There was exactly one sweet my mother insisted I know how to cook, and to be sure I could make it, she trusted in me her cocoa stained copy of “Our Fair Lady”. This cookbook was a collection of 792 recipes put together by the Associated Women for Christian Education, a group affiliated with the Fort Worth Christian School and College. And in this book, on page 189, there is a recipe for a Sheath Cocoa Cake (actually 4 recipes).
I don’t think I made it immediately – I had to graduate to having an apartment and a decent oven first, but I’ve made them off and on over the years, with and without icing and it’s a totally decadent thing, rich in flavor and strikingly easy to make.
“Our Fair Lady” isn’t dated, though with Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson a featured contributor, it probably dates to the early to mid 1960s. Even by then, the recipe is known and even well known. Two sites, in two posts each, offer more insight into the development and heritage of the cake. On the site Practically Edible (a kind of food encyclopedia, worth perusing) they mention the phrase ‘sheath cake‘ dates to the late 1950s, and that the most common use of it is equivalent to the Texas sheet cake. On Barry Popik’s site, he notes the use of the phrase ‘sheath cake‘ as early as 1950, and gives examples of the phrase ‘sheet cake‘ as old as 1936. Barry’s sheath cake article shows that by October 1960, a Texas sheet cake is being presented in essentially the modern form. As noted in an article Barry quotes, the sheet cake is a very close cousin of the German chocolate cake, but requires much fewer steps, much less cleanup and can be completed in an hour. That made it ideal for parties, for cook outs, for a quick and easy dessert to take to the Sunday after-church meal.
Now as the blog Slightly Cheaper than Therapy notes, not many Texans know that this cake is called a Texas sheet cake. My cousin Lynn (Plano, TX) knows it as Aunt Velma’s Chocolate Cake. Others knew it as the Mexican Chocolate cake (that is, if it contained cinnamon). The site Texas Cooking calls it a Chocolate-Cinnamon sheath cake with Chocolate Frosting. Jillian Downer called it ‘the little black dress of chocolate cakes’, for its ease of preparation and its versatility. And many people, too many to name, call it the best chocolate cake ever.
The Blog The Daily Dish offers a sheath cake recipe, and insists you must use butter and not use margarine. The blogger Planet Pooks in her article “Retro Food that will kill you” favors the traditional ‘oleo’ version and thinks putting butter into such a dish is a very bad idea. The Blogger My Wooden Spoon offers a sheath cake recipe and also has some beautiful pictures to accompany her text. The blogger Bean Town Baker is another who learned the recipe through family and otherwise can’t tell you where it came from. The blogger Wasabigelatine presents the cake, once again handed down through the generations, a family recipe. The Blogger Pioneer Woman presents a version under the title “The Best Chocolate Cake Ever”. And in this result from Google Book Search, a recipe is presented by the Heritage Society of Austin.