CAKE IN A BOX

recipe + photography JOHN GOLDEN

Leave it to the clever players of the internet to coin a bundle of phrases like Quarantine Kitchen and Coping Food to describe our stay-at-home cooking manifestos during the Covid-19 pandemic. But do our standards of food quality get compromised as we stock up on items meant to last for weeks? For me, it would be anathema to cook anything with ingredients not fresh off the farm—or at the very least organic and natural foods; anything processed is verboten in my kitchen. Or it was, until I experimented with a cake-in-the-box recipe.

It happened one day as a homebody, making the deep depression in my sofa cushion even deeper during the endless days watching television, reading, talking on the phone and looking at cookbooks or trolling the internet to come up with new ideas for the evening meal, which always includes a dessert.

Generally I bake nearly every day, including Bundt cakes, pies, cookies and pastries. While thumbing through a cookbook and reading the index to see if any cake recipe would catch my attention, I saw in the book—At My Grandmother’s Table by Faye Porter, a compilation of family-friendly Southern recipes—an entire section referred to as “cake mix” cakes. Some 12 recipes from Chocolate Éclair Cake to Grana’s Plum Cake seemed enticing, but the one that I caught my eye was Easy Layered Cobbler because, well, it was easy to put together.

Here was the most unlikely list of ingredients and methods of preparation: one 30-ounce can of apple or cherry pie filling, one 8-ounce can crushed pineapple, one 9-ounce box of golden yellow cake mix and one stick butter, melted. You basically pile all the ingredients in an 8-inch-square baking dish and bake in a hot oven for about 30 minutes, until it emerges with its crisp cake topping and the fruit filling bubbling beautifully around the edges.

The ingredients called for cans and boxes of unusual volume sizes. Maybe in a bygone era at some Piggly Wiggly stores in the South one would find 30-ounce cans of pie filling and a 9-ounce box of cake mix on the shelves. Nowadays the canned pie filling is 21 ounces and cake mixes are 15.25 ounces. These used to come in 18.25-ounce boxes. And if you make any of these cake wonders from an older recipe that calls for the larger box, you need to compensate (according to advice from Duncan Hines) by adding either 3 ounces of plain flour or 3 ounces of extra cake mix. For some of the recipes I made, I bought a second box of cake mix to “borrow” 3 ounces of mix. You can save the remainder in a covered jar in the pantry for future use.

I also researched which brands of cake mix are considered the best. Betty Crocker got low marks whereas Duncan Hines was a favorite.

For the easy cobbler, I bought two 21-ounce cans of pie filling, measuring out an additional 9 ounces of pie filling to get 30 ounces and extracted 9 ounces of cake mix from a 15.25-ounce box. I didn’t save the remainder of either ingredient.

I’ve since made a few cakes using cake mixes. They were fine but nothing like my own scratch cakes. Ultimately, it’s a time saver in the same vein as resorting to cooking frozen vegetables.

I researched the best brands of pie filling and the two that were winners included the Lucky Leaf brand and Target’s Market Pantry pie filling. The ingredient list is different between the two. Noted, the Lucky Leaf Premium Cherry Pie filling doesn’t contain high-fructose corn syrup.

Lucky Leaf contains cherries (no mention whether they’re tart or sweet), sugar, water, food starch-modified (corn), ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to maintain color, artificial flavor, citric acid and Red 40 color.

Target’s Market Pantry contains red tart pitted cherries, water, sugar, modified corn starch, citric acid, erythorbic acid (to promote color retention) and Red 40 color.

This little cobbler gem is in a world by itself. The very sweet concoction begs for a scoop of ice cream to serve with the warm cobbler. And the main reason to make it is not only that it’s so easy to assemble—just minutes to prepare—but, rather, it’s a thoroughly delightful dessert.

Easy Layered Cobbler

Serves 6­­–8

Vegetable shortening for preparing the pan
1 (30-ounce) can cherry pie filling
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, undrained
1 (9-ounce) box golden yellow cake mix
½ cup butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Grease an 8 x 8–inch baking pan.

Spread the pie filling and pineapple on the bottom of the baking pan. Sprinkle the dry cake mix on top of the fruit mixture. Drizzle melted butter over the top of the cake mix.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown and the topping is fully set. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

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