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The Great Sheet Cake Mystery

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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.

Comments (26)

  1. Quite evil of you to describe the awesome cake but not include a recipe! Happy birthday anyway…

    • @lentigogirl. I know- that was evil. I figured there is an abundance of recipes online that it would be easy to find one that satisfies one’s taste. To be true to the original Texas sheet cake recipe I rec’d choosing one that calls for buttermilk, though the recipe I have calls for sour cream. Either way, they all are super delicious. My mother believes it’s all in the frosting that ‘sheaths’ the cake, and the frosting is pretty standard among all the recipes I have seen, with the exception of nuts that have become an option. IMHO, it is the pecans in the frosting that make it a true Texas Sheet Cake.

  2. Thanks for using my cake picture! It does my MLSed heart good. It also makes me want to make another cake. πŸ˜€

    • Thank you for taking such as wonderful picture that shows how the chocolate frosting sheaths the cake. It makes my mouth water πŸ™‚

  3. I have heard that for the cake to be a true Texas Sheet Cake, the icing should be boiled, then the pecans added, and finally the icing poured over a warm cake.

  4. And all this time I thought someone just misspelled sheet and it became sheath. Supposedly Mexican Chocolate Cake is so named because of the use of cinnamon and vanilla in the cake, flavors which are associated with Mexico.

  5. I am delighted to find your research and remember my mother’s chocolate “sheath” cake
    beginning in the 1960’s. when asked later where she got the recipe, she said my aunt from Dallas shared it with her. I, too would love to know the recipe’s origin. Years later, I call it “my mother’s recipe” and make it as our family birthday cake but smile as over the years, I understand in conversations, that this is probably every child’s mother’s recipe who grew up in Texas during those years. The cake is very dense and rich and has almost a brownie consistency. Most people seem to enjoy it, especially when fresh and the bottom of the pan is still warm.

  6. This cake is a favorite in my family. My mother taught me to make it when I was young as it’s pretty easy to make, and she hates to bake. I am the default baker for our family with this cake requested at every function. I would have to think that it must have appeared in a ladies magazine sometime in the 50s or 60s as my Grandmother was a voracious reader of them and she taught my mother the cake.

  7. Since discovering (and falling in love with this cake), I have renamed it the Texican Sheet Cake. The use of cinnamon with chocolate is traditionally Mexican, so I have to conclude that this recipe is somehow a product of the Mexican influence in Texas cooking. Perhaps this is why, it is hard to the origin of the recipe.

  8. Thank you for a very interesting article! Texas Sheet Cake was my grandmother’s go-to company cake, only she called it Puerto Rican Chocolate Cake. The recipe was definitely clipped from a newspaper, and I suppose it was “Puerto Rican” because of the addition of cinnamon. So, one more name to add to the list.! πŸ˜›

  9. My Mom clipped the Texas Sheath Cake recipe from the Fort Worth Star Telegram in the 50s and it quickly became a family favorite, especially on picnics.

  10. This was a favorite birthday cake for me, too. My mom got the recipe out of a woman’s magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, I think. The cover featured Lady Bird Johnson. It included an interview with the First Lady that discussed her program to beautify America and included this recipe – a favorite of LBJ’s. The recipe was titled Lady Bird Johnson’s Texas Sheet Cake. My mom kept the magazine, referring to the recipe right from the article, but the magazine was lost after Mom’s death.

  11. I have to ask: In all of your research, did you find a cake attributed to a first lady that was chocolate and had 12 eggs in the recipe? It was in one of the ladies magazines in the 70s, and I could swear it was credited to Rosalynn Carter, but I have never, ever been able to find it again. It was a sheet cake. I have been going insane for years trying to find it, as it was incredibly delicious.

    thanks for the info, whatever you have.

    • Hi Barbara, You have come to the right place. We have a culinary and presidential food specialist on staff. Please feel out an Ask a librarian request so we can provide you with more personal and in-depth answer.

  12. I had to do a project for school on this one time! I added cinnamen though, and mine was Californian with lemons

  13. This recipe is simply the Swiss Chocolate Squares recipe that has been being published since at least the 1930’s. It appears someone decided it was a great recipe (and it is) so typical of Texans, let’s change the name and claim it as our own.

  14. I grow up enjoying Texas cake in the 1960’s and still love it today! According to my 93 year old mother, her dad, in the 40’s, received the recipe from her cousin, but it didn’t have a name. So, since her cousin lived in Texas at the time, her dad, who lived in Ohio, started calling it Texas cake. Not sure if that’s where the name originated or not, but it makes for a good family story.

  15. The sheet cake recipe in the presidential cookbook for Lyndon B Johnson is my grandma, she catered a lot of military events because my grandfather was in the airforce. If you want more info you can email me!

  16. My sister acquired this recipes when her sons were in grade school in the 60s and we have been making it since then. Never get tired of it and it’s great for a crowd. In fact, I’m making it Friday. Here is the recipe

    Step 1
    2 cups sugar
    2 cups flour
    1/2 teaspoon salt

    Step 2
    1 stick butter
    1 cup water
    4 tablespoons cocoa powder

    Step 3
    1/2 cup buttermilk
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    2 eggs

    Bring step 2 to a fast boil. Add it to step 3 and mix all into step 1

    Mix 2 minutes at moderate speed. Bake in a greases jelly roll pan preheated to 350 for 20 minutes

    Frosting. Bring to fast boil 1 stick butter, 4 tablespoons cocoa powder and 6 tablespoons milk. Add 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 cup chopped pecans. Frost while cake is still warm but not hot

  17. I found this post while trying to find the history of the Texas Sheet Cake. It seems it has a variety of pasts, depending on location. My mom has made this cake for family gatherings, parties, birthdays, you name it. Our recipe seems to be different than the ones posted though. We use the sour cream, but we also use 2 sticks of butter in the cake. For the frosting we use the whole box of powdered sugar (that may be 3 1/2 cups, I’m not sure).

