The Store-Bought Secret Behind My Grandma’s Lemon Cake

Six decades later, this baking trick is as good as ever.

June 23, 2023
Photo by Julia Gartland

I find it very difficult for any homemade cake to surpass the quality one gets with a boxed mix. I don’t know if it’s the perfectly spongy texture, the just-artificial-enough flavor of vanilla or chocolate, or the ease with which it comes together—boxed mix just tastes better. It’s so close to perfection that, in my mind, there’s only one way it can be improved: Jell-O.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about a Jell-O poke cake, where the gelatin mixture is poured over the cake after it’s baked, seeping into the crumb in a tie-dye-like gradient, nor am I referring to a Jell-O pudding cake, where a packet of instant pudding is added to the batter—though it does share similarities with both. This cake, one my grandma has made approximately “100 times” since discovering the recipe approximately six decades ago, adds a packet of powdered lemon gelatin (Jell-O brand, of course) to the cake mix, along with ¾ cup neutral oil, ¾ cup water, and 4 eggs. After baking in a 9x13-inch pan, the entire surface of the warm cake is poked with a fork, and a quick glaze—made with freshly squeezed lemon juice and confectioners’ sugar—is poured on top and absorbed into the holes. The finished product is vibrantly yellow and the moistest, lemoniest, cake-iest cake I’ve ever tasted.

The idea of “hacking” cake mix is nothing new. A quick Google search yields tons of articles and guides for improving cake mix, whether by adding an egg, swapping the requisite water for milk, or including additions like vanilla extract or lemon zest. Our own contributor Ella Quittner covered this very topic in a recent edition of her column, Absolute Best Tests, which had her adding everything from melted chocolate and whipped egg whites to standard boxes of cake mix. But as I began to investigate my grandma’s lemon cake recipe, the trick increasingly felt like a relic of a past era, documented only in sporadic blog posts and the occasional Reddit thread.

Like many “secret family recipes,” this one seems to have roots in advertising. My grandma, Nancy, and my grandpa, Bill, were living in Sacramento in the early 1960s (either ‘62 or ‘63, she says) when she discovered the cake through a friend. However, she couldn’t remember precisely where the recipe came from; perhaps it was in a Wesson Oil cookbook (since the cake relies on ¾ cup of oil), or part of an ad for Jell-O or a specific brand of cake mix. She took a peek at her cookbooks from the era and found the recipe in a 1967 cookbook called America Cooks, published by the American Federation of Women’s Clubs, but she’s almost certain she’d gotten ahold of the recipe before then.

Photo by Jell-o Gallery

I consulted the Jell-O Gallery in LeRoy, New York to see if they could track down its precise origins. According to them, the first mention of a similar recipe was in a 1962 Jell-O cookbook titled The Joys of Jell-O. The book features a recipe for “Pastel Pound Cake,” in which white or yellow cake mix is combined with any flavor of Jell-O gelatin powder, ¾ cup water, ½ cup “salad oil,” and 4 eggs. Underneath, a variation for “Lemon-Glazed Cake” specifies punching holes in the cake with a toothpick and adding a glaze, made from ⅓ cup lemon juice, 2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons melted butter, and 1 tablespoon water.

Photo by Jell-O Gallery

There are a few key differences between this version and my grandma’s, namely the quantity of oil in the batter and the omission of butter and water in favor of more lemon juice in the glaze. She also always uses yellow cake mix, and though the brand can vary, she specifically seeks out “ones that say ‘moist’ on the package.” Instead of a toothpick, she points out that she pokes the holes in the cake with a fork.

Ultimately, though, the beauty of this cake is that it is very forgiving. The abundant glaze can easily salvage tough, overbaked cakes, and the process itself doesn’t ever get more complicated than whisking together ingredients in a bowl. It’s easy and fast enough to make as part of a larger meal but delicious enough to be worthy of family dinners, birthdays, and other celebrations. And, because it stays so moist—it’s just as good on the third, fourth, even fifth day—it’s a perfect make-ahead dessert.

We’ve never strayed from the lemon Jell-O + yellow cake mix + lemon glaze formula, but I imagine that there’s room for experimentation, too. Maybe take inspiration from the original Pastel Pound Cake recipe, and try lime Jell-O and freshly squeezed lime juice in the glaze. Or, go the orange route, as this blogger does. Be sure to let me know how it turns out—in the meantime, though, I’ll be sticking with lemon.

Have you tried this type of Jell-O cake? Tell us about it in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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SJhapamama July 19, 2023
"The Joys of Jell-O"--that's a blast from the past! My mother had a copy. I experimented with parfaits, which were popular at the time (we had Tupperware parfait glasses). Thanks for sharing your recipe.
Jane E. July 15, 2023
I first had this cake in ‘60s San Francisco. Yes. Better than Funyuns when you’re under the influence. It was made with red jello and lemon cake and turned a beautiful flamingo pink! Powdered sugar on top, no glaze. (Mrs. Jimmy Carter added fresh strawberries to her version.) I am an excellent scratch baker, but every so often I make one of these for my adult children and they shriek with joy at their childhood treat’s revival.
Kathy S. July 14, 2023
When I read this article, I had to dig out my old recipe box. I found my old handwritten recipe that is identical to the grandmother's one in the article. I'm pretty sure that I acquired it in the early/mid 60s when I was in high school. I grew up in Southern California. It was a favorite for church and office potlucks. I don't remember where I got it. I think it may have been printed on the box of lemon jello at that time.
Msglasky June 26, 2023
I have been making this cake for more than 40 years but always use a white cake mix and have never poked the holes. I also make this in a bundt pan and just pour the glaze over. The recipe came from one of college roommate's mother. It is fantastic. Next time I am going to poke holes!
Julie June 26, 2023
We made a similar cake when I was a child, named for someone's Aunt Genta, since it was called "Aunt Genta's Lemon Cake." We used Duncan Hines Lemon Supreme cake mix with lemon jello AND a lot of grated lemon zest and juice in the cake itself. We usually iced it with a lemon icing as well. Probably all the work we did on it defeated the purpose of using the boxed mix in the first place.

It's not a cake I make these days, since I can no longer abide the flavor of boxed mixes. I can always tell, and the artificial flavorings just skeeve me. I find it more rewarding to make scratch cakes, honestly.
Carol June 24, 2023
This was my mom’s go-to cake for years. She also lived in Sacramento during the same time period as your grandma. It makes me wonder if the recipe appeared in the Sacramento Bee. Thanks for reminding me of this memory.
Alyce June 23, 2023
Hooray! I found this recipe in an old cookbook which was compiled by the Wisconsin Northwoods Chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) in 1975. The members shared their favorite recipes and the publication raised funds for their chapter. It would be fun to know where the person who shared this recipe got it originally. It calls for one cup of confectioner’s sugar and (like the original, I’m sure) mentions using a toothpick to make the holes for the glaze. I like your Grandma’s idea of using a fork instead. Thanks for sharing your fond memories of this recipe. I look forward to making it soon for my family.
Steven W. June 23, 2023
I never heard this but remember one that called for a powdered lemonade-type drink mix. Same Idea, I guess!