Pastry chef Hannah Ziskin is having a moment. The accolades for her work at Quarter Sheets, a pizza restaurant in Los Angeles, have been pouring in from fans, critics, and media outlets nationwide. With a pedigree that includes renowned establishments such as Chez Panisse, Ziskin would presumably be showcasing incredible plated desserts. Yet, her newfound fame has come from a rather unlikely creation: the humble sheet cake.
Of course, Ziskin’s creations are anything but ordinary, such as a cocoa chiffon cake with chocolate custard and rose geranium jam. She has also hit the new sweet spot sweeping through the food world at the right time. In its various forms, the elevated sheet cake has transformed what was once a wedding cake backup for affordable extra slices into the must-have dessert du jour. Chefs and customers alike are digging into their creative possibilities.
For Quarter Sheets, it was less about the overall trend of sheet cakes and more about logistics. The restaurant offers slices of cake, which they refer to as “slabs.” And to feed the growing number of customers, “it just kind of made sense for us at that time to make sheet cakes,” Ziskin explains. But then, something kind of unexpected happened. “The power of Instagram! I was posting the cakes before I cut them, and people were responding really well.” Soon, customers were ordering entire sheet cakes, and a new arm of the business emerged.
Sheet cakes have a strong sense of nostalgia, which customers have continued to clamor for since the beginning of the pandemic. Chef Tiffany MacIsaac, most recently of Buttercream Bakeshop in Washington D.C., introduced sheet cakes to her menu in 2023, noting that she remembers childhood birthday parties and craving the corner piece. “Why? The corners had buttercream flowers so that was obviously the best slice,” she explains. “Now, chefs are recreating that feeling — but way better — using higher quality ingredients and more skilled techniques.”
With the frilly and bordering-on-overdecorated trends such as Lambeth and cottage core exploding all over social media, the sheet cake is an ideal surface to showcase these piping skills and unique color combinations and still have plenty of space for the ubiquitous Happy Birthday in the center, if requested. Creative home bakers and high-end pastry chefs alike appreciate them for their blank canvas quality, open to much interpretation and flexibility.
Without the structural challenges of a sculpted or tiered cake, sheet cakes can focus on flavors and textures. Ziskin, for instance, prefers a light and airy chiffon-cake base and approaches her creations much as she did with plated desserts in her previous jobs. “You’re trying to create a balance of flavors,” she says. “You’re trying to create a balance of textures.” She calls the result, “a little more off-kilter,” like an olive oil chiffon cake with layers of bay leaf custard and passion fruit curd still with seeds inside for added crunch.
Naturally, the modern sheet cakes still have the same benefits as their plain predecessors of yore. They are significantly easier to cut and serve since they only have one layer and rectangular slices are an obvious choice. They can also feed a crowd at often a much lower cost depending on the ingredients and the baker, another enticing benefit in a challenging economic environment for customers. And, of course, most kitchens are well stocked with sheet pans, requiring little to no investment in supplies.
Sheet cakes have become so popular, in fact, that even cake boxes and flat custom cake toppers are trending on social media. It’s rare to find a popular bakery these days that doesn’t showcase its creations right in the box it is handing over to the customer, often tagging the cake box supplier in the post. And custom cake-topper options measure in the tens of thousands on Etsy alone. Where there is one booming business, others are sure to follow.
Only time and other trends will tell how long the sheet cake will remain popular, though it seems to be going nowhere soon. These days, the only limitations Ziskin has are time and space. “We always have our eyes open for a larger space to expand,” she notes, adding, “I don’t intend to stop selling whole cakes because I think it’s really fun, and I love being part of the cake community.” So, for now, she’s taking it one day and one delicious slab at a time.
(This article appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)