    We do not use any nuts, and I often like sifting powdered sugar over the cake immediately after it comes out of the oven. And of course, it’s delicious warmed with ice cream on top!

  18. I moved to Texas in 1984 and have seen the cake with a variety of names that included “Texas”. None that I tried in Texas seemed to be as good as the one I grew up on in the 60s and 70s in Huntsville, Alabama, where my mother used the recipe, Mrs. Ellkins’ Sheath Cake, from the Huntsville Heritage Cookbook that the Junior League had published. I have no idea who Mrs. Elkins was, as the recipe was submitted by someone else, and it was titled using “sheath” instead of sheet. Haven’t made it in many years, but might need to whip it up again…here’s to Mrs. Elkins!

  19. Jennifer,
    I thought you might like to know that my recipe came from my great grandmother, b. 1881 and d. 1975.
    She was famous for this cake and made it most of her life. Her recipe for “Devil’s Food” cake is identical to “Texas Sheet” cake recipes, including heating the water, butter, cocoa, and the buttermilk for the batter. You also heat the frosting and pour it over the hot cake. Of course the frosting contains pecans, this is Texas after all! She baked it in a 13×9 pan and it is the birthday cake of choice for all members of our family; Maud Kennedy’s legacy.
    A note to your readers to not overcook this cake. Cook cake just until toothpick comes out clean when removed.
    I wonder if the techniques used in this recipe had anything to do with living in a hot climate? Hmmmm, worth some thought. Could it have helped the cake last longer? Perhaps the frosting?
    Or, maybe it was just easier to blend the ingredients since she used a spoon to blend; she didn’t have a spatula and of course not a mixer. These were ingredients she would have had on hand. I checked Mama’s copy, and it actually calls for “sour milk”, so I’m assuming it was a delicious way to use milk that was soured. Those, hardy, ingenious, but poor people threw away nothing.
    I hope I’ve added something to this conversation, which I found very interesting.

  20. OHHH, I forgot to include that my great grandmother lived in Ft. Worth, right next to Dallas. I see at least one other person got their recipe from Dallas. I will check with Mom and see if she knows anything else about the origin. Thank you again for this fascinating walk down memory lane.

  21. My grandmother, Eva Sweet, typed this recipe for me in the 1970’s. For many years she was the Exec. Asst. to Commissioner Jim Langdon over the Texas Railroad Commission in Austin, Texas. My grandmother noted, “An Austin (Texas) girl named ‘Jeanie’ made this cake & took it to be served at Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson’s inaugural party so it became known as ‘Jeanie’s Cake’. Others also called it their ‘funeral cake’ because it is so quickly made & serves many.” This recipe also calls for 1/2 c Crisco, 1 stick “oleo” (butter), buttermilk & cinnamon as well as the other basic ingredients listed by the author. However, it does not mention sour cream.

  22. My grandmother, Eva Sweet, typed this delicious Texas “sheath cake” for me in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. For many years she worked as the Executive Assistant to then, Railroad Commissioner, Judge Jim Langdon head of the Texas Railroad Commission in Austin Texas.
    Her recipe noted, “An Austin girl named ‘Jeanie’, made this cake & took it to be served at President Lyndon B Johnson’s inaugural party so it became known as ‘Jeanie’s Cake’. Others called it their ‘funeral cake’ because it is so quickly made and serves many”.
    This recipe calls for 1/2 c Crisco; 1 stick Oleo (butter/margarine); buttermilk & cinnamon along with the other basic ingredients the author lists. There is no mention of sour cream, however. The icing recipe does require an entire box of Powdered sugar, another stick of Oleo,4 T cocoa, 6 T milk, 1 tsp vanilla & 1/2 cup chopped pecans. Thanks, “Memo”, for documenting this wonderful piece of history as well as this recipe for “the best chocolate cake” in Texas!

  23. It seems no one has mentioned making it with coffee, I have grown up In Louisiana and Texas eating, then making the Texas Sheet Cake never thinking about where it came from. I just made it like everyone else did. We did not use cinnamon. We did use buttermilk and to enhance the chocolate flavor we use a cup of coffee. The cake does not have a coffee flavor at all, in fact coffee Taste and odor makes my sister deathly ill and she loves the cake but no one has told her there is coffee in it . My recipe is as follows:
    2 cups granulated sugar
    2 cups flour
    Β½ tsp salt
    1 cup butter
    1 cup black coffee
    β…“ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
    3 eggs
    Β½ cup buttermilk
    1 tsp baking soda

    1 stick butter
    6 tablespoons buttermilk
    4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
    1 tsp vanilla
    2 1/2 cups powdered sugar


    Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease and flour a 17 x 11 jelly roll pan or use parchment paper.

    In a large bowl, combine flour, salt and sugar. Set aside.

    In a saucepan, combine butter, coffee, and cocoa. Bring to a boil. Pour into a large bowl.

    Gradually add dry mixture to chocolate and mix well. Blending between additions, add eggs, buttermilk and soda.

    Pour into baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes.


    Make frosting while cake is baking. Cake should be frosted as soon as it’s done.

    Melt butter in saucepan. Add cocoa and buttermilk and heat just until mixture starts to bubble. Remove from heat. Gradually beat in powdered sugar and then vanilla. Add nuts if using. Spread on cake as soon as it is removed from oven.

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