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The Great Sheet Cake Mystery

Pouring the frosting or sheathing the Texas sheet cake. Photograph by K8southern. Used under Creative Commons license

This week I am celebrating a birthday, and although I am more of a pie or tart kinda gal, a birthday calls for cake- and that cake must be the one that- in my opinion- rules over them all. Drum roll please, the thin, chewy, chocolate and nutty Texas Sheet Cake. I wish to thank a family friend who made me one for my birthday many years ago, and completely changed my world. Yes, this cake can do that to a person!

Texas sheet cake, it turns out, is very popular throughout  the U.S., and I found it listed in Jean Anderson’s American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century (2005). But food historians are not quite sure who is responsible for the cake’s original recipe or even its name. With the help of the Library’s culinary specialist, Alison Kelly, and the incredible cookbook and periodical collection in the Library of Congress, I wanted to see how far back I could trace the name of this cake.

Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson portrait (ca. 1962)

I also wanted to discover why Texas claimed it as its own- is it because the cake is big like the state of Texas? Or is it because of the use of pecans in the icing that changed this ordinary chocolate sheet cake into the Texas sheet cake? (Pecans are indigenous to south central North America, which includes parts of Texas). It has been suggested that Lady Bird Johnson was involved in creating or naming the cake. But historians scoured Lady Bird’s recipes at the LBJ archives in Austin and found no evidence to support this claim.

Reference librarian Lynee Olver’s wonderful Food Timeline provides a good jumping off point to learn about the history of the Texas sheet cake. Olver writes that chocolate cake and brownie recipes are products of the early 20th century- that is when the price of chocolate declined and became a “common cooking ingredient.” For more about this topic see Walter Baker &  Company’s Cocoa and Chocolate; a short history of their production and use, 1917 revision edition. Olver continues, “cooking instructor and cookbook author Lenny Angel says she got her recipe for Texas Sheath Cake in 1963 two years before she moved to Texas from Nebraska.” Also of great interest are Olver’s references for a chocolate cake (large sheet cake) in a shallow pan published in the Galveston Daily News (Helping the Homemaker, May 30, 1936) and a 1967 recipe for Mrs. Elkin’s Sheath Cake published in the Huntsville Heritage Cookbook (note this recipe is from Alabama) that includes the use of pecans in the frosting.

Though I did not discover who named this cake or when the name originated, what I did find, after consulting many cookbooks and the published recipes, is that the Texas sheet cake goes by many names: buttermilk brownies, brownie sheet cake, chocolate brownie cake, chocolate sheet brownies, Mexican chocolate cake, Texas brownie cake, Texas cake, Texas sheath cake, and “plain old” chocolate sheet cake. The commonality I found among all these recipes is the use of buttermilk,  and most importantly, the cake is baked in a cookie/baking sheet or a jelly roll pan- so it is large in size, but the height is a mere one inch. Most of the recipes I found called for pecans (or nuts) while some called for cinnamon.  I even discovered a recipe for a White Texas Sheet Cake in Texas Ties: Recipes and Remembrances from the Junior League of North Harris County, Inc (1997).

There was also an interesting summary of the Texas Cake published in the Santa Ana Orange County Register (Texas Cake turned 3-layer into a sheet, 4/24/1986) that adds even more mystery to the origins of this cake. The author suggests that this cake began to appear in the 1950s throughout the South and that it is a “revival, with adaptations, of an old-time favorite, Sweet Chocolate Cake, also known as German’s Sweet Chocolate Cake (the brand, not the country) or simply German Chocolate Cake.” The author goes on to say this cake started out as three layers, and ultimately became the one layer Texas Cake. In all my research, this was the first recipe I have come across a recipe that calls for the use of coconut.

One of my past birthdays in which I was presented with Texas sheet cake baked into cupcakes.

This recipe also called for sour cream instead of buttermilk. It became clear that the use of sour cream was becoming more common, because I began to see it in many more recipes such as the 1974 recipe published in the Washington Post (Any Cake at All, as Long as It’s Chocolate, 5/30/74), which calls for sour cream, not buttermilk.  And nuts were an option. One can deduce that by the 1970s, this cake had already hit the big time, and alternative ingredients had evolved.

Today, there are many variations of the Texas Sheet Cake recipe. In fact, my mother and friends like to bake the batter into cupcakes. Now this makes me wonder, what do we call them since the cake is delivered in a smaller package?

By the way, the Library of Congress also celebrated a birthday this week, see the Law Library’s In Custodia Legis blog post 213 Is a Lot of Candles: Happy Birthday Library of Congress.

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