This simple baking hack will help you get the most out of every cake you make

Skip the layers and dress up your one-pan cake with a decadent boiled cocoa or cream cheese peanut butter frosting

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 22, 2020 5:59PM (EDT)

Lovely Cakes (Mary Elizabeth Williams)
Lovely Cakes (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

Layer cakes are overrated. There, I said it. Sure, if it's your birthday or your wedding day, something tall makes an impression. But cake doesn't need to be a special event with candles and songs, nor does it need to be an Instagram-worthy work of art.

As far as I'm concerned, cake belongs on the table after a run-of-the-mill Taco Tuesday, after sushi takeout or when it's 4 p.m. and you just feel like a simple lift to brighten the day. And I believe one of the main obstacles people have to home baking is that it seems an overwhelming production. That's why I think you should liberate yourself from two-pan tyranny. It's time to break up with layer cakes.

I don't recall when, exactly, I realized that you get plenty of mileage off a single-story dessert, but I suspect it was the first time I first made Depression cake. The one bowl wonder was effortless to make, satisfying and pleasingly short. Soon after, I found myself making a traditionally-sized cake recipe and thinking — duh — layers aren't mandatory. I let the cakes cool, decorated one half, wrapped the other in foil and chucked it in the freezer next to its best friend: ice cream. BOOM, I suddenly felt like I'd doubled my family's dessert options.

Whether you hail from a layer cake, sheet cake or even cupcake-friendly region, most cake recipes are designed to feed a crowd. But when you want a normal amount of food to tide a family over for two nights — or whatever math works in your home — before things start to get stale, small cakes are the way to go to keep everyone's interest.

As a bonus, small cakes seem elegant and vaguely European, especially when left unfrosted and served with a dollop of whipped cream. They also take almost no time to thaw. I usually give them about an hour, taking one out of the freezer when I start to cook, so dessert is ready to serve by the time dinner is over.

I make box cakes without apology and on the regular, because I want as little clean-up as possible — and because they're delicious. If you're feeling marginally ambitious, you can divide your batter between different kinds of pans, though this will require keeping track of different baking times. (I am very fond of my Dala horse pan from IKEA.) You can also mix in different ingredients; for example, you could make one Funfetti cake and a chocolate chip cake. And we haven't even mentioned different frostings and toppings: You can totally go to town.

There's something very reassuring to me about having cake as an everyday part of my family's life. Likewise, there's something special about having a non bake sale-level quantity of cupcakes on hand now, and the beginnings of a buttercream topped chocolate cake in the freezer for next week.

Recently, I made cupcakes with peanut butter frosting and a mini bundt with an old-fashioned boiled cocoa glaze. It was just that simple to get two distinct desserts out of one trip to the kitchen. Nothing fussy, nothing fancy — just a little present from today me to future me, because a slice of something special at the end of the day should always be an option.


Recipe: Boiled Cocoa Frosting, adapted from AllRecipes


  • 1 cup white sugar

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Heat the butter in a saucepan until browned.
  2. Add cocoa powder, milk and vanilla. Stir until smooth.
  3. Add milk, and stir again until smooth. (This prevents lumping.)
  4. Remove from heat and beat with standing or electric mixer for 2 to 3 minutes.
  5. Pour or spread over cake.

Recipe: Cream Cheese Peanut Butter Frosting, adapted from The Semisweet Sisters


  • 3/4 cup of peanut butter

1/2 cup cream cheese

2 tablespoons softened butter
1 cup confectioners' sugar


  1. Add peanut butter, cream cheese and butter to mixing bowl and beat with electric mixer until well combined.
  2. Add powdered sugar and beat for one or two minutes longer until fluffy.

  3. Spread on cupcakes or cake.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Baking Cake Chocolate Desserts Food Recipes Simple Baking