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Lemon Jello Cake: Something Like Grandma Used to Makeby Gary Allen

For the past year or so, I’ve been trying to recreate some of the dishes that used to be familiar, but have somehow disappeared—dishes that would have been familiar to our parents and grandparents. Relishes like chow-chow, sweet-and-spicy green tomato chutney, and tomato jam, perfumed with a bit of cinnamon. I suppose it’s a natural result of the home-canning revival that seems to be replacing the fading cupcake craze.

Some of these old-fashioned standbys have disappeared because tastes change over time. Really, when was the last time you were served Ambrosia at a party—at least one that wasn’t self-consciously retro? I suspect that many otherwise delightful foods were allowed to fade away simply because they were too much work.

We tend to think of our grandmothers, slaving away, hour after hour, in stifling hot kitchens—something we would do anything to avoid. We imagine that, even if grandma had the advantage of today’s modern conveniences, she would still have stuck to the old, tried-and-true, recipes that had been passed down from her grandmother.

Don’t bet on it. When grandma found a good shortcut, one that still produced a product her family would love, she jumped on it—just as we all would.

For example, I’ve got an old family recipe that has been handed down for generations, and deservedly so—it’s really good. Here it is, copied exactly as it was written on a dog-eared, stained, and faded index card:

Lemon Jello Cake
What you need-
1 pkg. lemon Jell-O
1 cup boiling water
4 eggs
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 box Duncan Hines yellow cake mix

Mix Jell-O and water well, and set aside to cool. (Should still be warm when used.) Break eggs into separate bowl and beat in oil until light. Add alternately with Duncan Hines Yellow Cake mix into Jell-O bowl, and blend. Pour mixture into greased tube pan, bake at 350°F for 45 minutes.

The unexpected appearance of Jell-O and a cake mix are a little shocking to modern foodie eyes, but why wouldn’t grandma have used them? Jell-O first went on the market in 1900. Cake mixes have been around since the 1920s. However, the first successful one didn’t come out until 1947, and Duncan Hines (1880-1959) first put his name on one in 1953.

There’s a popular story that early cake mixes required only water (since they contained powdered eggs), but were changed for marketing reasons—supposedly because women felt that they were cheating their families if they didn’t take a more active role in making their desserts. If a mix worked well, and was easier than making something from scratch, grandma would have been crazy not to use it—and grandma was no fool. The real reason powdered eggs were removed from the mixes is that Duncan Hines said that “strictly fresh eggs make a bigger, better cake.” After that, all the other cake mix companies changed their recipes as well.

While the lemon cake listed above is good, I tinkered with it a bit, adapting it to modern tastes. Reducing the amount of oil by half did not affect the flavor, moistness, or keeping properties of the cake at all.

Up-to-date Lemon Jell-O Cake
What you need-
1 pkg. lemon Jell-O
1 cup boiling water
1 box Duncan Hines Yellow Cake mix
4 eggs
3 oz. oil (vegetable or canola)
1 lemon, zest and juice
1 cup confectioner's sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a small bowl, combine Jell-O and water. Stir until completely dissolved, and set aside to cool to lukewarm. Mix eggs with oil, and whisk until light and frothy. Alternate adding egg mixture and warm Jell-O liquid to cake mix, a little at a time, stirring constantly. Don’t over-mix—just ensure that all dry ingredients are moistened (over-mixing develops gluten in the mix’s flour, making the cake tougher, more bread-like).

Pour into a buttered and floured tube pan, and bake for about 45 minutes (or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in deepest part of the cake). While cake is baking, combine the grated zest of the lemon with the confectionerâs sugar. Stir in enough lemon juice to make a thick glaze. Remove cake from tube pan, and spread the glaze evenly over it while it is still warm.

Variations: I’ve substituted Orange Jell-O, orange zest and juice—and fruity olive oil&amdash;with great success. I have no doubt that other flavors would work just as well.

Gary Allen’s latest book, Herbs: A Global History, is scheduled for publication next spring. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) stick in his mouth—his own foot being a prime example of the latter—at his website

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