In Defense of Shitty Sheet Cake

Image courtesy Mélanie Côté Loken

When I was a child, my mother would make a cake for my birthday every single year. She had a book of “cut-up cakes,” which seemed like a starter kit for wacky moms of the ‘80s.

This book had templates to follow for every one of the unique, hours-long adventures that were her birthday signature. There were bears, clowns, ladybugs. There was a ballet shoe once, and even a hedgehog, lovingly stuffed to the gills with hand-cut Ovation sticks. The cakes were beautiful, and every now and again, people still talk about them.

And yet, I couldn’t tell you how a single one of them tasted. (I know that early on I asked her to stop using Seven-Minute Frosting, but the rest is a blur.)

However, I can damned well tell you about a life-altering sheet cake I had once on Canada Day. It was a bog-standard white cake, with white icing and a faint taste of lemon in the filling. It was served with freshly made lemonade in the height of the day, and I will never, ever forget that sugar bomb.

Maybe I misremember the cake. Maybe it was the moment that made the experience transcendent. The experience was a simple outdoor get-together that I wasn’t particularly excited to be at. It was a party held at a “pioneer village,” and the only people I knew there were my parents. That couldn’t be all.

I once attended a birthday party hosted by a very affluent family, and the grandchild being feted was treated to a very poorly designed chocolate sheet cake with plastic Disney princesses on it. I never said a word, but “It’s what she asked for! Plus, the cheaper the cake, the better it tastes” was the response.

That three-year-old was on to something.

Much is made of cupcakes, and, while cupcakes are convenient and available in a seemingly endless number of styles and flavor combinations, it’s remarkably hard to find cupcakes that have the crumb and leavening of a sheet cake. The ratio of icing to cake always seems off-kilter, the icing itself often too fussy. Cupcakes have gone from celebratory to precious.

What is it about sheet cake, the patron confection of forced company parties and hastily organized dinners at the Knights of Columbus, that makes it not just memorable but a taste I actually crave and enjoy? If there were miniature slab cakes for sale at my grocery store, I would be dead from malnutrition.

It can’t just be that these cakes are associated with good times. I’ve had sheet cakes at offices I wished I could get fired from. I’ve had sheet cakes at funerals. It’s not about the situation.

More challenging still is learning where to find that Fage-yogurt-smooth whipped icing, ripe with fat, that just sings on top of the cake. There’s only one correct formula for making this kind of buttercream: butter, creamed with confectioners’ sugar. Add color and flavorings, and spread on cake.

So why is sheet cake, an unnatural, factory-refined food, so fucking good? Yes, it’s engineered to be a delivery service for fat, sugar, and artificial flavorings, but it also doesn’t taste like anything else. Even things that are advertised as “birthday cake”–flavored or “cake batter”–flavored don’t come close to matching it.

That unmistakable flavor is also really simple. Sugar. Fat. Vanilla. Sometimes chocolate. Sometimes a straightforward, crowd-pleasing addition, like lemon curd or strawberry. At no event or function will anyone serve you a slice of balsamic-fig-berry-with-Sichuan-pepper-brittle sheet cake. For sheet cake asks nothing of the eater. It is not a cerebral exercise.

The simplicity of a sheet cake is its greatest asset. Think about ordering one: white or golden cake. White or chocolate icing. Choose a design from these prescribed options in this little laminated booklet. We so rarely have things in our lives that cannot be endlessly customized. Not having to be creative can be deeply satisfying.

Ultimately, I think there’s something sheet cakes have that other foods don’t. When you picture a sheet cake in your mind’s eye, and you then eat a piece of that engineered caloric biohazard, it tastes exactly how you imagine it. There are few other foods in this world that can claim this. Bacon is sometimes soggy, too salty, or not salty enough. Even the humble hot dog can be ruined with just the addition of ketchup, or when it’s paired with too elaborate a bun. When you ask for bacon or a hot dog, it’s anyone’s guess what will show up on the plate.

But not sheet cake. Your sheet cake will always be a beautiful, terrible mess. Your sheet cake will never have too coarse a crumb, or be too moist. Your sheet cake is waiting for you in a grocer’s fridge to replicate that sweet summer day when you were transformed by hydrogenated fat and confectioners’ sugar.

Sheet cake was here before you and will be here long after you are gone. Sheet cake is implacably comfortable in its shitty nature, and shouldn’t we all be so lucky.