In a 2013 op-ed for The Baptist News, Dallas-based pastor Mark Wingfield recalled a disappointing post-funeral feast: “There was no green bean casserole, no fried chicken, no homemade rolls, no chocolate cake. Finally, someone in the family drove over to KFC to bring home the kind of food we all needed in the moment. And did I mention there wasn’t even a single piece of chocolate cake brought to the house?”
The pastor’s shock is understandable. Many funeral spreads in the Lone Star State feature a large, chocolate confection known as Texas sheet cake. The classic dessert is well-known for offering mourners comfort in the form of a moist chocolate base, gooey frosting, and a crunchy topping of pecans or walnuts.
Another reason sheet cake might be a favorite funeral treat? It’s easy to bake large portions at a moment’s notice—much like the beloved Utahn dish known as funeral potatoes—to feed a crowd of mourners.
In addition to funerals, Texas sheet cake is a common sight at church events, leading to its nickname “church lady cake.” In his Baptist News op-ed, Wingfield noted that the cake is “almost as common at church gatherings as communion elements.” It also makes the occasional appearance at birthdays, Christmas (with crushed peppermint candy replacing the nuts), and Easter.
Although Texas sheet cake is large, it’s not as thick as a typical cake. Bakers tend to use a thin baking sheet or jelly-roll pan, achieving a thickness that’s similar to brownies. To create its trademark gooey texture, they apply warm chocolate frosting shortly after the cake comes out of the oven, sometimes poking holes so the icing can seep inside. There are plenty of variations, including peanut butter and red velvet, but the chocolate-on-chocolate version is the original and most popular.
Whether Texas sheet cake actually originated in the Lone Star State is debatable. Many point to the recipe’s use of local specialties, such as pecans and buttermilk, and its large size as signs of its Texan heritage. (Impressive portions are a point of state pride.) Another argument is that the cake’s wide, flat shape resembles Texan topography. There was even a rumor that former first lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson was the cake’s inventor, but historians couldn’t find any recipes confirming this in the presidential archives.
While the origins of Texas sheet cake remain a mystery, it’s clear that the dessert has been enthusiastically embraced by the Lone Star State. Perhaps it’s this sense of pride and nostalgia that makes eating the traditional treat so helpful in times of mourning. As one Texan wrote on the blog Nourishing Death, “You feel satisfied. Everything feels, at least temporarily, okay. It feels like home.”
Where to Try It
After dining on one of this establishments many different takes on mac 'n' cheese, hopefully you'll still have room for a dessert of Texas sheet cake. It comes in slices or a whole sheet.
This Houston restaurant offers an upscale interpretation, with ganache glaze, maple buttercream, cherries, pecans, and vanilla creme anglaise.