It’s exactly that ease that makes snacking cakes such a popular idea right now. When the urge to embark on a multistep, many-bowl baking project wanes but the desire for cake does not, snacking cake comes to the rescue.
Banana bread is, arguably, the category’s all-star. Other loaf cakes and quick breads, such as zucchini bread and tea cakes, fall into the snacking cake club, too. Sheet cakes are a close cousin, but their recipes are written for larger pans and bigger groups, and since gatherings are extremely limited during the pandemic, who needs to make enough cake for 16 people? Indeed, a smaller, single-layer cake that takes less than an hour to make fits the bill well.
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Shauna Sever, the author of “Midwest Made: Big, Bold Baking from the Heartland,” calls them counter cakes. “Ready to be shared at a moment’s notice, the ideal counter cake is dense, moist and a no-frosting-required affair. Drizzly glazes are acceptable, but there’s nothing about these casual cakes needing fussy decoration or extra steps,” she writes. “[They’re] cakes that beckon to you from the countertop.”
Baker Jessie Sheehan, author of “Icebox Cakes” and “The Vintage Baker,” who is known for her one-bowl approach to baking, has had a lifelong love for snacking cakes. “Back in the day, I can’t remember what brand, Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines, used to sell little cake mixes for tiny, one-layer, stir-n-frost cakes. Maybe they still do? They put a little pan in the box and a packet of frosting, too. The chocolate cake with vanilla frosting was my favorite,” Sheehan says.
As a kid, she was thrilled by the simplicity of the one-bowl, one-pan mixes — so much, in fact, that she credits them with inspiring her to become a baker, and to write similarly efficient but exciting recipes. “Nostalgia is a powerful thing, right?”
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Sheehan notes that snacking cakes are not, technically, the same thing as snack cakes, which are sold near the register at gas stations and convenience stores under brand names like Little Debbie and TastyKake. Structurally alike, in that they tend to be single layer cakes under a lick of icing, they’re sold in individual packets rather than as whole cakes. “They’re a snack, but they’re not as satisfying as a snacking cake,” Sheehan observes.
It’s not clear when the term “snacking cake” entered our lexicon, but in 1971 General Mills filed to trademark the term “Snackin’ Cake.” By the mid-1970s, General Mills’ Betty Crocker brand was selling boxed mixes called “Snackin’ Cake,” which required a fork, spoon, measuring cup and one pan. Television commercials featured happy children eating square pieces of cake out of hand. A sing-songy jingle promised home cooks the mix would deliver “something special to eat, and nothing much to clean up.” Early flavors included banana walnut, golden chocolate chip and coconut pecan; all a cook needed to add was water. The brand expanded the line through the 1980s, but seemed to pivot to granola-like bar cookie mixes and dark chocolate brownie mixes in the 1990s. Today, Betty Crocker makes a line of mixes for microwave mug cakes. Duncan Hines, which is owned by Conagra Brands, still sells a small boxed cake mix called “Perfect Size” that includes a pan and packet of icing, just like Sheehan remembers.
Minimizing the number of dishes a baker would need to wash after they were done mixing the cake was on Arefi’s mind when she was writing her cookbook, so she created a few guidelines for herself: “It was a goal to use as little equipment as possible; you can make all of the batters, icings and frostings with a whisk and a bowl, you don’t need a stand mixer or even a hand mixer. And they all had to fit in an 8-inch square, 9-inch round or standard loaf pan,” Arefi says.
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But standardizations and simplicity don’t mean boring when it comes to snacking cakes, Arefi notes. “I wanted to include some favorites, like carrot cake and banana bread, but I wanted bold flavors, too. I knew I wanted a bright lemony cake, a super fudgy chocolate cake …. The idea was to create cakes that were interesting and delicious but not overwhelming, and to use ingredients that were easy to find but also added lots of flavor,” she says. Tahini, almond butter, fresh or freeze-dried fruit, coconut chips and sumac are a few ingredients featured in “Snacking Cakes,” all easy to find at well-stocked supermarkets or online.
Something Arefi and Sheehan agree on is calling for oil, rather than butter, in the batter for some snacking cakes. Not only is oil a pantry staple, it also helps single-layer cakes, which are prone to drying out, stay moist. Several of Arefi’s recipes also call for yogurt, which adds a buttermilk-like tang and lots of moisture, meaning the cakes can hang out on the counter or in the refrigerator for several days.
They’re perfect for snack breaks during long days of Zoom school and working from home. Plus, says Sheehan, “who doesn’t want to eat a cake with the word snack in the name?”
Cocoa Yogurt Snacking Cake
Tender and rich with dark cocoa, this is the chocolate cake to make when a craving strikes. Yogurt enriches the cake and gives it a slight tang, which offsets the simple and sweet vanilla bean glaze. If you want to up the ante, decorate it with sprinkles, chopped nuts or a drizzle of melted chocolate.
Storage Notes: The cake can be covered and stored at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
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For the cake
- 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed, plus more for greasing the pan
- 1 cup (200 grams) lightly packed light brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup (220 grams) plain whole-milk yogurt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 cup (70 grams) unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
- 1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup (85 grams) chopped chocolate or chocolate chips (optional)
- Sprinkles, chopped nuts, melted chocolate, for garnish (optional)
For the glaze
- 1 cup (100 grams) confectioners’ sugar
- 1 tablespoon whole milk, plus more as needed
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- 1 pinch kosher salt
Make the cake: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square (or 9-inch round) baking pan and line the pan with a piece of parchment paper so there is generous overhang on both sides. (If using a 9-inch round cake pan, you may need to trim the parchment width to fit inside the pan, but still be sure to have generous overhang.)
In a large bowl, whisk the brown sugar and eggs until pale and foamy, about 2 minutes. Add the yogurt, oil, vanilla and salt and whisk until smooth. Using a fine-mesh sieve, sift the cocoa powder over the mixture and whisk until no lumps remain. Add the flour, baking powder and baking soda and whisk just until smooth. Fold in the chopped chocolate or chocolate chips, if using.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, tap the pan gently on the counter to release any air bubbles, and smooth the top of the batter with a spatula. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the cake is puffed and a cake tester or skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a wire rack and let cool for about 15 minutes. Then, use the parchment overhang to lift the cake out and let cool completely on the rack.
Make the glaze and finish the cake: Once the cake is completely cool, in a medium bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, milk, vanilla and salt until smooth. Add more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, to make a thick but pourable glaze. Immediately pour the glaze over the cooled cake (the glaze will start to harden if you let it sit).
Decorate with sprinkles, chopped nuts or a drizzle of melted chocolate, if desired. Let the glaze set for about 15 minutes before slicing the cake.
Calories: 295; Total Fat: 14 g; Saturated Fat: 2g; Cholesterol: 41 mg; Sodium: 226 mg; Carbohydrates: 41 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 27 g; Protein: 5 g.
Recipe adapted from “Snacking Cakes: Simple Treats for Anytime Baking” by Yossy Arefi (Clarkson Potter; 2020).
Tested by G. Daniela Galarza; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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