My friend Abbie Argersinger is an accomplished cook and baker. Visiting in her 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. 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 9-by-13-inch pan while others call for a baking sheet - a whopping 18-by-13 inches. In testing, I found that a 10-by-13-inch 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.
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 you handle them is important. If they’re too finely grated, their flavor gets diminished. 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, 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 crystallized ginger and rich, buttery pistachios cozy up to the carrots here. There's texture, there's spice and there's the pretty green of the nuts.
I am one of those people who claim cream cheese frosting is the raison d'etre for carrot cake. But 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.)
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.
Gingery Pistachio Carrot Sheet Cake
Crystallized ginger packs a nice zing in this lightly spiced cake. To create the consistency of carrots that will retain flavor and texture, shred them using the large-holed side of a box grater or a food processor fitted with a grating disk.
For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rye flour (or use 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch ground cloves
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk, preferably full-fat
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1 cup grapeseed, canola or vegetable oil
1 pound carrots, grated, (about 3 packed cups; see headnote)
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
1 cup shelled, roasted, salted pistachios, chopped, plus more for garnish
For the frosting:
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest and 1/4 cup fresh orange juice (from 1 large orange)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking oil spray, making sure to coat the corners well.
Combine the two flours (or use only all-purpose), baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in a medium bowl.
Whisk together the two sugars and the eggs in a separate bowl until lightened and smooth. 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.)
Stir in the carrots, then fold in the flour mixture until no streaks remain. Stir in the ginger and pistachios. Scrape 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.
Transfer the cake (in its pan) to a wire rack to cool.
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.
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 3 cups.
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.
Bring the cake to room temperature before serving straight from the pan.
Nondairy Cashew Cheese Frosting: Soak 2 1/4 cups raw cashews in water for 3 hours, then drain, rinse and place in a high-powered blender. Add 1/3 cup liquefied/warmed coconut oil, 1/2 cup honey, 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest and 1/3 cup fresh orange juice, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. Blend on highfor 3 minutes, until smooth. Let stand for 20 minutes to firm up before using it to frost the cake, or refrigerate for 5 to 7 days. The yield is 3 cups.
Per serving (with cream cheese frosting): 510 calories, 6 g protein, 53 g carbohydrates, 32 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 260 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 33 g sugar
Yield: 18 servings.