I Made Pioneer Woman’s Famous Chocolate Sheet Cake (and Here’s What I Thought)

updated May 29, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

As I was gearing up to make one of Pioneer Woman’s most popular dessert recipes, the first thing I noticed wasn’t the shockingly high cake-to-icing ratio or just how massive this cake is (it serves 24!) — it was that she had titled it “The Best Chocolate Sheet Cake. Ever.” See that extra period? That’s some serious punctuation to emphasize its deliciousness.

If you’ve ever had Texas sheet cake, you’ll find this recipe similar: It’s a thin, flat chocolate cake baked in a sheet pan and topped with a thick, sugary icing and pecans. And if the punctuation hasn’t convinced you, maybe a celebrity will. Jennifer Garner is such a fan of this cake that she made it on her Instagram cooking show and endorses it as her family’s go-to chocolate sheet cake recipe.

Clearly, I needed to know the truth (although really I’ll find any excuse to bake something chocolatey). So I took to the kitchen to see if Ree’s beloved cake really held up to its claim.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

How to Make Pioneer Woman’s Chocolate Sheet Cake

This really is one of the easiest chocolate cakes around. You combine flour, sugar, and salt in one bowl and buttermilk, baking soda, vanilla, and eggs in another. Then, you melt butter in a saucepan and stir in the cocoa powder. While it’s melting, you bring a cup of water to a boil, which you then stir into the melted chocolate. This helps bloom the cocoa powder (or release all of its flavor).

Then you stir the chocolate mixture into the dry ingredients, followed by the wet ingredients to create a batter. Finally you pour the batter into an ungreased rimmed baking sheet or jelly roll pan.

While the cake bakes (for just 20 minutes, since it’s so thin!), you melt more butter in a saucepan and then stir in cocoa powder, milk, powdered sugar, vanilla, and chopped pecans. Then, immediately after the cake comes out of the oven, pour the warm icing over top. You’ll let the cake rest for about 20 to 30 minutes to let it firm up, making it easier to slice.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

What I Thought of the Results

To be honest, I felt like I was committing some sort of crime when I poured the hot icing over the hot cake. My entire life I’d been told to wait until the cake is completely cool before going anywhere near it with frosting.

But to be honest, breaking the rules here is sort of … brilliant. Since the cake is so thin, it soaks up some of the icing and becomes almost fudge-like once cool. The icing on top transforms into a doughnut-like sugary shell when it’s set up — if you press a finger gently into it, the surface will crackle a little and give way to the soft icing underneath.

Overall, I loved how fast and easy this cake was. Since it serves quite the crowd — you’ll get 24 servings here — it’s a great choice if you forgot to bake something for your office potluck or the school bake sale at the eleventh hour.

Flavor-wise, however, it wasn’t for me. I like my chocolate desserts to be deep and dark, and while this was full of chocolate flavor, I felt the sugary icing overwhelmed each bite — and that’s coming from someone who’s totally pro-frosting. The cake is about 50% icing, 50% actual cake, and even the cake soaks up some of the icing. So what you’re getting here is mostly frosting, with a little bit of cake.

(Image credit: Sheela Prakash)

If You Make Pioneer Woman’s Chocolate Sheet Cake …

1. Use salted butter.

Since Ree’s recipe simply calls for “butter,” there’s a bit of confusion in the comments section regarding which type to use. Many commenters are confident it should be unsalted, as that’s more typical in baking, but if you read Ree’s actual blog post, she states it should be salted. This makes sense to me, given the substantial amount of sugar in the recipe and that the amount of salt in the cake batter is on the low end — just 1/4 teaspoon for a giant cake. I promise you that if you use salted butter, the cake will not taste salty! It balances the sugar and enhances the overall flavor.

2. Reduce the amount of powdered sugar in the icing.

To add to the confusion, the icing recipe calls for an entire pound of powdered sugar, but in Ree’s blog post she says she uses about 1/2 cup less than a pound (roughly 3 cups). If you’d like to tone down the sweetness, you can further reduce the amount of sugar. I’d start with 1 1/2 cups, taste the icing, and add more until you reach your desired sweetness.

Overall Rating: 6 out of 10

While I liked the clever icing technique, this quick cake was just too sweet and icing-laden for me to really love it.