Poke Cakes: a vintage 1970s recipe turns trendy

When the boss of your first college-degree job invites you over for dinner, you go. Even when you know his wife wears dresses of a primly-proper length, you slip into your best mini dress, pull on your panty hose, and go.

Mr. Editor-in-chief of this magazine held a welcome dinner for the new (i.e. young) staff: another new editorial assistant and myself, and the receptionist and bookkeeper, both who had been working there longer. We sat down to a formally-dressed table in their very formal dining room. The massive china cabinet was filled with an impressive assortment of matching serving platters, silver pieces and crystal. Young Receptionist and Young Bookkeeper were newly-married and both able to discuss all the nuances of selecting china and silver patterns.

The other editorial assistant had just started that week, and I barely knew her. However, neither of us were all that far from college parties with Boone's Farm Strawberry "Wine" and kegs. She was as silent through the dinner as I was as the other two spun the conversational threads which our hosts unspooled.

Today I view the memory of that dinner as one might view a painting from a distance, an ornate gold frame capturing the yellow hues of that dining room with six seated around that heavy table cloaked in a thick, creamy tablecloth. The rest of the details are somewhat of a blur.

Except for The Cake. Oh, the cake. A perfect square placed on a dessert plate, topped with a creamy pillow of ... something. Having had much experience squirting whipped cream from the aerosol can into my mouth before blanketing slices of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie with it, I knew it wasn't Reddi-Wip. It lacked the telltale squiggle lines, and the taste was decidedly different.

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But back to the star of that dessert plate, the cake. It was lemony, with streaks of green. Cool. Moist. Dense yet still impossibly light. Where did those rivulets of lime come from? How had Mrs. Editor-in-chief gotten them into the cake? Not one dry crumb, yet the cake was still firm. All those little rivers running through the lemon, yet it was not soggy.

Seconds were offered; much to my devastation, the others declined, so I did, too.

Now you'd think I would have asked about that cake. Or asked for the recipe. I had just started reading the Food Guide in Thursday's Chicago Tribune and committed to typing out recipe cards as if it were my job. But I was barely cooking then, let alone baking.

But I never forgot that cake.

Years later, I figured out what it was: Poke Cake, a hot trend in the 1970s.

Mrs. Editor-in-chief had made a boxed cake (lemon), poked holes in it, then poured jello into those holes. Those rivulets were lime jello. The jello set up in those holes after the cake was chilled, resulting in that texture. A cloud of Cool Whip, another relatively new invention and quite popular, topped it.

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Wait long enough and just about anything that falls out of style comes back again, more trendy than ever. Such is the case with Poke Cakes now. I can't go far in recipe-reading these days without seeing another incarnation of it.

The essence of a poke cake is a boxed cake mix of some flavor, poked with holes, with gelatin poured into the holes. The trick, and perhaps the novelty, is to mix and match compatible flavors. White cake poked full of strawberry gelatin is a pretty classic version. I have no idea if the lemon/lime version was also a variation of the original, or, if Mrs. Editor-in-chief had opted to walk on the culinary wild side and boldly reached for the lime jello instead of the strawberry.

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In any case, I'm glad she did. It's still the only poke cake I want to eat. It's not very pretty to look at when you're making it -- in this case, the top of the cake turns neon green and it's studded with the craters from all those pokes. Which is why this cake needs a topping.

When I was getting ready to write this post, I pretended that I was going to update poke cake from how I originally ate it. Given the range of cake mix and gelatin flavors on the market today, the permutations are endless (orange cake and orange gelatin, topped with mandarins; lemon cake and raspberry gelatin, topped with fresh raspberries macerated with chambord; white cake with lime, topped with whipped cream and blackberries).

But today's variations go beyond the marriage of cake mix and gelatin.

Recipes have you filling those craters with sweetened condensed milk, hot fudge sauce, caramel sauce, prepared instant pudding mixes ... I guess you're only limited by your imagination as to what you can pour after you poke. Just reading some of those recipes (Milky Way, Grasshopper, Rainbow, Almond Joy, Peanut Butter...) which include many more layers beyond that first poke makes my teeth hurt.

Variations also call for different toppings. Some will have you prepare a pudding mix and spread that on the cake as frosting. Others go for canned frosting, while still others tell you to do slather the prepared pudding mix on the cake first, and then whipped topping.

Frequently that topping is Dream Whip, a non-dairy powder form of whipped topping, which I've never really understood. You take that dry powder and whip it with milk and vanilla to produce yet another topping.

I suppose you could whip your own heavy cream, but that seems to defy the spirit of a recipe that's all about using artificial flavors, colorings and convenience products -- all of which I avoid as much as possible but am willing to make an exception for this cake.

I stuck to the basics and made the lemon-lime combination for my husband and myself. I rarely bake a cake for us anymore, because it's more than we can eat, and this one goes in a 13x9 pan. But for the blog, I had to do it.

I baked it last Wednesday. We fell into a pattern after that. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday ... at some point in the evening, my husband would quietly say, "Is it cake time yet?" And I would reply, "Why yes, it is." Which is when he would cut a generous piece for each of us, first finishing off the last of an aerosol can of whipped cream lurking in the refrigerator, and when that was gone, the Cool Whip.

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We finished it last night, and I did remember to take a picture of that last piece.

Mrs. Editor-in-chief's Lemon Lime Poke Cake
1 box lemon cake mix
1 3-oz. pkg. of lime gelatin (I use sugar-free)
1 c. boiling water
1/2 c. cold water
Whipped topping of your choice
Lime zest

Prepare cake according to directions on the mix for baking in a 13x9" pan.
Let the cake cool for about 30 minutes.

Poke holes in the cake. (I used a serving fork; some prefer something of more substance, like the business end of a meat thermometer, or the handle of a wooden spoon.)

Dissolve the gelatin in 1 c. boiling water. Stir until fully dissolved.
Then add 1/2 c. cold water to the gelatin. Stir.

Pour or ladle gelatin over the cake. Try to hit all the pokes.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least three hours before serving.

Slather cake with Cool Whip and top with lime zest at serving time.

Keep cake refrigerated.

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