When Michelle Lopez immigrated to Houston from Manila as a teenager, her family’s new neighbors all dropped off the same welcome dessert: Texas sheet cake.
Their kitchen was filled with five thin slabs of moist chocolate cake, each adorned with a pecan-laden chewy fudge frosting.
“My family had never had anything like that before,” said Ms. Lopez, 34. But it quickly became a staple of their lives in Texas — appearing at soccer tournaments, birthdays and barbecues.
Later, when she moved to Portland, Ore., and missed the Texas sheet cakes of her childhood, she developed a recipe for one on her baking blog, Hummingbird High.
“I was trying to describe it to a friend of mine, and I was like, do you remember Little Debbie Brownies from when we were younger?” she said. “It is like a better version of those.”
At a basic level, a Texas sheet cake — also referred to as a sheath cake, Texas funeral cake or Texas brownie cake — is a chocolate cake with chocolate icing made in a shallow jelly roll pan. For countless Texans (and many others), it is the platonic ideal of dessert: the high ratio of icing to cake, the crunchy-gone-slightly-soggy quality of the pecans, even the way the frosting is made — on a stovetop, then poured warm over the cake to solidify into a thick blanket of chocolate. It’s a simple, elegant cake that doesn’t require whipping egg whites to stiff peaks, or, even more agonizingly, waiting for a cake to cool before frosting it.
At any large gathering Nola McKey attended while growing up in Telferner, Texas, “you could always count on a Texas sheet cake being there,” she said.
“I can’t say that I specifically remember it, but I guarantee you it was there,” added Ms. McKey, 74, the author of “From Tea Cakes to Tamales: Third-Generation Texas Recipes.”
Texas sheet cake has become a cultural touchstone and something many Texans have adopted as part of their identity (and yes, being from Texas is an identity). The cake, along with peach cobbler and pecan pie, belongs in “the trinity of Texas iconic desserts,” said Lisa Fain, who runs the “Homesick Texan” blog, which she started in 2005 while living in New York. (She moved back to Texas in 2019.)
Texas sheet cake aligns well with life in the Lone Star state, added Ms. Fain, 52. The frosting isn’t as susceptible to melting in the relentless heat — thanks in part to the use of melted butter stabilized with cocoa powder and confectioners’ sugar — and the dessert is portable, making it suitable for backyard barbecues and other gatherings. The pecan is also the official Texas state tree.
While the Texas sheet cake’s exact origins are tough to pin down, there are references in books to chocolate cakes made in jelly roll pans with stovetop chocolate icing dating as far back as the late 19th century, like in the 1883 “The Texas Cookbook” by the Ladies’ Association of the First Presbyterian Church in Houston. But it may not be uniquely Texan; Coloradans also lay claim to a similar cake, and a recipe for the confection also appears in “The Huntsville Heritage Cookbook,” published by members of Alabama’s Grace Club Auxiliary in 1967.
That hasn’t stopped Texans from marketing the cake like a mascot. In May, the Texas-based ice cream company Blue Bell announced a Texas sheet cake flavor, after Lick, a popular local ice cream shop, did the same. The Texas State Fair has offered fried Texas sheet cake. The beloved Texas grocer H-E-B sells a Texas sheet cake mix.
The cake has also inspired variations that incorporate ingredients like Dr Pepper or chile powder. Those versions, in turn, have engendered strong opinions.
Ms. Lopez, the Hummingbird High blogger, is eager to try making white Texas sheet cake, a version she has seen made with vanilla instead of chocolate.
Ms. Fain, on the other hand, was baffled by the notion of a Texas sheet cake without the cocoa.
“I am like, why would you do that?” she said.
Recipe: Texas Sheet Cake