There are some dishes that were obviously made for church gatherings, extended family birthday parties, BBQs, school functions, and just generally any event where a whole lotta people stuff themselves with a whole lotta food. Texas Sheet Cake is one of them.
Like many of the other kids in its class (I'm looking at you, hot dish), it gained popularity during the post-war period, and it's not about fancy ingredients or subtle flavors. What is it about? While variations exist, most people agree on a thin chocolate buttermilk cake that's baked in a jelly roll pan and topped with chocolate icing and toasted pecans. (Interested parties may want to check out the Library of Congress blog for more on its history.)
It's also characterized by an unusual cooking method: all of the recipes I encountered forwent any creaming of butter and sugar, instead using a method in which butter is melted, then brought to a boil with water and cocoa before being mixed with dry ingredients, buttermilk, and eggs. The result is an almost liquid batter, and one that I was afraid wasn't going to set up. But it does—and remains extra moist to boot. The icing is also made on the stove top, then poured over the warm cake. I have to say, I didn't miss my stand mixer one bit.
In my research, I found the variations typically concern the size of the jelly roll pan, whether or not to include cinnamon in the cake crumb, and the exact type of icing. I decided to use the biggest jelly roll pan I owned (18- by 13-inches) because, well, this thing isn't named after Texas for nothing. I also settled on using cinnamon in the crumb because I found it helped balance the otherwise sweet cake. Similarly, I chose to use buttermilk (as opposed to regular milk or just water) in my icing to provide a subtle tang to offset the sweetness. Not that this cake isn't sweet—it most certainly is, but intentionally so.
The resulting cake is just about an inch thick, with a similarly sized layer of fudgy, sweet chocolate icing. (As an icing/frosting lover, I have to say I've finally found a cake with my ideal ratio.) It's got a cocoa-foward, lightly cinnamony flavor, and even though it's so slim, I found a small piece of cake is usually sweet enough to satisfy. Don't forget those pecans—besides being the state nut of Texas, they keep things texturally interesting.