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.
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Chunky Carrot Cake

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Jordan: There’s a restaurant near my apartment that sells a four-layer carrot cake with roughly equal parts cake and frosting. It is monstrous and beautiful and impossible to eat in one sitting. My boyfriend and I once split a slice and still almost couldn’t finish it. He picked some up the other day and while it was perfectly fine, all it did was leave me with a craving for better carrot cake. Something not so painfully sweet, and with ALL the things in it.

Kitra: And I, like most people (I hope) will never say no to a chance to eat carrot cake. Or have my house smell like carrot cake. Or have it in my fridge for breakfast. Or dinner.

Carrot cake is one of those cakes that can go in a lot of different directions. Fancy layer cake? Casual sheet cake? Dinner while you type a blog post? Carrot cake has got your back.

The thing is, everyone has a different idea of what it is. Dense or fluffy? Nuts or none? Raisins? How many spices?

Is it just a vessel for cream cheese frosting? Should you actually be able to see the carrots or is this just a spice cake pretending to be healthy?

This is our version of carrot cake. Enough carrots that what you pour into the pan looks more like a carrot slurry than a batter. Walnuts because the cake needs some crunch to break up the density.

Also, raisins! Raisins belong in everything. Those people who complain about raisins being in oatmeal cookies or trail mix because “I thought it was a chocolate chip”? They are wrong.

Chocolate chips ruin the whole vibe of trail mix. I have never been disappointed that something was a raisin and not chocolate. I have been disappointed that it was chocolate.

Point is: if you like a light, fluffy, delicate carrot cake, this is not for you. If you like a chunky, dense, vaguely earthy carrot cake, read on.

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Chocolate Zucchini Cake

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Kitra: There are two dishes that define summer to me: ratatouille and this cake. What they have in common is that, like in most rural areas, where we grew up zucchini is both a gift and a curse. In trying to use it up as fast as it grows (impossible), people get crafty. Since this cake came into our lives, I’ve looked forward to zucchini season. And then “forgetting to clean up bits of grated zucchini and trying to scrape it off the counter weeks later” season.

I only have a hazy memory of where this cake came from. It’s on a printed ¼ sheet of computer paper, and in my head it came from someone at the school where our mom used to work.

Jordan: I had no idea, so we texted our mom to ask and she said “Somewhere in the back of my head I think someone at Riverside gave me the recipe, but I could be wrong.” At which point Kitra enthusiastically gave herself a high-five, then gave me a high-five.

Self-fiving didn’t work well enough, so I had to high-five the doubters.

Wherever it came from originally, it’s a great cake. It actually doesn’t use a ton of zucchini, but it has the benefit of being a great use for the infant-sized zucchinis we always had around, the ones that aren’t particularly nice to eat on their own.

You know, the ones that are better as weapons than as food.

In this case, the zucchini isn’t really noticeable but helps keep the cake nice and moist. This is a lightly chocolatey cake—light enough that even I, the person who doesn’t like chocolate cake and thinks chocolate chip cookies would be better without chocolate chips, enjoy it.

It’s a cake’s cake. Like a man’s man, but… a cake’s cake.

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Flag Cake

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Jordan: This week’s cake involved a lot of indecision. I wanted something fresh and fruity; Kitra… did not.

Kitra: It had been a long hard week and I want to eat my feelings, which is why I was thinking s’mores.

Which is fair. But I made the point that we could make s’mores cake any time, and opportunities for holiday-themed cakes only come around every so often.

Hey, flag cake was my suggestion. Nothing says USA like a sheet cake the size of a toddler.

I wanted red-white-and-blue cheesecake, which we could also make any time. I guess I just didn’t want s’mores cake. It’s 90 degrees outside and I want fruit, so sue me.

I think we missed an opportunity to toast marshmallows on my porch using nothing but the sun. Sky demon.

The sky demon will be here until October.

Fair point. So we made America a birthday cake. Even though she’s had a rough week month year always. Even bad people deserve birthday cakes.

Do they really?

No. But we deserve their cakes.

We made you a birthday cake, but you don’t get to eat it, you bitch.

#USAUSAUSA

Anyway, Kitra had made this cake before, and her recommendation held up. This is a good fluffy vanilla cake, nothing fancy. Cream cheese frosting. Fruit. All of the best things in life.

Any tips for making this?

The very tiny containers of berries you find at the farmer’s market are half-pints, not full pints. You can make it work, but you really need at least a pint and a half (3 cups) of raspberries for low-stress flag-making. Learn from my mistakes.

The original recipe recommends a tiny tea strainer to coat your berries in powdered sugar (insert Boston Tea Party joke here). Any tea strainer will do in a pinch. Ours was shaped like a duck.

Improvising: the American way.

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