Friends, I have a confession to make. It’s a bit embarrassing; promise me you won’t laugh. The other day, ostensibly to bring to my aunt’s house for tea, but really just because I felt like baking something, I made a cake. That’s not the embarrassing part. The embarrassing part is what I used to make the cake – namely, Betty Crocker Super Moist white cake mix, and powdered raspberry Jell-O. Oh, yeah. Here it is:
Looks pretty, doesn't it? Well, this might not be surprising to some of you, but the cake wasn’t that good. It wasn’t a complete disaster: some people I fed it to actually like it, but I wasn’t happy. I considered not even blogging about this little endeavor, but honesty is always the best policy, right? And actually, it was a pretty interesting experience, and definitely one to learn from.
I should say here that I am not inherently against using a cake mix. My mom, an extremely talented cook as I’ve already mentioned, always swore by cake and brownie mixes whenever such treats were required for some occasion; I seriously don’t remember her ever making cake or frosting from scratch, and yet our childhood birthday cakes were never anything short of delicious. It’s just that I usually prefer the challenge of baking a cake myself, and tend to feel sort of inadequate when I “cheat” and use a mix. Imagine how I feel when I manage to screw up the supposedly “failproof” method!
I got the idea (and recipe) for this particular cake from the baking blog Bake or Break, where I found an entry for Strawberry Cake with Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting. This is a classic Southern dessert utilizing, yes, white cake mix and powdered strawberry gelatin, as well as frozen sweetened strawberries. Inspired by an ancient box of raspberry gelatin I dug up from our basement (where non-perishables go to die) and a package of frozen raspberries languishing in the freezer, I decided to whip up a good old Southern-style layer cake, substituting raspberry for strawberry flavoring.
To make one thing clear, the fact that this cake didn’t turn out like I hoped in no way reflects on the recipe as written on the Bake or Break site. The mistake was entirely mine. The original recipe calls for 3 ounces of powdered gelatin, which I thought was how much was in my little box, until I read it more closely and realized it said .3 ounces. Oh. Not nearly enough, obviously.
I figured would just go to the store and see if I could buy a bigger box of Jell-O to supplement it, and this is where I ran into trouble. The biggest boxes I could find still only contained .6 ounces of powder. So I ended up having to buy several boxes of Jell-O to get enough, plus the box of cake mix. This cake’s got some carbon footprint.
It also has waaaay to much gelatin in it. Know why? The package of gelatin I found in the basement was sugar-free. No problem, I thought, I’ll supplement it with more sugar-free Jell-O. Well, as my mom pointed out much later, artificial sweeteners weigh much less than regular sugar; regular Jell-O comes in 3-ounce packages, but the biggest box you can buy of the sugar-free stuff, as I said, is less than an ounce. For a cake like the one I was making, I probably should’ve used half the amount of Jell-O called for if I was using sugar-free, if even that much.
So, how did the cake turn out? Well, the first word that sprang to mind when I tasted a bit was sweet. Actually, that's a lie: the first word was red. Really, really red.
So pretty, but soooo sweet. Like, overpoweringly so. Southern desserts tend to be sweet anyway, of course (pecan pie and caramel cake, anyone?), but this was definitely a bit much. The other problem was texture: because there was too much Jell-O, the cake was, um, a bit firm. Not unchewable or anything, but definitely harder to cut into than a nice, light cake should be.
It was edible, however, which is the main thing (I would’ve hated to throw out an entire cake, especially after buying all that damned Jell-O), especially once I frosted it. The original recipe also calls for a cream cheese frosting made with more frozen sweetened berries and 6 cups (!) of confectioner’s sugar. Since the sweet, berry flavor of the cake was so intense, however, I went with a plain cream cheese frosting flavored with a little vanilla extract, and much less sugar. This worked to cut the cloyingness (is that a word?) of the cake layers and make the whole thing a bit more palatable.
I do have to say, that color is fantastic! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cake quite so red, even red velvet cake, which uses food coloring to achieve its distinctive hue (there is coloring in the gelatin used in this cake, obviously, but most of that vivid red actually comes from the pureed raspberries, not artificial coloring). I knew it would be pink based on the photos I saw of the strawberry-flavored cakes (which were more of a pastel color), but nothing like this! Bear with me while I show it to you again, because it really does look much better than it tasted:
All in all, this was an interesting learning experience. My grandparents liked it so much they took a good bit home with them, but so I’m calling it a qualified success. My mom just picked up another box of white cake mix and some Jell-O (regular this time, not sugar-free), and we have raspberries in the freezer, so I’m thinking I just might have to go for round two!
Raspberry Gelatin Layer Cake
Adapted from Bake or Break
I figured I’d include the recipe just in case anyone wanted to try it. For the classic cake flavor, use strawberries and strawberry-flavored gelatin in place of the raspberry.
1 18.25-ounce box white cake mix
1 3-ounce box raspberry instant gelatin [If you are going the sugar-free route, which I really don’t recommend, then decrease this by at least half)
15 ounces frozen raspberries, thawed, pureed [I did this in a food processor]
4 large eggs
½ cup canola oil [I used 6 tablespoons of nonfat yogurt; this is a neat trick if you want to reduce the fat in a cake mix – replace the oil with three-fourths the amount of low- or non-fat yogurt, adding a bit more if the batter seems dry]
¼ cup water
Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease 2 9-inch round cake pans.
Combine cake mix and gelatin in large bowl. Beat in remaining ingredients with electric mixer [I just used a spatula, but a mixer would have been a better idea]. Divide batter equally between pans.
Bake 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into centers comes out clean [mine were done in about 20 minutes, but my parents apparently have a super-powered oven because everything bakes up more quickly in it than the recipes say].
Cool in pans 15 minutes, then remove from pans and cool completely on a wire rack.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Cooking Light’s website
This frosting was originally used to frost a beet cake (I eliminated the orange peel to make a basic cream cheese frosting), which sounds intriguing to me…next baking project, perhaps?
1 8-ounce block 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, chilled [full-fat is fine, do not use fat-free]
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups sifted powdered sugar [I measured out a bit more than 2 cups, sifted it, then just used that amount, as I was going for a not-too-sweet frosting to counteract the cake. However, I was only frosting between the layers and the top, so if you want to do the sides, use the original amount written here to ensure you get enough frosting to cover the whole cake]
Beat cream cheese and vanilla with a mixer at high speed until fluffy. Add powdered sugar and beat at low speed until just blended (do not overmix). Place one cake layer on plate; spread with ½ cup frosting [I used a bit more than this]. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake [or just the top, as I did, if you want the pretty red layers to show through].