The Store-Bought Secret Behind My Grandma’s Lemon Cake

The Store-Bought Secret Behind My Grandma’s Lemon Cake

I find it very difficult for any homemade cake to surpass the quality one gets with a boxed mix. I don’t know if it’s the perfectly spongy texture, the just-artificial-enough flavor of vanilla or chocolate, or the ease with which it comes together—boxed mix just tastes better. It’s so close to perfection that, in my mind, there’s only one way it can be improved: Jell-O.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about a Jell-O poke cake, where the gelatin mixture is poured over the cake after it’s baked, seeping into the crumb in a tie-dye-like gradient, nor am I referring to a Jell-O pudding cake, where a packet of instant pudding is added to the batter—though it does share similarities with both. This cake, one my grandma has made approximately “100 times” since discovering the recipe approximately six decades ago, adds a packet of powdered lemon gelatin (Jell-O brand, of course) to the cake mix, along with ¾ cup neutral oil, ¾ cup water, and 4 eggs. After baking in a 9×13-inch pan, the entire surface of the warm cake is poked with a fork, and a quick glaze—made with freshly squeezed lemon juice and confectioners’ sugar—is poured on top and absorbed into the holes. The finished product is vibrantly yellow and the moistest, lemoniest, cake-iest cake I’ve ever tasted.

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The idea of “hacking” cake mix is nothing new. A quick Google search yields tons of articles and guides for improving cake mix, whether by adding an egg, swapping the requisite water for milk, or including additions like vanilla extract or lemon zest. Our own contributor Ella Quittner covered this very topic in a recent edition of her column, Absolute Best Tests, which had her adding everything from melted chocolate and whipped egg whites to standard boxes of cake mix. But as I began to investigate my grandma’s lemon cake recipe, the trick increasingly felt like a relic of a past era, documented only in sporadic blog posts and the occasional Reddit thread.

Like many “secret family recipes,” this one seems to have roots in advertising. My grandma, Nancy, and my grandpa, Bill, were living in Sacramento in the early 1960s (either ‘62 or ‘63, she says) when she discovered the cake through a friend. However, she couldn’t remember precisely where the recipe came from; perhaps it was in a Wesson Oil cookbook (since the cake relies on ¾ cup of oil), or part of an ad for Jell-O or a specific brand of cake mix. She took a peek at her cookbooks from the era and found the recipe in a 1967 cookbook called America Cooks, published by the American Federation of Women’s Clubs, but she’s almost certain she’d gotten ahold of the recipe before then.

Photo by Jell-o Gallery

I consulted the Jell-O Gallery in LeRoy, New York to see if they could track down its precise origins. According to them, the first mention of a similar recipe was in a 1962 Jell-O cookbook titled The Joys of Jell-O. The book features a recipe for “Pastel Pound Cake,” in which white or yellow cake mix is combined with any flavor of Jell-O gelatin powder, ¾ cup water, ½ cup “salad oil,” and 4 eggs. Underneath, a variation for “Lemon-Glazed Cake” specifies punching holes in the cake with a toothpick and adding a glaze, made from ⅓ cup lemon juice, 2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons melted butter, and 1 tablespoon water.

Photo by Jell-O Gallery

There are a few key differences between this version and my grandma’s, namely the quantity of oil in the batter and the omission of butter and water in favor of more lemon juice in the glaze. She also always uses yellow cake mix, and though the brand can vary, she specifically seeks out “ones that say ‘moist’ on the package.” Instead of a toothpick, she points out that she pokes the holes in the cake with a fork.

Ultimately, though, the beauty of this cake is that it is very forgiving. The abundant glaze can easily salvage tough, overbaked cakes, and the process itself doesn’t ever get more complicated than whisking together ingredients in a bowl. It’s easy and fast enough to make as part of a larger meal but delicious enough to be worthy of family dinners, birthdays, and other celebrations. And, because it stays so moist—it’s just as good on the third, fourth, even fifth day—it’s a perfect make-ahead dessert.

We’ve never strayed from the lemon Jell-O + yellow cake mix + lemon glaze formula, but I imagine that there’s room for experimentation, too. Maybe take inspiration from the original Pastel Pound Cake recipe, and try lime Jell-O and freshly squeezed lime juice in the glaze. Or, go the orange route, as this blogger does. Be sure to let me know how it turns out—in the meantime, though, I’ll be sticking with lemon.

Have you tried this type of Jell-O cake? Tell us about it in the comments!

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