Elementary School-Style Spice Cake

A square spice cake with white frosting and star-shaped sprinkles. Several pieces have been cut from the cake to be served.

Jordan: The elementary school Kitra and I went to had one, and only one, variety of celebratory cake: spice cake. I always found this to be completely inexplicable.

Kitra: I don’t know, it makes sense to me for an elementary school. It has applesauce in it! It is the most wholesome of the cakes! Chocolate feels too over-the top. Vanilla feels too overtly like sugar. Spice cake is a middle ground. And it’s no one’s favorite, so you can serve it to children without them losing their minds.

The thing is, I have almost never encountered spice cake outside of my elementary school cafeteria. I know, vaguely, that it exists, but it doesn’t show up on restaurant menus or in cupcake shops or anywhere else. No one actually eats it. It’s not that they dislike it; it’s just that the opportunity is never there.

I feel like spice cake just… is. But in the same way the place that you put mail when you walk in the door just is. You’re aware that it exists if you think about it, but you don’t really think about it. You’re never surprised to find it, because it makes perfect sense.

Kitra and I are struggling to properly express the conundrum that is spice cake, but the point is this: of all the basic cakes, spice cake is the most underrated, and that should change.

But, because spice cake is some sort of cryptid, I only ever understand its presence on or around March 2nd.

Known and beloved by millions of children as Read Across America Day, or Dr. Seuss’s birthday. The day when you wear pajamas to school, wear silly hats, and most importantly for us, eat spice cake at lunch. (Even if you brought your own lunch—what a glorious day!)

I forgot almost all of that stuff (I only remember our beloved local news anchor wearing fun ties for it [moment of silence to remember Ron Brown]), but I. Remember. The. Spice. Cake. Damn. It.

Consider this our nostalgic contribution to bringing spice cake back into the birthday cake rotation. It’s a simple, no-frills cake that is still far more interesting than your standard vanilla or chocolate.

Plus, when you’re not endeavoring to recreate an elementary school experience, it’s a great opportunity for a straight up cream cheese frosting. And those rock. (If you are endeavoring to recreate an elementary school experience, then we’ve got you covered here with good old fashioned shortening.)

Put on your pajamas, grab a book to read while the cake is baking, and get ready for some good old-fashioned cafeteria cake, in the best possible way. Sprinkles optional, but strongly encouraged.

A square spice cake with white frosting and star-shaped sprinkles.

Elementary School-Style Spice Cake

Cake adapted almost not at all from Smitten Kitchen Every Day
Frosting adapted from the classic Wilton buttercream

Notes

The original recipe says that you can use an equivalent amount of mashed banana or pumpkin puree in place of the applesauce; either of those would change the flavor significantly, but if you want a banana spice or pumpkin spice cake, go for it.

This makes a fairly thin 8-inch square cake. This isn’t a bad thing—it makes it ideal for snacking or packing in your lunch to feel like a 3rd grader without the sugar rush—but be aware.

Our frosting is heavy on the shortening and light on the cream cheese for that “probably came out of an industrial-sized can of frosting” taste, which means it’s quite sweet with just a touch of tanginess. Feel free to top it with your preferred cream cheese frosting instead for a little more balance in the cake.

Ingredients

  • 6 tablespoons (85g) butter, softened
  • ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons (165g) packed brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ginger
  • a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg, or ¼ teaspoon pre-ground nutmeg
  • ¾ cup (215g) unsweetened applesauce
  • 1½ cups (195g) flour
  • 2 tablespoons (1 oz) cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 6 tablespoons (72g) vegetable shortening
  • 2 cups (240g) powdered sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1-2 tablespoons of milk, plus more as needed

Directions

Heat oven to 350°. Grease the inside of an 8-inch square cake pan and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper.

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy, which will take several minutes. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla and beat until well-combined. Add the baking powder, baking soda, salt, and all of the spices, and beat until those are well-distributed as well. Add the applesauce, mix, and give the bowl a good scrape to make sure that everything is thoroughly mixed. Add the flour and mix until it just about disappears, then set aside the electric mixer and stir a few more times with a flexible spatula to make sure it’s all combined.

Pour batter into your prepared pan, smooth the top, and bake for 20-30 minutes, until a toothpick in the center of the cake comes out free of batter. Let cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes before you try to remove it, and let cool completely before frosting.

While the cake is cooling, combine cream cheese, shortening, powdered sugar, vanilla, and 1 tablespoon of milk in a food processor. Process until very well-mixed and fluffy. Add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it reaches your desired fluffiness and consistency. Frost cooled cake and decorate with sprinkles as desired.

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