The only four cakes you’ll ever need for entertaining

  • Candy Bar Cake on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. (Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
  • Lemon Buttermilk Cake on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. (Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Someone asks you to bring a dessert to a block party, birthday or barbecue. Or you’re heading out of town for a weekend getaway. Or you just need something to keep all the kids happy on a Saturday night. There’s really only one answer and it’s a thing everyone wants to eat: sheet cake.

Think of these as cakes that are as easy to make as a boxed mix but exponentially better-tasting. First, a classic chocolate number that will end your search for the perfect chocolate cake. It’s moist and cocoa-y enough to win over the adults but not turn off the kids. Next, a buttermilk cake packed with so much lemon your cheeks will twinge: zest in the cake, a lemon syrup to soak into the crumb and add moistness, and a final tart glaze for creaminess. Then there’s my favorite, an old-fashioned vanilla cake with shockingly vibrant pink icing. The color is what my grandmother always stirred into canned frosting to make it feel special, so I can’t omit it. Finally, a candy bar slab that hits all the right nostalgic buttons: a fluffy white cake, drowned in butterscotch sauce, showered in chopped toffee or Butterfinger candy bars. All the cakes are served in their pans (you could use disposable foil ones for zero cleanup) and get iced only on the top — no pesky edges to deal with.

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Pink Birthday Sheet Cake

1 hour. Serves 12 to 16.

Inspired by the birthday cake my grandmother made me every year, this is a from-scratch version of boxed cake and frosting that is just as easy as the store-bought version.

For the cake:

Nonstick baking spray

2 cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup dry milk powder

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup whole milk

½ cup vegetable oil

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

4 large eggs

For the frosting:

¼ cup all-natural vegetable shortening

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

2 to 3 tablespoons heavy cream

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

Red liquid or gel food coloring (optional)

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-by-2 ½-inch metal baking pan with baking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, milk powder, cornstarch, baking powder and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, whole milk, oil, vanilla and eggs until smooth. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and whisk until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes.

While the cake is in the oven, make the frosting: In a large bowl, beat the shortening and butter together with a hand mixer on medium speed until smooth. With the mixer on low speed, slowly spoon the sugar into the fat mixture until completely incorporated and smooth; add two tablespoons cream, the vanilla and salt. Slowly add drops of food coloring until it’s the shade of pink you want; go light for a baby pink or heavier for a more magenta-like hue. Continue mixing until the color is homogeneous; if the frosting seems too thick, add the remaining one tablespoon cream so that it is spreadable.

As soon as the cake is ready, remove the pan from the oven and scrape the frosting onto the cake. Use a rubber spatula to quickly spread it evenly over the top as it melts. The frosting will separate into opaque and solid sections, that’s OK; continue spreading it as it melts until it no longer is separated and the frosting forms an even, solid layer on top. Let the cake cool until the frosting becomes a crackly doughnut-like glaze over the cake, then serve while still slightly warm from the pan. This cake is also great served cooled completely to room temperature.

Lemon Buttermilk Sheet Cake

1 hour and 15 minutes, plus cooling. Serves 12 to 16.

This cake, inspired by the great baker Maida Heatter’s recipe, gets hits of lemon three times: zest and juice in the cake; a clear soaking syrup that seeps into the cake; and, finally, a creamy, thick glaze that coats the top. This cake is fluffy, supremely moist and has a grown-up vibe about it: not kiddie stuff.

For the cake:

Nonstick baking spray

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

2 cups granulated sugar

2/3 cup buttermilk

½ cup vegetable oil

Finely grated zest of 2 lemons, plus more to garnish

6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

4 large eggs

For the syrup and glaze:

1 ¼ cups plus 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, sifted

3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon whole milk

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-by-2 ½-inch metal baking pan with baking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, buttermilk, lemon zest and juice, vanilla and eggs until smooth. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and whisk until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes.

