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American Cake by Anne Byrn

My husband bought me a copy of Anne Byrn’s American Cake for Christmas. A smart move on his part; I had previously browsed a library copy with a good amount of excitement and note-taking. His gift was both thoughtful and self-serving. In this cookbook are dozens of recipes ranging from bundt cakes, fruitcakes, and gingerbread to multi-layer tortes and tiered filled cakes. In addition to the stunning variety of shapes, flavors and regional favorites, American Cake provides a history lesson about the origins of each cake, why it was popular when created, and why the recipe endures. It is a carefully constructed, well-written and detailed book… and it’s about cake. I don’t own many dessert cookbooks, but it’s clear this will be one I consult often.

On Super Bowl Sunday, I made the New York Cheesecake to take to a party. It was easily 3″ tall, took almost three hours to set in my finicky oven, and was hands-down the most delicious cheesecake I’ve ever made. As I fussed with five (!) packages of cream cheese and fanned the smoke alarm during the initial 500 degree browning step, I guessed that would be the first and last time I would make the recipe… and as I ate my first slice, I also ate my words. The extra time and attention was completely worthwhile.

New York cheesecake from American Cake

This weekend we had a friend over for dinner and I decided that was a good excuse to try another recipe. I chose to make the Texas Sheath Cake, also known as a Texas Sheet Cake (the title I am more familiar with), which is a one-layer chocolate cake with a boiled frosting that goes on the cake right out of the oven. There is cinnamon and buttermilk in the recipe, giving the cake a distinct flavor and texture, and toasted pecans in the frosting. I have to say, with all due respect to my Nana’s beloved recipe, this is one of the finest chocolate cakes I have ever made or eaten. It has the flavor and consistency of a glazed chocolate donut: light and moist cake, a hardened, icing-like sheen to the frosting. The cinnamon is not immediately recognizable, but adds a certain dimension to the cake that is magical. I chickened out a little and only used half the amount of cinnamon called for, but will try the full teaspoon next time. Because we are not always fans of nuts in baked goods, I kept the pecans whole and studded the top of the cake, rather than mixing them into the frosting; I found them surprisingly important to cut the sweetness, add texture and complement the chocolate flavor. This is a phenomenal cake, one I will make often now that I realize how straightforward the process is– I had the impression a sheet cake was complicated and required strange techniques and ingredients, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. The author’s source for the recipe cites it as a go-to for birthdays, tailgates, picnics and casual entertaining. That gives me plenty of reasons to make it again!

With two recipes made and two glowing successes, I look forward to continuing to explore American Cake. I think I will try the Boston Cream Pie next; that’s a personal favorite from childhood, and I’ve been looking for a keeper recipe for years. I’m eager to see if Ms. Byrn’s recipe is The One. Then, Alaska Rhubarb Cake, or maybe Tres Leches Cake?, or perhaps Pineapple Upside-Down Cake? I am going to have so much fun with this book.

Texas sheet cake from American Cake

Texas Sheet Cake (from American Cake)

For the cake:

  • 2 sticks (16 T.) unsalted butter
  • 1 c. water
  • 4 T. cocoa (I used Hershey’s)
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 c. flour
  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1/2 c. buttermilk
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

For the frosting:

  • 1 stick (8 T.) unsalted butter
  • 1/3 c. whole milk
  • 4 T. cocoa
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 3 3/4 c. confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 – 1 c. pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a baking sheet, toast the pecans for about 5-8 mins. Remove from the oven and cool while you make the cake. Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees*. Lightly grease and flour a 11″ x 13″ metal baking pan (see note below) and set aside.

In a saucepan, melt two sticks of butter with water and 4 T. cocoa. When the butter has melted completely and the mixture is starting to boil, remove it from the heat.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt. Pour the butter/cocoa mixture into the bowl and stir until smooth.

In a small bowl, mix together the buttermilk and baking soda. Add this mixture to the batter. Whisk the eggs to break up the yolks and add to the batter, with the vanilla. Stir everything together, until you don’t see dry flour. When the batter is evenly mixed, pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 20-25 mins., until the cake springs back when touched lightly.

About 5 mins. before the cake is done baking, start making the frosting. Put 1 stick of butter, 4 T. cocoa, milk and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt into a saucepan on medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, mixing often, and boil for about 3 mins. It might separate, and look terrible, but it will be okay in the end; just keep stirring so it doesn’t burn.

Sift the confectioner’s sugar into a mixing bowl. When the chocolate mixture has boiled, pour it carefully into the powdered sugar and mix until you have a shiny, thin frosting. Stir in 1 tsp. vanilla. If you want, you can chop the toasted pecans and add to the frosting now. Pour the frosting over the hot cake and spread to the edges of the pan. Top with pecans if you didn’t add them to the frosting. Allow the cake to cool at room temperature for at least an hour. Cut into squares to serve.

Leftover cake will keep in a covered container at room temperature for 3-5 days.

*The author calls for a 9″ x 13″ metal sheet pan and I do not have that size. I used a metal 11″ x 13″ pan. As such, knowing my batter would be thinner, I decreased the temperature from 400 degrees (from the book) to 375 degrees. If you have a 9″ x 13″ pan, set your oven to 400 degrees.

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