Sheet Cakes should not be handled lightly. I’ve always been a project baker, but as the pandemic winter approached, I found myself falling in love with Yossy Arefi’s Snacking Cakes for its relaxed approach to baking. No electric mixers, no separate eggs, no softened butter—just ruthlessly basic dishes with unusual taste combinations like rhubarb and sumac, lemony currant and rosemary, and chocolate, orange, and beets. When I leased a place in New York with a bunch of freshly vaccinated friends this spring, we cooked one of her cakes every day for a week. A snacking cake, as characterised by one buddy halfway through the trip, is “a cake that you devour in one sitting, without dishes.”
As I progressed through Snacking Cakes, I began to see simple cakes everywhere I looked. She Wolf Bakery serves a “daycake” loaded with seasonal fruit with their superb sourdough at my neighbourhood farmers’ market in Union Square. Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen has had an entire category on her website dedicated to “everyday cakes” for years. During the epidemic, I saw a lot of those (notably the strawberry summer sheet cakes and her towering pumpkin bread), as well as a lot of box mix cakes shared by friends on Instagram.
“Over the previous 18 months, we’ve all had moments when we were just sick of the never-ending cycle of cooking and dishwashing.” “I’m not sure about everyone else, but I’ve always tried to gather some energy and excitement to make a small treat,” Arefi adds through email. “I wanted to simplify the cake-making procedure as much as possible while still producing something tasty and comforting.” I had no idea how much people would adore the notion!” And they have—the book has had many print runs, and it just earned an IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) cookbook award.
Anne Byrn’s upcoming A New Take on Cake revisits the cake mix recipes that made her 1998 book The Cake Mix Doctor an immediate hit for an even simpler cake: “I simply look at cakes really differently, and I felt that it was time that The Cake Mix Doctor readers did as well.” Classics like Sock It to Me Cake (a ’70s-era cake mix variation with a pecan streusel swirl, originally from Duncan Hines) are updated with less sugar and a focus on modern dietary restrictions, while recipes like Chocolate Chip Tahini Loaf and Roasted Sweet Potato Snack Cake are aimed at newer cooks who “gravitate toward new flavours and more savoury flavours,” as Byrn puts it.
What makes the munching cake so enticing right now? Byrn, who investigated the history of baking in the United States for her book American Cake, informs me (in her beautiful Southern drawl) that “the method we’re baking a cake now is really very ancient… People used what they had.” That cake style, which is really pared down, simplistic, and rustic, is quite authentic.”
Byrn cites the cost-effectiveness of utilising cake mixes, as well as the availability of components such as butter, milk, and eggs, as factors that make eating cakes a viable option during the epidemic. Even skilled cooks will tell you that baking needs tedious accuracy, but the magic of the snacking cake is in its simplicity and adaptability. Even with a broken whisk and a sparsely supplied rental home kitchen, you can bake a munching cake whenever the whim strikes. Arefi urges consumers to “mix & match the cakes and toppings and add (or eliminate) components to personalise the recipes.”
“There’s never a bad moment to talk about cake,” Abigail Johnson Dodge says. Sheet Cakes, her newest book, was inspired by the fact that she was “putting food on the sheet pan for my family for supper, and I thought, why am I not doing this for cake?” Every dish in the book is cooked in a half sheet pan, whether it’s left in the pan and decorated like her Creamy Hazelnut Cake with Nutella whipped cream, divided into layers and stacked like her Boston Cream Cake, or rolled like her Mocha Bûche de Noel. l. Because of the hack, most of the cakes bake in less than 20 minutes, freeing up time for busy chefs and allowing for more freedom.
Toppings and decorations are optional for all three writers. Dodge describes herself as a “icing superfan,” but she provides written-out full and half recipes for the frostings in Sheet Cakes to avoid making readers do math—”because that can also be a deterrent, you know, when someone takes out their calculator, or they don’t take out their calculator, and they mess up the recipe.” A New Take on Cake achieves the same approach; Byrn recognises that her readers’ preferences have shifted toward less sweet flavours over time. “I frost less,” she writes. Or just not at all! We don’t require as much ice any longer.”