While the cake is in the oven, make the syrup and glaze: In a small bowl, whisk together a quarter cup powdered sugar and three tablespoons lemon juice until they form a thin syrup. In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining one cup plus two tablespoons powdered sugar and two teaspoons lemon juice, the butter and milk until they form a thicker, smooth glaze.

Remove the pan from the oven and let the cake cool for five minutes. Using a toothpick or the tines of a fork, poke the cake all over. Slowly drizzle the syrup evenly over the cake and let the cake cool completely.

Scrape the glaze onto the cake and use a spoon to spread it evenly over the top. Scatter more lemon zest over the cake, if you like, to garnish. Let the cake stand for 10 minutes to set the glaze before serving from the pan.

Candy Bar Sheet Cake

1 hour and 20 minutes, plus 1 hour chilling. Serves 12 to 16.

This cake is pure convenience-store kitsch. Fluffy white cake gets poked and drizzled with butterscotch sauce, then covered in whipped cream and sprinkled with chopped Butterfinger or chocolate-covered toffee candy bars. I make my own butterscotch sauce because the jarred kind can be too fake even for my taste, but you can’t shake a stick at the appeal of candy bars, and they provide essential crunch. This is a fridge cake, so keep it cool until you’re ready to serve it or else the whipped cream might melt all over the place.

For the cake:

Nonstick baking spray

2 cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup dry milk powder

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup whole milk

½ cup vegetable oil

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

5 large egg whites

For the butterscotch sauce and frosting:

1 cup packed light brown sugar

½ cup whole milk

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup chilled heavy cream

2 Butterfinger or Heath candy bars (2.1 ounces each), roughly chopped

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-by-2 ½-inch metal baking pan with baking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, milk powder, cornstarch, baking powder and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, whole milk, oil, vanilla and egg whites until smooth. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and whisk until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until pale golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 40 minutes.

While the cake is in the oven, make the butterscotch sauce: Combine the brown sugar, whole milk, butter and salt in a small saucepan and melt over low heat. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until the sauce thickens, about eight minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the sweetened condensed milk and vanilla. Pour the sauce into a bowl and let cool to room temperature or refrigerate until no longer warm.

Remove the cake from the oven and transfer to a wire rack. Let the cake cool for 20 minutes, then use a half-inch-wide wooden dowel or handle end of a wooden spoon to gently poke holes three-quarters of the way down the cake, spaced about one inch apart. Pour the butterscotch sauce all over the cake, aiming to get most of it to soak into the holes in the cake.

In a large bowl, whisk the cream by hand or with a hand mixer until stiff peaks form. Scrape the whipped cream onto the cake and use a small offset spatula or table knife to spread it evenly over the top. Sprinkle the chopped candy bars all over the cake and chill in the refrigerator for one hour before serving from the pan.

Chocolate Sheet Cake

1 hour, plus cooling. Serves 12 to 16.

Based on the cake my friend Matt Piacentini’s late mother, Louise, made one summer for our vacation on the Oregon coast, this chocolate cake is the type you’ll keep coming back to, cutting off squares here and there, until you’ve eaten half the cake yourself over a couple days. Spring for the good chocolate and cocoa powder to make it special, but the supermarket standards will also give you great results.

For the cake:

Nonstick baking spray

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup sour cream

1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 large eggs

For the frosting:

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

¼ cup heavy cream, room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-by-2 ½-inch metal baking pan with baking spray.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter and chocolate with one cup water over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, sour cream, vanilla and eggs until smooth. Pour the chocolate mixture into the sour cream mixture and whisk until smooth. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes.

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While the cake is in the oven, make the frosting: In a large bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar, cocoa powder and salt. Add the butter and beat with a hand mixer on low speed until evenly combined and clumpy. With the mixer still running, slowly drizzle in the cream and vanilla and beat, starting on low speed and gradually increasing to medium-high, until fluffy and spreadable, one to two minutes.

Remove the cake from the oven, transfer to a wire rack, and let cool completely. Scrape the frosting onto the cake and use a small offset spatula or table knife to spread it evenly over the top before serving from the pan.

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