As a living, breathing human being, I do love chocolate. I understand why the grocery store check-out counters are lined with chocolate bars. I understand why Willy Wonka is a great movie. (In fact, I completely understand why Augustus Gloop fell into that chocolate river. I’m with you, Augustus! I’d have thrown on my suit and hopped in there with you too!) I understand why Smitten Kitchen has a killer recipe for a cake called the “I want chocolate cake” cake. And I understand why my mom used to hide the chocolate chips at the back of the freezer when we were little. Honestly, she probably still should.
That being said, I think vanilla really gets a bad rap in the entire debate. When did vanilla become a synonymous descriptor for something bland? Vanilla can, and should, play a starring role in everything from cakes to ice cream to cookies. One of the all-time most popular recipes I’ve written about in my Food52 column is for a double vanilla butter cake that looks ridiculously ordinary but will easily win you friends and lovers and so on.
Vanilla extract is a crucial ingredient for any baker, making an appearance in nearly every recipe for a sweet baked good. It’s like salt: without it, any flavor is a little flat. But it doesn’t often get highlighted as the main ingredient. And it should! But we’re not here to talk about vanilla today; I just often feel so sad for vanilla when we get all hot and bothered about chocolate. (I’m empathetic, what can I say?)
But let’s get hot and bothered. Because if today’s cake isn’t sexy enough for you…then I’m sorry. But it should be. Not only because the frosting is a whipped dream of a buttercream, but also because it’s so quick and easy that you don’t even need a stand mixer to make the batter.
Just whisk together the dry ingredients. Then the wet ones. Mix them all together, and bake! If you didn’t feel like making frosting (um, who are you?), you could just serve it warm with a scoop of ice cream. Or tear it into pieces and pour custard or whipped cream over it and make it into a trifle! The cake has a very moist, loose crumb which makes it ideal for soaking up sauces and cream. Mostly cream. More cream, really, is the answer here.
You can make this cake with your eyes half-closed. Or while you’re sort of paying attention and sort of watching the world’s most adorable bakers on this season of the Great British Bake-Off. Or while you’re trying to get to genius level of the NYT Spelling Bee daily puzzle. You know, handling the important things in life.
Whatever your reason for baking it, or side hustle while you’re doing so, you’ll like it. Even if you find vanilla sexier than chocolate. And especially if you think chocolate is the sexiest, full stop.
Note: I like this frosting as is, but it’s also really lovely if you use bittersweet chocolate and add 2 tablespoons of sour cream. It makes a silkier, more intense frosting.
Chocolate Sheet Cake
Makes one 9” x 13” cake
For the cake
1/2 cup (115g) sour cream
1 cup buttermilk
3 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup very strong brewed coffee
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
For the frosting
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch of salt
To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease (or line with parchment) a 9” x 13” pan.
Whisk together the sour cream, buttermilk, eggs, coffee, vegetable oil, and vanilla. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 45-55 minutes, or until the cake springs back lightly when you press the surface. Remove from the oven and let cool while you make the frosting.
For the frosting: Melt the chocolate chips (in the microwave or over a double boiler), then set aside to cool slightly.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter with the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, and salt until fluffy. Add the melted chocolate and beat until well-combined and fluffy.
Frost the top of the cake and add lots of sprinkles, if you’re into that. Or not. It’s your cake; do your thing.