The Best Cake You've Ever Eaten
Plus three other mind-blowingly good, tried and true desserts
My husband, Nick, works at Bon Appétit, with otherworldly-accomplished recipe developers and a serious test kitchen. Sometimes, delightfully, the hard work they do in the kitchen makes its way to our home.
About a year ago, Nick came home with the best cake I’ve ever had, hyperbole not included. It was Shilpa Uskokovic’s Chocolate Sheet Cake with Brown Butter Frosting, and Nick brought a few pieces, and I might have shared a bit with him and Holden, but I’m honestly not sure.
Shilpa’s cake is pure magic. It’s soft and pillowy, and chocolatey but not overly so (the chocolate flavor comes just from Dutch-process cocoa powder), and the frosting is the most perfect combination of salt and sweet (you cook butter with nonfat dry milk powder — I’ve never used the latter in my life but clearly it’s a workhorse). I could eat this cake every day.
So far, I’m sure I’m not saying anything that would seem weird to most of you. The thing is, though – I don’t like sweets in general, and cake is probably the biggest offender. It’s big, and usually too dense, and usually way too sweet. For me to eat it, it needs to check a bunch of boxes: Both the cake and the frosting need to be extremely fluffy, it absolutely cannot be cloyingly sweet, and preferably there’s a salty aspect to it. And that’s high maintenance, so — I forgo it.
But the Shilpa cake is the cake of my dreams — I made it for Holden’s seventh birthday (happy birthday to Holden, one of the kindest humans I know!) this weekend, and normally I have a long, drawn-out discussion with him over what kind of cake he’d like, but this year I ran the chocolate brown butter cake by him briefly and, when he was on the fence, I made an executive decision. (PARENTING. I really wanted that cake!)
The cake, unsurprisingly, was a big success: birthday child kept sneaking bits of frosting, and I think every grownup there came up to me to ask me about the heaven cake, and could they get the recipe.
I am such a savory girl — cheez doodles, puffed or crunchy; salt and vinegar potato chips (Holden’s fav too); pretty much any cheese imaginable, but especially a Gruyère or Midnight Moon; creamy dips. And I do like some sweets — cotton candy is my true love, donuts and candy are up there too — but when it comes to a “real” dessert, I have four fail-safes that I absolutely love.
Today, I’m sharing with you these four desserts, all of which are quite possibly perfect.
Shilpa Uskokovic’s Chocolate Sheet Cake with Brown Butter Frosting: Acclaim above.
Bittman Brownies: I will never make anyone else’s brownies. Why mess with perfection? Once I made a pan of these — they take five minutes, baking aside — and put a post-it note for Nick on them saying something like, “Brownies! Eat!” and he ate the whole pan. It was not great for our relationship, but now it’s a good story and I finally recovered.
Merrill Stubbs’ Mom’s Cream Cheese Cookies: WHY do we not put cream cheese in every cookie? How is cream cheese in cookies not more of a thing? These cookies are a revelation; they, not surprisingly, have a cheesecake-like flavor, but better, and not mushy. Perfectly chewy.
Yossy Arefi’s Powdered Donut Cake: I made this cake for the first time Thanksgiving 2020; we were supposed to have friends from down the hall over, and were so excited to socialize, and we got a covid exposure. We left them half the cake at their door. The cake almost made up for not being able to see them. It tastes exactly like a powdered donut, but it’s less dense. It’s absolutely wonderful.
What are your perfect sweets? Tell us in the comments.
Chocolate Sheet Cake with Brown Butter Frosting
Makes: 12 servings
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar
1¾ cups (219 g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup (64 g) Dutch-process cocoa powder (preferably Guittard)
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk
2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal or 1¼ teaspoon Morton kosher salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
FROSTING AND ASSEMBLY
1¼ cups (2½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
1/3 cup (32 g) nonfat dry milk powder
2/3 cup heavy cream
2½ teaspoons Diamond Crystal or 1½ teaspoons Morton kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1-lb. box (453 g) powdered sugar, sifted, divided
Flaky sea salt (optional)
Sprinkles (for decorating)
1. Place a rack in middle of oven; preheat to 375°. Line the bottom of a 13x9” metal baking pan with parchment paper. Lightly coat paper and sides of pan with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Vigorously whisk 2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar, 1¾ cups (219 g) all-purpose flour, and 1 teaspoon baking soda in a medium bowl to combine.
2. Whisk ¾ cup (64 g) Dutch-process cocoa powder, ¾ cup vegetable oil, and 1 cup hot tap water in a large bowl until cocoa is fully dissolved, about 30 seconds. Add 2 large eggs, ¾ cup well-shaken buttermilk, 2 tsp. Diamond Crystal or 1¼ teaspoon Morton kosher salt, and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and whisk again just to combine.
3. Add dry ingredients to cocoa mixture and whisk gently until just combined and batter is smooth. Scrape batter into prepared pan.
4. Bake cake until it springs back when gently pressed or a tester inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, 25-30 minutes. If serving cake directly from pan, let cool in pan, about 1 hour. If you prefer to serve cake unmolded, let cool in pan 10 minutes. Invert onto a wire rack and let cool completely. Peel away parchment; invert cake, right side up, onto a platter.
FROSTING AND ASSEMBLY
5. Cook 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, in small skillet over medium-low heat until it begins to foam; add 1/3 cup (32 g) nonfat dry milk powder and cook, stirring constantly with a heatproof rubber spatula, until mixture turns a dark nut brown color (milk powder will clump; that’s okay), about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately add 2/3 cup heavy cream (this will prevent further cooking); stir vigorously until smooth (some small flecks may remain and that is okay). Let brown butter mixture cool, about 30 minutes.
6. Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat 2½ tsp. Diamond Crystal or 1½ teaspoon Morton kosher salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and remaining 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, in a medium bowl until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Add 8 ounces powdered sugar, sifted, and beat, starting on low speed, until well combined, about 1 minute. Add brown butter mixture and remaining 8 ounces powdered sugar, sifted, and beat until frosting is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
7. Spread frosting evenly over top of cake, working all the way to the edges. Using a spoon, create decorative divots and swirls in frosting if desired. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt (if using) and sprinkles.
Do ahead: Frosting can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature, then beat until fluffy again before using.
— Recipe from Bon Appétit
Makes: About 1 dozen
Time: 30 to 40 minutes
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, plus a little more for greasing the pan
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional
1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease a square baking pan with butter or line it with 2 overlapping pieces of parchment paper or aluminum foil and grease the lining.
2. Combine the stick of butter and the chocolate in a small saucepan over very low heat, stirring occasionally. (Or microwave them in a large microwave-safe bowl on medium for 10-second intervals, stirring after each.) When the chocolate is just about melted, remove the saucepan from the heat (or bowl from the microwave) and continue to stir until the mixture is smooth.
3. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl (or use the bowl you put in the microwave) and stir in the sugar. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time. Gently stir in the flour, salt, and the vanilla if you’re using it.
4. Pour and scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until just barely set in the middle. Cool on a rack until set. If you used parchment, lift it out to remove the brownies. If not, cut them in squares right in the pan. Store, covered, at room temperature, for no more than a day.
— Recipe from How to Cook Everything: Completely Revised Twentieth Anniversary Edition