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August 25, 2023

Color your vision with a Jell-O cake

I love to eat desserts, which I think is what led me to love making them. Thanks to the public library, I discovered the recently published cookbook “Baking Yesteryear“: a selection of desserts, some odd, that were popular in each decade since the 20s. It was the first time I’d heard of author B. Dylan Hollis, who it turns out is a very smart and hilarious social media sensation.

I wanted to share a “Baking Yesteryear” adventure with you, so I chose the Color Vision Cake Recipe because it’s available online. Luckily, it was also one of the recipes from the book that most appealed to me. It’s flavored with artificial cherry in the form of Jell-O, and I love fake cherry flavor. (In my defense, I also love real cherries.) It’s the ultimate thing of edible pink beauty.

Color Vision Cake
The professional Color Vision Cake. We’ll get to mine in due time.

Dylan describes the cake like this:

“Flavoring frostings and batters with the exciting varieties of Jell-O makes for a positively distinctive and idiosyncratic creation, and one that’s surprisingly enjoyable, and unmistakably 1950s in its presentation. With the Color Vision Cake, you can slice into a piece of yesteryear and celebrate its campy, wonderfully tacky identity.”

Creaming for a moister cake

Before we dive into baking the Color Vision Cake, let’s talk about my cake problems — namely, that they tend to come out dry. The problem is most pronounced with chocolate cakes, but it can happen to me with other flavors too. Once I learned that the main reason for dry cakes is overmixing, I tried to keep mixing to a minimum just to combine the ingredients, but I never noticed an improvement.

Then I found hope with a new-to-me technique. In almost every cake recipe I’ve ever tried, the first instructions are to beat (cream) the butter and sugar together, then add the remaining dry ingredients. With the reverse creaming method, you begin by beating the butter not just into the sugar but into all of the dry ingredients at once. According to King Arthur Flour, one of my favorite baking sites, coating flour with butter creates a barrier to gluten development, which is what causes dry cakes. That’s why cake mix cakes, for all their drawbacks, are always very moist: the dry ingredients in your plastic pouch have been premixed with solid fat.

I hate the term “reverse creaming” as much as you do, and if you start a successful campaign to get a new phrase in use, I will send you something pretty.

So: Although Dylan’s recipe calls for standard creaming, I decided to try the Color Vision Cake with the reverse creaming method.

Making the batter

First, I mixed the dry ingredients together: flour, sugar, baking powder, Jello-O powder, and salt.

pink bowl filled with a flour mixture
I was destined to make this cake because my baking bowls are pink.

Before we move on, I must strongly encourage you to get a kitchen scale if you don’t already own one. Although I’d known for years that kitchen scales improve your baking because your measurements are more precise, I didn’t purchase one for myself until a few years ago, and now I don’t know how I lived without it. First of all, it’s so much faster: you just dump an ingredient onto the scale until you get the right amount, reset the scale, then dump in the next ingredient. Secondly, you don’t have to keep track of your measuring cups. Before my scale, I was perpetually in a game of hide and seek with my 1/4 cup measure. Epicurious, another favorite cooking site, gives several recommendations on scales, many of which are under $35.

kitchen scale
I own a MyWeigh scale. I like puns.

Then, it was the moment to add the butter to the dry mixture.

bowl of dry ingredients topped with butter
The moment before the reverse creaming begins.

Time for my first reverse creaming. I set Spotify to an empowering song to mark the occasion, then got to work beating the mixture until it had a sandy texture. At this point it was nice and pink.

bowl filled with sandy mixture
Despite the presence of the box in a few pictures, this blog post was not sponsored by the Swans Down Cake Flour company.

Next, I added the wet ingredients: milk and sour cream. Be sure to bring them to room temperature first; cold ingredients will not emulsify correctly.

Finally, I beat the egg whites into stiff peaks, then folded them into the batter in three batches.

“If you say ‘fold in’ one more time…”

For the record, I was grumpy at this point, because I hate when I have to wash my beaters halfway through a recipe.

Batter topped with egg whites
Folding whipped egg whites into my batter.

Then my batter was ready and fit for a Disney princess.

Bowl filled with pink batter
The most beautiful batter ever.

I poured the batter into the cake pans and put them in the pre-heated oven.

Out of the oven and onto the frosting

The baking time suggested was perfect. Thirty minutes passed, and my cake layers tested done. I inverted them onto wire cooling racks.

If my cake layers look flat, it’s probably because my baking powder expired a year and a half ago.

The Color Vision frosting is an average American buttercream: you beat butter, powdered sugar, a little bit of milk, and some flavoring together. The first step, though, is a little different: you heat the Jello-O powder and milk. It’s not clear from the instructions how long you are supposed to heat the Jello-O mixture; I surmised you want the Jello-O powder to dissolve so that the frosting isn’t grainy. But after about three minutes on low heat, the powder hadn’t dissolved but the mixture appeared to be thickening, so I removed it from the heat. This was the one part of the recipe I had trouble with.

Jell-O and milk mixture
I was going for a bit of an artsy look with the Jell-O and milk photo.

While the Jello-O and milk mixture cooled, I beat the butter with the powdered sugar. The recipe calls for adding the sugar 2 tablespoons at a time, but adding it 2 cups at a time worked just fine. Then I beat in the Jello-O mixture.  Again, pink perfection.

Frosting in a bowl
My cake layer lurks in the background just waiting to be classed up with frosting.

The frosting was a little grainy and very sweet, but also very delicious. It reminded me of Dairy Queen’s cherry dipped cones, which I adored as a kid. It got me thinking that adapting the frosting to an Italian meringue buttercream recipe would be next level yummy.

Italian meringue buttercream interlude

If you like regular buttercream, you’ll go nuts over the Italian meringue kind. Italian meringue buttercream involves boiling a sugar syrup, adding it to whipped egg whites, then beating in butter. While it’s not idiot proof like American buttercream, it’s not difficult to make, just a little time consuming. The difference in taste is pretty wow.

My favorite Italian meringue buttercream recipe is “Kaye’s Buttercream” from The Whimsical Bakehouse by Kaye Hansen and Liv Hansen. Trust me, it’s phenomenal. An alternative recipe is available at Epicurious; I haven’t tried it but it’s very similar to Kaye’s, with one important note: it calls for a candy thermometer. Kaye’s doesn’t, which in my book (haha) makes it better.

half frosted Color Vision Cake
The partially frosted cake looks like a person whose wig has slipped off.

I’ve never mastered evenly frosting a cake. The nice thing about the Color Vision Cake is that the cake layers and frosting look so similar, the uneveness is much less noticeable.

Voila, my finished cake.

Color Vision Cake with a piece cut out of it
My finished cake, minus the large piece already in my belly.

The moment of truth

It was time to try my beautiful if lopsided Color Vision Cake. It was delicious; the subtle cherry flavor in the cake complemented the intense cherry-flavored frosting perfectly. And, importantly, it was moist.

Did reverse creaming make the moist difference? It’s hard to say without comparing my cake to one made according to the recipe’s directions, and I’m not feeling that ambitious. However, the next time I make a cake, I am looking forward to tackling my nemesis, any chocolate cake recipe, with the reverse creaming method.

What are you baking?

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