“There’s nothing wrong with a plain and simple frosted cake.” —Melissa Clark
At this point, it’s all but undisputed that the internet democratized recipe development and sharing, wrenching the top-down choke hold from froufrou and, in fairness not-so-froufrou, cooking magazines. This gave talented former nobodies a bigger platform and consumers much more choice. Food blogs were born. I think by now, though, the pendulum has swung again; food blogs have matured to more and more professional standards, especially when baking is involved. Baked goods on blogs and social media, particularly cakes and pies, have entered into a seriously competitive decoration game. Photos and videos abound of intricate pie crust braids and pretty cutouts, and elaborate, expertly decorated birthday cakes that could shame a lot of well-done wedding cakes. It’s everywhere. Even plebes like me have got to step up our game. Some may bemoan this – I just wanted to bake a simple but delicious birthday cake for my kid! – but I must confess I am not immune to the charms of a beautifully decorated layer cake. I too can fall down a Pinterest or Instagram rabbit hole where I waste at least an hour swooning over the frosted flowers, the pretty fork drags, the perfect frosted lettering.
As someone historically bad and unpracticed at eye-popping cake decorations, I oscillate between two states of mind: 1) I can learn this gorgeous new skill too; and 2) oh fuck it, just make a sheet cake. I probably don’t have to tell you which frame of mind wins out more often.
In fact, I have become a great lover of and fiend for sheet cakes. I could sing their praises all day. They are easy to bake, just dump all the batter into one pan. They are easy to frost, just dump all the frosting into the center and spread it out. They still taste wonderful, and it’s easy (too easy?) to use a regular butter knife to shave just a tiny bit off the side every time you walk past one. You can’t do that with a layer cake. Not without being spotted anyway.
All this to say, no one was more excited than me last fall when Bake from Scratch Magazine published an issue dedicated to sheet cakes. They featured six, count ‘em, SIX different fall-flavored sheet cakes as their issue’s centerpiece, and I made them all. Yep, all six cakes, one right after the other, bang bang bang. We were mostly delighted. Four of them were perfection, one doesn’t count because I screwed it up, and only the last cake, a Maple-Pecan Apple Cake with Maple Buttercream, was found lacking. I tasted it and immediately found myself pondering a blasphemous thought: “This would work better as a layer cake.”
I went back to the recipe and tweaked it a little to transform it into a two-layer nine-inch round cake, and was rewarded with sweet, sweet validation. I love being right! (Usually). Here’s what I changed and why. First off, the apples in the cake didn’t work for me. If there are apples in my cake, then it must be an Apple Cake. This was simply a cake with apples. They had to go. After omitting the apples, I increased the cinnamon and pecans, and divided the batter into two nine-inch round pans. I kept the frosting recipe as is, which is my next point: as written, it was way too much frosting for a sheet cake, but when I halved it, there wasn’t quite enough frosting for the sheet cake. It was naked at the edges, and trust me when I say that’s not a good look. But as written, it was a generous amount for a well-frosted layer cake. Lastly, to cut the sweetness (a minor complaint the first time around), I sprinkled a little sea salt on the top of the cake, and every taste tester agreed that was the *chef kisses fingers* moment.
I kept the decor simple, not just because I’m, uh, “still learning”. Smooth sides, a ring of neat pecan halves, and the aforementioned sea salt. This is where I scream “I LIKED IT BETTER THAT WAY ANYWAYS” but you can certainly do more if you have the skills. At the end of the day, this cake was just meant to be layered. I can’t fight destiny. You end up with a soft, earthy, pecan-studded cake underneath a thick, luscious maple meringue frosting boasting a whisper of salt. It’s a damn fine dessert for the middle of fall.
Maple-Pecan Cinnamon Cake with Maple Buttercream
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- ½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tbs vanilla extract
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 cup maple syrup
- ¾ cup sour cream
- 1 cup pecans, finely chopped
- Flaky sea salt, such as fleur de sel, for sprinkling
- Whole pecans, for decoration, if desired
- 6 large egg whites
- ½ cup plus 2 tbs granulated sugar
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 1 ¾ cup plus 2 tbs unsalted butter, softened
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans and line with parchment.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and brown sugar on medium speed until creamy, 3 to 4 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl, then turn the mixer back on. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.
- In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and baking soda. In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, whisk together the maple syrup and sour cream.
- With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternating with the maple syrup mixture. I like to add one-third the flour mixture followed by half the maple syrup mixture, then repeat again in that order until done. Now add pecans and mix until just combined. Use a spatula to give the batter one more fold to make sure the pecans are evenly incorporated.
- Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake until a cake tester or wooden skewer comes out clean when poked into the center of the cake, about 30 to 35 minutes. Let cakes cool completely in the pans.
- Once cool, tip the first cake out of the pan and peel off the parchment. Set the bottom cake on a cake stand and dollop some buttercream on top. Use an offset spatula to spread the frosting into an even layer. If some is poking out that’s fine. Now tip the second cake out of its pan and peel off the parchment. Place it on top of the bottom layer, lining it up evenly.
- Place large dollops of frosting and spread it from the center to the edges and tipping over the sides of the cake. Gently frost the sides top down, making sure the spatula doesn’t touch the cake itself (that gets your crumbies in your frosting). Add more frosting to the sides as necessary. I used ALL the frosting here. Use your spatula to smooth out the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle sea salt on the top, then decorate with pecans - or not - as you prefer.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites at medium speed until foamy. Gradually add sugar, beating until medium peaks form.
- Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, heat maple syrup over medium heat until a candy thermometer registers 240 F. This takes longer than you think it should.
- With the stand mixer running on medium, gradually pour the hot maple syrup into egg white mixture, trying to aim for in between the whisk and the side of the bowl. Continue beating for a long while until the sides of the bowl are cool to the touch. Again, this takes longer than you think it should.
- Now add butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, to the egg white mixture, beating until combined. If your buttercream looks runny at this point, keep beating until fluffy. Beat in salt and vanilla. Use immediately.
The buttercream. This is a meringue buttercream, which is the richest and best thing ever - that insane amount of butter is not a typo - but it’s tricky to make. The bad news is, it's easy to screw up. The good news is, screw-ups are easy to fix. READ THIS BEFORE MAKING THE FROSTING. It’ll teach you how to rescue it from your screw-ups. Yes, I know from experience, no, I don’t wanna talk about it...