting and decorating them a big mess.
For the Best Chocolate Cake Base...
Weeks of testing cakes quickly turned into a dance between the perfect ratio of ingredients and the best mixing techniques. The biggest issue we faced with the chocolate cake was getting a rich chocolate flavor without a dry or gummy texture. After trying different kinds and amounts of unsweetened cocoa powder and melted chocolate, we found a winner. We whisked Dutch processed cocoa — a less acidic option to regular unsweetened cocoa — with hot water to “bloom” the cocoa. This process essentially turns the cocoa powder into a thick paste, which hydrates it, eliminates drying issues and brings out big chocolate flavor. Since Dutch processed cocoa is unsweetened and doesn’t solidify at room temperature, like bars of chocolate do, using only the cocoa also kept our base cake soft and tender.
And for Vanilla Cake...
While trying to get the vanilla cake right, we grappled with how to make a cake that was fluffy and strong in texture, like a cake mix, while simultaneously being buttery and rich in flavor, like a homemade cake. A proven combination of creamed softened butter, sugar and oil helped us achieve that desired texture. We found that the oil kept the cake light and moist, while the butter gave it a rich flavor that helped the vanilla shine throughout. This winning combo also gave our vanilla cake enough density that it didn’t fall apart when we ate it.
Then We Mixed Them Up
With our base cake recipes perfected, the creativity flowed. We added bacon drippings to the cake batter for a little extra sweet-salty play, used hazelnut flour and freeze dried strawberries for a boost of flavor, layered a graham cracker crust under the batter for a smore’s version and poked holes into a baked cake and brushed on grape jelly for PB&J vibes (see picture above). We also added spices, chopped apples, mini chocolate chips, and even colored and swirled the batter to make a rainbow version.
The Toppings Are Endless!
And then there were the frostings! The base vanilla and chocolate buttercreams were a perfect creamy-dreamy combo made from whipped up butter and confectioners’ sugar. Known as American buttercream, they’re also one of the easiest frostings to make and can be tweaked with various extracts, citrus zest or even crushed cookies. But we didn’t limit ourselves to just buttercream frosting and also created whipped cream toppings, peanut butter- and tahini-fortified buttercreams, fluffy torched meringues, a whipped ganache flavored with toasty caramel, and even a gooey coconut-pecan confection that reminded us all of a German chocolate cake.
Once we got going it was really hard to stop and the deadline for the story arrived before our ideas ran dry. Though our waistlines were relieved, we'd be happy to continue baking sheet cakes every day...even if it isn't our birthday.