• Not quite Nan's chocolate cake - Wilton's Easy Blooms sheet cake (Wilton)Source: Wilton
With a big baking pan, you can feed more mouths - or treat your cake like a canvas.
Yasmin Newman

13 Sep 2019 - 10:52 AM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2019 - 3:02 PM

If your childhood memories include a Nan who made deliciously simple chocolate tray cakes slathered in icing, we have good news. Those one-layer rectangular cakes are making a comeback, both in straightforward and lavish forms.

Personally, I’d never given much thought to the shape. We’ve long been baking brownies, lamingtons, sponge and tea cakes in rectangular pans, but In Australia, usually named them by the flavour, not the form.

Then I picked up dessert queen Christina Tosi’s newest book All About Cake, where there’s an entire chapter dedicated to the style known as sheet cakes, and saw them in a completely new light.

In America, sheet cakes – baked in an oversized 22 x 33cm pan – are a culinary tradition. Quick to whip up and sized to feed a crowd, they rose to ubiquity as the go-to choice for potlucks and county fairs across the country in the early-to-mid 20th century.

They’ve since become the standard in every American supermarket and bakery – quick, thus affordable to mass-produce – and the grab-on-the-go cake for parties.

“Even now, while I love round, fanciful layer cakes, I still live by the approach that a sheet cake always gets the job done for a hungry crowd,” says Tosi in her opening words. They’re also easier to cut and serve than a round cake and can be transported without fear of tiers sliding or tipping.

The most famous old-school iteration, the Texas sheet cake, hails from the southern state where impressive portions are a point of local pride and the cake would be put to bake at a moment’s notice for community gatherings, church events and even funerals (hence its nickname, church lady cake). Made with beloved Texan ingredients – buttermilk, pecans and gooey chocolate frosting – it’s believed to be a faster, bigger version of another American classic, the German chocolate cake.

For novice bakers, sheet cakes are also easier than layered or tiered cakes – the sweet equivalent of training wheels. While Tosi’s family tradition centred on baking for crowds, she recalls only having baked in a 9 x 13-inch sheet pan until she left home for culinary school.

This simplicity is one factor behind the rise of sheet cakes around the world. Baking brand Queen predicted it as one of 10 top baking trends for 2019 and Instagram #sheetcake shares rank over 30,000.

Edd Kimber, UK cookbook author, food writer and former champion of The Great British Bake Off, regularly features the style on his popular blog, The Boy Who Bakes. “Sheet cakes are less known in the UK, but they’re becoming more and more popular, both here and all over the world,” says Kimber. “Baking can be seen as complicated and tricky and sheet cakes are one of the things that can make baking seem more approachable.”

Kimber’s favourite are snack cakes. “These are simple sheet cakes with a very basic drizzle or no frosting all – the easiest of sheet cakes to make.” 

Sheet cakes burnished with fresh fruit and nuts also litter Kimber’s feed and it’s easy to see why the generous style that can be served whole or cut into countless tempting pieces is enjoying a revival in the age of Instagram.

Sheet cakes’ large surface area have long been put to use for decorating with frosting, sprinkles and even the American flag come July 4, but today’s examples take it to the next level.

“We are seeing a lot of texture in buttercream using many different piping techniques,” says Courtney Porter, art director at American baking brand Wilton, “from classic rosettes and star piping to intricate patterns looking like textiles, as well as carved into shapes, numbers or letters.” See instructions for the Wilton Easy Blooms cake, pictured top, here.

Porter sees the enduring popularity of sheet cakes as a function of their versatility. “The great thing about sheet cakes is the never-ending ways to use them. You can mix flavours so guests can enjoy half chocolate and half vanilla, add fillings or apply any decorating trend to them.”

What also began as real estate for piping birthday salutations or well wishes has evolved into a sub-trend for inspiring quotes.

Even Tosi, who’s combined her infamous naked cakes with a layered approach to sheet cakes, loves the blank canvas for scrawling sweet invitations: ‘Dear Dwayne, The Rock Johnson, Will you be our friend?!’”

Set against cake, who could say no to that?

In this column, Dessert Date, I scour bakeries, patisseries and dessert joints from around the world for the hottest sweet trends, up-and-coming ingredients and game-changing pastry techniques. 

Don’t miss the next Dessert Date. Keep in touch with me via Facebook @Yasmin Newman or Instagram @yasmin_newman.

Tray bakes for all tastes
Gluten-free carrot and zucchini slab cake

This cake is lovely and light and tender - and a good one for kids who are tricky about vegetables!

Sugar-free hummingbird cake

I love that all the sweetness in this moist and tender cake comes from the fruit, so you don’t even need a replacement for sugar. I keep a stock of overripe bananas in my freezer for baking – when they’ve gone past the point of no return for eating, peel and place in a sealed container and pop them into the freezer. They’ll keep for 4–6 weeks. 

The cake that cures everything

In times of stress, only excess will do: this is an enormous cake. But it keeps very well and there is no such thing as too much chocolate cake.

Three milks cake (pastel de tres leches)

Immensely well-loved in Latin America, a recipe for this wonderfully milky cake appeared on the label of Nestle’s sweetened condensed milk cans in the 1940s, possible explaining why its popularity has spread so widely in this part of the world.    

Melt and mix chocolate coconut cake

Everyone needs a good old-fashioned chocolate cake in their repertoire that is easy enough to whip up on a whim. Made with a simple melt-and-mix method this delicious cake is a real crowd-pleaser.