How the Humble Sheet Cake Became Top Tier

In the world of special occasion baked goods, pastry chefs are embracing the birthday party staple for its vast canvas.

Article by Martha Cheng

Sheet CakeSheet cakes by Noelle Blizzard of the bakery New June. Photograph by Sharon Radisc.

The Los Angeles-based baker Michelle Boulos can still picture the sheet cakes she ate as a child: slathered with bright white frosting, decorated with tiny plastic balloons. But the confections she makes and sells via her Instagram account No Good Cakes are something else entirely. On one recent creation, frills of buttercream surrounded an acid green ombré surface inspired by a chemical spill. On another, foraged blooms sprouted from bronze-coloured barnacles, some of them embedded with tiny light bulbs. Boulos, 34, started baking the fantastical cakes out of her home in 2022 after making one for a wedding. “I got bitten by the sheet cake bug,” she says. “It can be so versatile but also really complex.”

Sheet cakes, which can be made in the giant 66-by-46-centimetre pans used in commercial kitchens, or in half- or quarter-sheets at home, have long been viewed as easy-lift treats meant to feed the masses — something you pick up at the supermarket en route to your seven-year-old’s birthday party. But today, more bakers and pastry chefs are embracing their simple geometry as the ideal stage for elaborate, unexpected designs. This past winter, Lucie Franc de Ferriere, the 28-year-old owner of the Manhattan bakery From Lucie, paved one with basil buttercream and topped it with chamomile-ringed pools of strawberry sumac jam for an event at the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, jewellery shop Catbird. Around the same time in Los Angeles, Rose Wilde, 39, the owner of Red Bread, made an olive oil version layered with peaches and satsuma-Nardello pepper buttercream for a Glossier product launch party. Compared to the multitiered cakes that have been de rigueur at big events for decades, the humble sheet is “less whimsical, so you have to be a bit more creative about how you’re going to infuse your style into it”, says Julie Saha, a 26-year-old baker and artist in Brooklyn who sells her work via her website, Her rococo cakes meld orderly, ornate piping with ebulliently messy bunches of exotic fruits and colourful foliage. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins of the sheet cake as we know it but, by the late 1800s, cakes were already being baked in the shallow pans used to catch meat drippings. According to Anne Byrn, the author of “American Cake” (2016), the 33-by-23-centimetre rectangular pans that home bakers often use today grew popular in the 1950s, their ascent coinciding with a boom in cake mixes scaled to that size. The current sheet cake trend kicked off alongside the rise of internet-based microbakeries, some of which were run from home kitchens. The shape makes portioning and transporting easier, says Noelle Blizzard, 34, who started her Philadelphia bakery, New June, from her home during the pandemic. Originally, Blizzard, a former marketing manager at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, gravitated towards fresh flowers and swooshy frosting for a rustic and organic look. Now she’s more into Victorian-style garlands and ruffles. The oversized expanse offers “so much room to showcase all of the different piping styles and throw some colour into it”, she says. Sheet cakes “turned out to be this amazing creative outlet.”

But the appeal of the sheet doesn’t end with its ability to function as a “beautiful, flat blank canvas”, says Jessamie Holmes, 25, the Melbourne-based baker and artist who sells her work via her Instagram account Thy Caketh. There’s also a nostalgic exuberance to the cake, which has always been made expressly for the sort of big gatherings and celebrations the world was deprived of during the initial years of the pandemic. For a picnic in the park in 2022, Holmes adapted a Sicilian cassata — traditionally round and filled with ricotta and chocolate — into a low rectangle bejewelled with sugared dried fruit and surrounded by candles. Since then, the form has become her favourite. Unlike towering, tiered centrepieces “intended to be the backdrop of a big wedding”, she says, sheet cakes are designed to be devoured with ease. “Anyone,” she adds, “can cut one.”