Sweet Summer Birthday Cakes (and a Texas Sheet Cake Recipe)

texas_sheet_cake.jpg
Jeff Sandquist
Texas sheet cake (with walnuts)
Jennifer Reed is a pastry chef based in South Florida and owner of the Sugar Monkey. Every week, she'll share her insights about life, local food, and the people who cook it.

Summer birthdays are kind of a drag. Yeah, you could take your cupcakes to school on the last day. But so could four other kids who also had summer birthdays. And a birthday party? No way. My birthday parties consisted of my aunt, my grandma and grandpa, my mom, and myself. I don't even recall my brother being there. It was summer, and he was having real fun, not pseudo-party fun. The actual celebration part lasted only about ten minutes. Like the family was getting together and then -- "Oh shit, we have to light the candles and open the Barbie clothes so we can finish talking."
The party for me was all about the cake. My dad was the original cake boss. When we were little, he would make ladybug-shaped cakes and monkey-shaped cakes -- really fun cakes. But as I got older and my palette became more refined, I developed a taste for cherry chip and funfetti cakes. I loved the color of the cakes. I loved the fact that you could go to the store and pick out the cake mix and then a frosting to go with it. Cake in the colors of the Care Bears -- ingenious! 

My mother wanted nothing to do with my rainbow-hued mixes. She would let me have them on the condition that I make my own birthday cake. Hell yeah, at least I knew that part of my party would be rockin'! I would wake up early on the morning of my birthday to start my cake. Soon the kitchen would be filled with the "scent" of cherries. At this point, I had already licked the beaters and tested out my frosting on some graham crackers. It was my birthday, and I had free reign in the kitchen. By the afternoon, my beautiful rainbow-chip-covered cake was sitting on the counter, topped in sugar letters, tempting me to eat it. 

Later that evening, my family would sing to me and let me blow out the candles. I would cut one slice of cake for myself. Then my mother would bring in her birthday cake from the week before and the adults would eat that one. Her cake was (and still is) Texas Sheet Cake -- dark chocolate cake with boiled chocolate frosting made from scratch -- not picked off grocery store shelves. None of us ever imagined I would end up where I am, shuddering at the thought of boxed mixes and preservatives. I was home last month for my nephew's eighth-grade graduation. There was a reception after with cake and ice cream. I ate the cherry chip cake with the fluffy white icing. I would never make it for myself again, but it sure takes me back!

Below is the recipe for my mom's birthday cake. She says it's best made the day before you are going to eat it. It's sad since I am a professional baker, but I've made the cake for her only once.  The honor has been passed on to my sister-in-law, who lives much closer. And whose sons love those cherry and funfetti cakes just as much as I do.

Texas Sheet Cake

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups butter -- my mom uses 1 stick of butter and 1/2 cup crisco
3 1/2 T cocoa powder
1 cup water
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 t baking soda
1 t vanilla
2 each eggs
1 t salt

Preheat oven to 375℉. Butter flour a 10x14(or 15)x1 cake pan. Mix the sugar and flour together in a bowl. Combine the butter, cocoa powder, and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add to the flour/sugar mixture and whisk in. Combine the buttermilk, soda, vanilla, eggs, and salt. Whisk into the previous mix until the ingredients are combined. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

When the cake is almost done baking, start to make the icing. The cake should be iced while it is still warm.

1 stick butter
1/3 cup milk
3 1/2 T cocoa
1 box confectioner's sugar
1 t vanilla

Bring the butter, milk, and cocoa to a boil, stirring constantly.  Remove from the heat and stir in the confectioner's sugar and vanilla. Pour over the cake while both are still warm.


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