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November 2, 2021
Don’t Sleep on Sheet Cakes

A simple, snacky, not-too-fussy cake is always there for you.

I’m a lifelong project baker, but as the pandemic winter closed in, I found myself falling in love with Yossy Arefi’s Snacking Cakes for its particularly casual attitude toward baking. The recipes involve no electric mixers, no separating eggs, no softened butter (she uses oil or melted butter)—just ruthlessly simple recipes with intriguing flavor combinations like rhubarb and sumac, lemony currant and rosemary, and chocolate, orange, and beets. This spring, when I rented a house in Upstate New York with a group of newly vaccinated friends, we baked one of her cakes every day for a whole week. Halfway through the trip, one friend defined a snacking cake as “a cake that you eat in one sitting, without plates.” High praise for any baker!

As I got deep into Snacking Cakes, I started noticing unfussy cakes everywhere I turned. At my local farmers’ market in Union Square, She Wolf Bakery sells what they call a “daycake” filled with seasonal fruit alongside their excellent sourdough. And for years now, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen has had a whole category on her website dedicated to “everyday cakes.” I saw plenty of those (especially the strawberry summer sheet cake and her towering pumpkin bread), as well as many box mix cakes, shared by friends on Instagram during the pandemic.

“We all have had moments over the last 18 months when we were just over the endless cycle of cooking and dishes. I don’t know about everyone else, but I always tried to gather some energy and excitement to make a little treat,” Arefi says via email. “I wanted to pare down the process of making a cake as much as possible, while still making something totally delicious and comforting. I didn’t realize how much people would love the concept!” And they have—the book has had half a dozen print runs, and it won an IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) cookbook award just last month.

A common refrain, even from people who are great cooks, is that baking requires a tiresome precision, but the genius of the snacking cake is in its simplicity and flexibility.

For an even easier cake, Anne Byrn’s upcoming A New Take on Cake revisits the cake mix recipes that made her 1998 book The Cake Mix Doctor an instant success: “I just look at cakes really differently, and I felt like it was time that The Cake Mix Doctor readers did also.” Classics like Sock It to Me Cake (a ’70s-era cake mix variation with a pecan streusel swirl, originally from Duncan Hines) get revamped with less sugar and more attention to modern dietary restrictions, and recipes like Chocolate Chip Tahini Loaf and Roasted Sweet Potato Snack Cake are aimed at newer cooks who “gravitate toward new flavors and more savory flavors,” as Byrn puts it.

What makes the snacking cake so appealing at this exact moment? Byrn, who has researched the history of baking in the United States for her book American Cake, tells me (in her delightful Southern accent) that “the way that we’re baking a cake now is really very old. . . . People used what they had. That style of cake, which is very stripped down and simple and rustic, is real authentic.”

Byrn highlights the economy of using cake mixes, as well as the availability of ingredients like butter and milk and eggs, as making snacking cakes easy to turn to during the pandemic. A common refrain, even from people who are great cooks, is that baking requires a tiresome precision, but the genius of the snacking cake is in its simplicity and flexibility. You can really make a snacking cake whenever the mood hits—even with a broken whisk in a minimally stocked rental house kitchen. Arefi encourages people to “mix and match the cakes and toppings and add (or subtract) ingredients to make the recipes their own.”

You can really make a snacking cake whenever the mood hits—even with a broken whisk in a minimally stocked rental house kitchen.

“Always a good time to talk about cake,” Abigail Johnson Dodge tells me. The idea for Sheet Cake, her newest book, began when she was “throwing stuff on the sheet pan for my family for dinner, and I thought, why am I not doing this for cake?” All of the recipes in the book are baked in a half sheet pan, whether they’re left in the pan and iced like her Creamy Hazelnut Cake with Nutella whipped cream, cut into layers and stacked like her Boston Cream Cake, or rolled like her Mocha Bûche de Noël. The hack means that most of the cakes spend less than 20 minutes in the oven, which frees up time for busy cooks and allows for more freedom: “The big difference with this book is that I wanted people to have fun. . . . Sheet cake just felt a little bit more lighthearted.”

All three authors make toppings and embellishments optional. Dodge tells me that she is an “icing superfan” but that she provides written-out full and half recipes for the frostings in Sheet Cake to avoid making readers do math—“because that can also be a deterrent, you know, when someone takes their calculator out, or they don’t take their calculator out, and they mess up the recipe.” A New Take on Cake does the same thing; Byrn acknowledges that her readers’ tastes have gravitated toward less sweet flavors over the years. She writes, “I frost less. Or not at all! We don’t need so much icing anymore.” And even though most of Arefi’s cakes have their own custom frosting or glaze, she’s clear that they’re not needed for a great snacking cake.

Centerpiece desserts used to be my thing: frosted layer cakes, towering croquembouches, and even the occasional cherpumple. But all I want these days is a big slab of cake, maybe with some great icing—as long as I get to have it with friends. The less-is-more ethos of the snacking cake makes that possible.

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Nozlee Samadzadeh

Nozlee Samadzadeh is a senior developer working on Chorus at Vox Media and an editor at The Morning News.