Not at all sad and not really a cake, sad cake is all about carefree joy. Easy to make and fun to share, sad cake is a lovable retro recipe that you’ll add to your regular rotation. Its three fundamental ingredients provide a template for all kinds of creative riffs. And its origins are, at least to me, a mystery.
Grab a box of Bisquick, preheat the oven, and get set to make these addictive, chewy, blondie-like brown sugar dessert bars.
Where Did Sad Cake Come From?
I first encountered sad cake on page 190 of The Lubbock Women’s Club Cookbook, published in 1983. A friend of mine picked it up at a thrift store because she knows I’m crazy for old community cookbooks. When I’m having a snack break I like to browse through them, and it was on one such break when a recipe for “Sad, Sad Cake” by one Frances Cowger caught my eye.
It called for 2 cups of Bisquick, 4 eggs, and one entire box of brown sugar. This sounds excessive, but in reality it’s about 2 1/4 cups (brown sugar, sold in plastic bags today, used to come in 1-pound boxes).
Here are the directions straight from Frances: “Mix ingredients by hand. Pour into greased 13 1/8” x 9 1/2” x 2” pan. Bake at 350° F for 30 minutes. (This cake should rise nicely–then fall as it should!)”
That’s it. That’s the recipe. I had to make it.
Short on Looks, Big on Appeal
Having no idea what to expect, I made sad cake as written and was delighted. The batter spread thinly in the 9 x 13-inch pan, and when I baked it, it puffed up dramatically, then collapsed as promised (Bisquick has a lot of leavener, so this makes sense). I can only imagine that someone messed up a more conventional Bisquick cake recipe and just ran with it.
My sad cake was still squishy after 30 minutes, so I baked it a tad longer. The result emerged from the oven with a glossy, crackly top and plenty of tiny craters near the edges, which were darker than the center. It didn’t look sad, per se, but it sure was ugly.
I’m an edge piece fanatic, and the corner pieces in particular were dreamy. They had a playfully chewy texture and a caramel vibe, while the interior pieces were super moist and more butterscotchy.
I mixed a cup of shredded coconut flakes into my next batch and liked that one even more. The coconut added a dimension and oomph that even coconut haters preferred. And it tasted even better the next day! Everyone loved it, it kept fresh for up to 4 days, and was a great conversation starter. Sad cake made me and everyone else happy. I hope it does the same for you.
Sad Cake Variations
Sad cake in its truest form is a 3-ingredient recipe, but it welcomes tinkering.
- Nuts: Add up to 1 cup of toasted, chopped nuts (I think they’re better sprinkled on the cake instead of mixed in)
- Chocolate chips: This cake is quite sweet, so semisweet or bittersweet chips are best here, particularly mini ones. Add anywhere between 1 and 1 1/2 cups.
- Omit the coconut: If you really really dislike coconut (or just plain don’t have it), you can omit it.
More Retro Desserts
- Grandma’s Sunshine Salad
- Homemade Apple Pie
- Bananas Foster
- Lemon Meringue Pie
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Generously grease a 9×13-inch pan with butter or cooking spray.
Beat the eggs:
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk just until frothy. Then add the brown sugar, vanilla, and salt and beat until well combined.
Add the baking mix and coconut:
Add the baking mix to the bowl and stir together with a spatula or wooden spoon until a slightly thick batter forms. A few small lumps are okay. Fold in the coconut.
Scrape into the prepared pan and smooth the top, making sure to get it in the corners. The batter will only thinly coat the pan.
Bake in the preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes. The cake will puff up dramatically after about 20 minutes, then collapse. You’ll know it’s done when the top of the cake has cracks and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with no streaks.
Cool, cut, and serve:
Put the pan on a wire rack and let cool for a few hours. Then cut into bars of your desired size (24 is nice).
Sad cake is very good on the day you bake it, but its flavor and texture improves on the second day. Leftovers will keep, tightly covered or wrapped, for up to 5 days.
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