What is a snack? The word may evoke afterschool carrots and apples, a few handfuls of trail mix between meetings, or popcorn at a movie before dinner. It’s eaten to tide you over, yes, but also as a thrill in itself. Snacks are meant to be small; a whole dinner of trail mix would be awful, but a few bites is just right. And crucially, they are meant to be easy, on your plate almost as soon as the craving hits. That is perhaps why it took so long for the idea of snacking to be applied to baked goods.
But the past few years have spawned a deep infatuation with “snacking cakes,” aka unfussy but delicious cakes meant to be enjoyed by the square at any time of day, along with a slew of cookbooks to facilitate that craving. The most famous is, of course, Snacking Cakes by Yossy Arefi, who is following up her 2020 smash hit with Snacking Bakes, to be published November 7. There’s also Jessie Sheehan’s Snackable Bakes, Aimee Broussard’s Small-Batch Snacking Cake Cookbook, Edd Kimber’s One Tin Bakes Easy, and Emma Fontella’s Simple Pleasures. You’ll find the same assurances in all: that these are “everyday,” recipes, made with “simple ingredients,” “fast” and often using one bowl. Don’t worry, they say, you don’t need to be an expert to make a cake — which shows that we’ve gotten to the point where enough people think they do.
Arefi says that when she was naming Snacking Cakes, the term had been floating around social media. But the concept of a “counter cake,” she adds, is far older: “It’s something that’s been around for a long time, to have a pound cake or something that you can have a little slice of in the afternoon.” And there have always been venues for easy baking, whether it’s through boxed cake mixes, slice-and-bake cookies, dump cakes, or mug cakes. Betty Crocker even had a “Snackin’ Cake” mix.
Sheehan says she was introduced to the concept of a single layer cake from Betty Crocker’s “Stir n Frost” line, but became more familiar while working at a Red Hook, Brooklyn, bakery that had a “Sunday cake” on the menu. The name evoked something whipped up quickly and casually that you could do in between other tasks. When Sheehan started her website, that was the baking she wanted to do. She called it “easy-peasy” baking; the name for her third cookbook, Snackable Bakes, came because the word “snack” had been trending, and she realized it applied to what she’d been doing all along.
There are certain rules to a snackable bake. Arefi says her recipes in both Snacking Cakes and Snacking Bakes are things that can be made in one go — no refrigerating dough, no letting things rest, and all the cakes can be baked in the same 8 x 8-inch pan. Sheehan says there should be no food processors or stand mixers needed. And both agree that each ingredient list should be limited to the sugar, flour, baking soda, dairy, and eggs required by a majority of baked goods, plus one or two extras that can be easily found at the grocery store, to serve as the centerpiece. No chocolate chips and dried cherries and pistachios.
Sure, the pandemic penchant for sourdough and project baking, or the ever-escalating expectations of frosting on social media, may have led to bakers looking for simpler projects. But much of the copy in these books is an attempt to calm potential bakers, especially beginners, who may see baking as an intimidating prospect.
“I think a lot of times when people write about baking, they read about how it’s this exact science,” says Arefi. You can’t really eyeball baking soda the same way you would black pepper. “And that can be really intimidating to people who think that if they make a tiny measuring error, it’s gonna ruin everything.” What’s more, when you’re baking you don’t know if it’s going to be good until it’s done. You may be able to check for salt or swap spinach for kale while making soup, but your pie will only reveal itself as a success or a failure once it’s out of the oven.
It’s quite obvious that not every bake is an elaborate layer cake or a laminated pastry that takes three days to execute. Quick cookies and bars and sheet cakes have been around for generations. What’s changed is what we call it; “snacking” is essentially a marketing term, used to get a new generation to attach a familiar feeling to an old concept. Snacking is in, whether it’s off a charcuterie board, or with sharing plates for the table, or for girl dinner.
But what these books really do is remind readers that home baking is its own art. Croissants and buche noels are fun projects if you feel like it, and yes, the Great British Bake Off’s contestants have changed a lot of peoples’ perception of what can be done in the home kitchen. But home baking is meant to be simple, quick, and immediately satisfying. Call it a snack if you need. It’s as good a word as any.