PEOPLE KEEP SHARING cool ways to use sheet pans. When Nancy Leson, the former Seattle Times restaurant critic, asked Facebook friends for sheet pan hacks last year, the creativity could have fueled a TikTok channel. In nearly 200 comments, the pans got points for every task from freezing berries to subbing as a pizza stone (when inverted) to organizing Legos to transporting drippy houseplants after watering them at the sink.
Recently, though, I was reminded how insanely useful sheet pans are for their intended function: cooking food. They’re good for far more than my old standard of roasting a tray of vegetables or a bunch of chicken thighs.
With a sheet pan, you can make oven-baked quesadillas for the whole family in one batch, rather than one after another on the stovetop. It saves a remarkable amount of time and tedium. Also, a friend recently served sheet pan s’mores on vacation, arranging the whole array of graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows on a tray and broiling them. (It’s not the same as a campfire, but it’s efficient — and no marshmallows get lost to the flames.)
The sheet pan revelations are surprisingly well suited to desserts, as it turns out, says a well-timed book from Seattle author Molly Gilbert (“Sheet Pan Sweets,” Union Square & Co., $22.99).
Gilbert grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, and her career path started after college on the East Coast. “I got a nice sensible job and really didn’t like it,” she says. After a day’s work in health-care consulting, she’d change out of her suit and head for the kitchen.
The habit led to her food blog, Dunk and Crumble, and eventually quitting her day job to enroll at the French Culinary Institute in New York. “I was kind of scared to make the leap but very happy that I finally did it, and lucky that I had parents that were supportive,” she says.
After graduating, she “tried on a bunch of different food-related hats,” from interning in Saveur’s test kitchen to working as a private chef in the Hamptons to working in a Brooklyn candy kitchen, making caramels and candy bars. “I spent so much time just hand-wrapping caramels,” she says.
A sheet pan cookbook made sense to her when she wrote her first, “Sheet Pan Suppers,” in 2014 — so many people are busy, or don’t love cooking and want simple ideas, or don’t own a lot of equipment. Sheet pans “are easy to find, and they’re cheap, and I think most people already have them,” she says. The pans are a mainstay of restaurant kitchens, and, like other professional tools, their efficiencies and practicality carry over to home use.
They’re also not fussy or high-end. Gilbert reaches a lot for her Chicago Metallic brand pans or Nordic Ware, plus some spendier but fun, colorful Great Jones pans. Rather than brand, she emphasizes measurements: Use a “true” 18×13-inch half-sheet, she says; a jellyroll pan looks similar but is smaller and won’t work for her recipes.
For desserts, Gilbert hails sheet pans for a few key qualities: For one, size, especially useful around the holidays — a single recipe makes 24 brownies or a big enough sheet cake to feed a crowd. It’s also possible to bake the components of a layer cake in a single sheet pan rather than requiring two or three cake pans, slicing even portions for a square cake or cutting out round layers with some extra edge pieces for decorations or nibbling.
Speed is another plus: The large surface area and shallow sides of the pans mean baked goods cook faster and also cool faster than standard cake or loaf pans.
I was inspired by the rolled cakes, baked and sprinkled with powdered sugar and rolled up in a towel to cool before they are unrolled and (sans towel) filled and rolled again. The initial roll “gives the cake sort of a muscle memory,” Gilbert says, so it won’t crack when it’s filled and rerolled.
“It just seems so fancy and frilly, but you realize it’s not actually that hard to do if you have a sheet pan and a little powdered sugar to make sure it doesn’t stick.”
Gilbert went on to other topics after her first book and wasn’t sure at first about another focus on sheet pans. But she uses them all the time in her own kitchen, especially now that she has three young children and is shorter on kitchen time herself. Ultimately, she said, the dessert book is like a Venn diagram of her own interests.
“I didn’t want to be ‘the sheet pan girl,’ ” she says. “But now I’ve embraced it.”
Pumpkin Tiramisu Roll
Serves 8 to 10
Nonstick cooking spray
1 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon Kosher salt
5 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup canned pure pumpkin puree, such as Libby’s
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 cup heavy cream, cold
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons dark rum or pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1. Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F with a rack in the center position. Grease a sheet pan with nonstick spray, line it with parchment paper and grease the parchment, too.
2. Sift the flour, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves and baking soda into a medium bowl. Whisk in the salt until combined.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer, whip the eggs and sugar together on high speed until pale yellow and thick, about 5 minutes. Add the pumpkin puree, and mix on low speed, just until combined. Add the flour mixture, and mix on low speed again until no streaks remain.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and spread it evenly to the corners with a large offset spatula. Bake 6 to 8 minutes, until the cake is just golden and springs back when lightly poked.
5. While the cake bakes, lay a clean dish towel on a work surface, and fill a fine-mesh sieve with about ½ cup confectioners sugar.
6. Remove the cake from the oven, and immediately run a paring knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the cake. Working quickly while the cake is still hot, sift a thin layer of powdered sugar over the cake, then turn the cake out of the pan onto the dish towel, sugared side down. Carefully remove the baked-on parchment from the cake, then sprinkle a layer of powdered sugar where the parchment used to be. Gently roll up the cake and the towel, starting from a short side and rolling away from yourself. Let the cake cool completely in the towel, about 35 minutes.
7. Meanwhile, make the filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer, whip together the espresso powder, mascarpone, cream, sugar, rum and a pinch of salt on medium-high speed until thick and creamy, 3 to 5 minutes.
8. When the cake is cool, unroll it onto a work surface. Spread the mascarpone cream over the cake, leaving a ½-inch border. Tightly but gently roll up the cake with the filling inside (this time, leave the towel behind). If you’d like, use a serrated knife to trim the ends of the roll to make neat edges. Carefully transfer the cake to a serving platter, seam side down.
9. Sprinkle the top of the roulade with the cocoa powder, then cut the cake into thick slices to serve. The cake will keep, loosely covered, in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.