If you didn’t know already, my writing for the Daily Bulldog has expanded the site’s readership to include a strong contingent of my East Tennessee family. My family is as nostalgic about the food of our childhood as I am, so they have recommended topics for future articles. One of these recommendations resonated with me today as I collect the ingredients to bake a friend’s birthday cake.
Momma made notes in the margins of her recipes with the names of friends and family who liked a particular recipe, so she could be sure to make it for them again. I learned this penchant from her. In writing this I’ve been thinking about why we take the time to do this. When something happens (good or bad), my first instinct is to make and deliver food. Cooking for another person can be seen as altruistic. It feels uncomfortably self-aggrandizing to leave it there. Because the act of cooking can be nurturing for both the body and the soul, it offers more than filling our bellies. The process of cooking is about transformation, not just of the ingredients into a dish, but of the people who do the cooking and those that do the eating. It provides sustenance which encourages a sense of trust, community, belonging and closeness.
We each have that cake that speaks to us and one of my favorite things to do is figure out someone’s ideal cake. Your cake is the one you cannot pass up. It is the cake, if given an option, you would regularly choose it for a special occasion. For me the cake is my Granny’s coconut layer cake with pineapple custard and 7-minute frosting. For Momma, it is a chocolate cake with caramel pecan frosting, and for Daddy, it was butter cake with milk chocolate frosting and home-canned peaches on the side (he liked to drizzle the homemade syrup the peaches were canned in over his cake). For my husband? That is one I’m still figuring out. He is so accommodating and easy going, it is hard to pin down what he really likes, but I persevere.
When Daddy lost his younger brother, my Uncle Wayne, in 1997, his son, Clint (my cousin who is 9 years younger than me) became a permanent fixture at the house. Momma always saw Clint as the son she was never blessed to have and helped my Uncle Wayne with parenting responsibilities that might have made him miss work. Momma also catered to Clint in a way that inspired decades of teasing from me. His cake is Momma’s cherry pineapple dump cake. As much as I enjoy the cake, I do wonder, could there be a MORE UNAPPETIZING name for a cake?
A dump cake, if you’ve never baked one, is more like a cobbler than a cake and it is made by dumping the ingredients directly into the baking pan rather than mixing them in a bowl first. Momma’s tattered recipe originates from an old Duncan Hines holiday baking flyer. Over the years Momma adapted and changed this recipe multiple times. By the end of her baking career, every cake she made was a riff on the original dump cake. She made pumpkin spice, caramel apple, black forest and lemon blueberry all into dump cakes.
As I shared in my first contribution to the Daily Bulldog, Momma was a very good cook and she loved to feed people, but she didn’t love the process of cooking like I do. For her it was never about savoring time in the kitchen or learning a new recipe, it was always about what she had at the end to put on the table. If what she prepared brought us together and nourished us, that was all she wanted or needed. I write this not to minimize her efforts or to say that one approach is better than another, but that there is room for both when we have the shared goal of encouraging a sense of trust, community, belonging and closeness. That is why the Dump Cake is the epitome of Momma’s way. Below is her original recipe for Cherry Pineapple Dump Cake and a few of the variations I found in her cookbook. I dare you to try one recipe and not savour every bite.
Cherry Pineapple Dump Cake
1 (21oz) can cherry pie filling
1 (20oz) can crushed pineapple in juice, undrained
1 (15.25oz) yellow cake mix
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a greased 13×9-inch cake pan, layer the cherry pie filling followed by the undrained pineapple. Sprinkle with the dry cake mix, followed by the coconut and finally the pecans. Drizzle the melted butter evenly over the top. Bake for 45-60 minutes or until golden brown.
Caramel Apple Dump Cake:
2 (20 oz) cans apple pie filling
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, optional
1 1/2 cups caramel squares, sliced in half
1 box yellow cake mix
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) melted butter
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 13×9 pan. In a medium sized bowl, mix together apple pie filling, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour into the casserole dish and smooth with a spatula. Arrange caramel squares on top of the apple filling layer and then top with yellow cake mix. Pour melted butter evenly on top of the cake mix. Bake for 45 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and the edges are bubbling.
Black Forest Dump Cake:
2 (20 oz.) cans cherry pie filling
1 (18.5 oz.) box Devil’s Food cake mix
3/4 cup butter, melted
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a grease 9×13 inch baking pan, dump the cherry pie filling and sprinkle the dry cake mix evenly over the cherry pie filling. Drizzle the melted butter over the cake mix and sprinkle with chocolate chips, if using. Bake for 1 hour .
Pumpkin Spice Dump Cake:
1 (15 oz) can pumpkin puree (NOT pumpkin pie mix)
1 (12 oz) can evaporated milk
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 box spice cake mix
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 350F degrees. Grease a 13×9 pan. In a medium bowl, combine pumpkin puree, evaporated milk, eggs, sugar and cinnamon until well-combined. It will be very liquid. Pour this pumpkin mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle dry cake mix on top of pumpkin mixture. Drizzle melted butter over the top and bake for about 55-60 minutes.
Ashley Montgomery is a native Southerner with a deep love for collard greens, hot buttered biscuits and sweet tea. She married a boy from Maine, works at UMF and calls Wilton her home. She loves cooking, feeding people, learning about other folk’s food traditions and will eventually stop being afraid of pressure cookers.