Jeremy Jackson's grandma Mildred was famous for her strawberry cake. Legend has it that one of the families in her small Missouri town loved the dessert so much, they "commissioned" her to make it for them once a week.
The thing is, Jackson can't ever remember having the cake. His mother doesn't recall eating it, nor does his father.
"Perhaps [Grandma] was tired of making it every week, I don't know," Jackson says.
So when a copy of Mildred's recipe finally turned up, Jackson was surprised by the main ingredients: boxed cake mix and strawberry-flavored Jell-O. The latter jogged his memory of his grandmother's house, where she had kept a so-called "library of Jell-O boxes" in her pantry under the stairs.
"I don't know if they were sorted by color or not, but she was doing what every other home cook of her era and her region were doing at that time — and shortcuts were part of that," he says.
The first time he made the cake according to his grandma's recipe, Jackson was a bit alarmed by the results.
"Its color hurt my eyes. It's very, very — I can't stress this enough — very pink," he says. "And then it has an extremely pronounced strawberry flavor because of the Jell-O."
Although it seemed strange to Jackson, such kitchen shortcuts were wildly popular in the mid-20th century. Jell-O was one of America's first convenience foods and became a common filler after World War II. Carolyn Wyman, author of Jell-O: A Biography, says sales of the gelatin dessert took off when companies were trying to remarket their "prepare-it-in-a-foxhole-type products."
"There was this whole advertising push for women who were home and had modern appliances to save even more time with products where you could make dinner in five minutes," she says. "Jell-O fit right into that. Not only was it easy, but it was beautiful."
In addition to adding color and flavor to cakes like Mildred's, Jell-O was often paired with savory foods. It may sound unpalatable to modern foodies, but back in the day, cooks often mixed the jiggly stuff with things like cream cheese, nuts, horseradish, vinegar or cottage cheese.
"You could put Minute Rice with it, frozen spinach; there's no end to what you could do with it," Wyman says.
Ruth Clark has been giving some of those odd recipes a second chance on her blog, The Mid-Century Menu. Among the things she's tested is an eye-catching barbecue bean mold — as in baked beans and gelatin — which she describes as "not totally disgusting, but not very good either."
Despite the kitsch appeal and the popularity of Jell-O Jigglers in the 1990s, Jell-O has largely faded as a pantry staple (though it remains a hit on college campuses and has gained new life as the stuff of art and architecture.)
So when Jackson revisited his grandma's recipe, which he calls "wonderful in its own right," he wanted to find a way to cut out the shortcuts. He also wanted to turn it into cupcakes, since those are easier to transport to a picnic (which, you'll recall, are the subject of his book).
"I made a decision to try to honor the recipe — and my grandmother — by remaining quite faithful to it," Jackson says. "[The cupcakes] are soft, they are just sweet enough, and they have a bright pink icing, which is made pink by pureed strawberries." The hue may be less vivid than in grandma's version, but "you can identify them immediately upon sight as strawberry cupcakes," he says.
Jackson admits one shortcut was worth keeping. Even when strawberries are in season, he says the cupcakes are best when made with frozen ones.
"Frozen strawberries are good all the way around," he says. "They're very consistent and picked when they're ripe, and better overall [for this recipe]."
Recipe: Mildred Jackson's Strawberry Cake
1 package white or yellow cake mix
1 box strawberry Jell-O (3 ounces)
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 box frozen strawberries in syrup, thawed and pureed (10 ounce package)
1 cup salad oil
1/4 cup water
1/2 stick butter, room temperature
1 pound powdered sugar
1/2 box frozen strawberries in syrup, thawed
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine cake mix, Jell-O, flour, strawberries, salad oil and water in large bowl and mix well. Add eggs and continue beating. Bake in a greased tube pan for 30-45 minutes.
For icing, beat butter to soften it. Add sugar and strawberries and beat well.
Recipe: Jeremy Jackson's Strawberry Cupcakes
Makes 12 cupcakes
10-ounce package frozen sliced strawberries in syrup, thawed
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (or 1 1/4 cup cake flour)
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
1/2 pound (1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) powdered sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a standard muffin tin with 12 paper cupcake liners.
Puree the thawed strawberries and their syrup in a blender. Whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, vanilla extract and half the strawberry puree (about 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons).
Separately sift the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl. Add the oil and beat with a hand-held mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl, add a third of the strawberry mixture and beat another 20 seconds. Repeat twice with the remaining strawberry mixture.
Divide the batter among the 12 cupcake liners and bake the cupcakes for 14 to 20 minutes, just until their tops are softly set and a toothpick inserted in the middle of a cupcake comes up covered with moist crumbs. (Overbaking the cupcakes makes them tough.) Let the cupcakes cool.
Make the icing by beating the powdered sugar with the softened butter and about half of the remaining strawberry puree — or enough to make a smooth but not too thin icing. Spread the icing on the cooled cupcakes.
Store the cupcakes, covered, at room temperature for up to 3 days, or freeze for longer storage.
Excerpted from Good Day for a Picnic: Simple Food That Travels Well by Jeremy Jackson. Copyright 2005 by Jeremy Jackson. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow Cookbooks.