From the Chronicle Kitchen: Sweet on Texas

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Photograph copyright © 2012 Robert M. Peacock.

Language That Takes the Cake

Like misheard music lyrics (i.e., Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “There’s a bathroom on the right”), the language of food has its own parallel universe. My mother’s deep Southern drawl, for instance, led me to believe that egg salad required “hard bald eggs,” and on nights she didn’t feel like cooking, we should call for a “peetzer.”

While I ultimately managed to get a firmer grasp on the pronunciations of these words, that wouldn’t be the case for my sweet mother, who, despite my best re-education efforts, would continue for years on end to mis-say these words and others (including at Mexican restaurants, “chichimunga” instead of “chimichanga”). Maybe to get my goat, but I don’t think so.

Fast forward to my time as a food editor at Southern Living, and a visit with the late, great food writer Eugene Walter. He was as Southern as you could get, but worldly, too, having lived in Rome for decades and written for The Paris Review. As we sipped sherry from little jelly jars brought forth on a sterling silver tray, Eugene decided he’d set me straight about something the magazine I represented had gotten so very wrong decades prior: its use of the word “roulage” for a rolled, cream-filled cake instead of the proper French word “roulade.” (Gasp! Clutch the pearls!) Southern Living would rectify the situation, but it was really too late — “roulage” had been forever branded into the minds of a generation of home cooks.

I smiled to remember that story while researching my new book, Sweet on Texas: Lovable Confections From the Lone Star State, when I happened upon the alter ego of our beloved Texas Sheet Cake — the Texas Sheath Cake. Since the “sheath” name is more often heard in West Texas, it most likely originated there, but it’s still in use. And I can see the logic: The chocolate-buttermilk cake spreads out long and flat and wide like a delectable sheath of armor. OK, well, maybe that’s a stretch. But why don’t we settle the issue right here and now with a Texas expression used to dismiss problems that aren’t really problems: “It’s all good.” And this truly, truly is.

Denise Gee

Photograph copyright © 2012 Robert M. Peacock.

Good Ol’ Texas Sheet Cake

Former First Lady Bird Johnson is credited with introducing our great nation to this cake as her “Mexican Chocolate Cake” back in the early 1960s. At some point it simply became a “Texas” cake — be it “sheet” or “sheath,” take your pick.

The Cake

2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup water
1⁄2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

The Icing

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons milk
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
3 2/3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans, lightly toasted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the cake

Preheat the oven to 400°F and lightly grease and flour a 10- x 15- x 1-inch baking (jelly-roll) pan.

In a large bowl, sift together the granulated sugar, flour, and cinnamon (if using).

In a medium saucepan, bring the butter, cocoa powder, and water just to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly; pour over the sugar mixture. Stir well to thoroughly combine.

Stir the buttermilk into the mixture. Add the eggs, baking soda, and vanilla and stir well to thoroughly combine.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

To make the icing

In a medium saucepan, bring the butter, milk, and cocoa powder to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and add the powdered sugar, pecans, and vanilla; mix well for a smooth texture.

Remove the cake pan to a wire rack for 1 or 2 minutes. Pour the hot icing over the hot cake and spread evenly.

Allow the iced cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack before serving. Cover leftovers with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Makes one 10- x 15-inch cake.

Purchase: Sweet on Texas: Lovable Confections From the Lone Star State.

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