Cake Puzzles

Nestled in the back of my mother’s recipe box I found instructions for several FUN-TO-MAKE CUT-UP CAKEs or, as I like to call them, cake puzzles. Printed on thick cardboard, and obviously torn from a box, these gems describe the steps for creating ducks, dogs, and butterflies using regular cake pans. These strips are all I have left, but I remember booklets she used to create other shapes as well.


I love that you can do something themed and fun without buying extra equipment. And there are plenty of events coming up this month that could use a cute cake – the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and a couple of family birthdays. Why not go retro with cake puzzles?

The key to making this work will be a gluten-free cake that will hold together well and taste yummy. Our family has a combination of people who can and can’t tolerate gluten. I don’t feel a need to make two cakes as long as the gluten-free one is delicious with pleasing texture. For this task, I’ll opt for a white or chocolate cake because they’re tried and true and hold together well.

With that said, I’ve never tried a cut-up cake using any of my go-to cake recipes. It would be good form to bake a test cake prior to an event. It would also be unlike me, so I will probably wing it and consider what I serve the guests a test. That leaves lots of room for embarrassment, but it saves me time and ingredients.

I need to choose a shape. I can keep a Super Bowl cake simple by drawing a football field on a sheet cake from which I have removed and stacked strips to form bleachers. Another option is to remove a strip from the center of a round cake to create a football. For Valentine’s Day, I could use a square pan and round pan to create heart, but I could also make Cupid’s arrow, a car, or a dog (anything your valentine loves is appropriate). One of the birthdays demands a dinosaur. I’ll have to figure that one out.

For many shapes, you’ll be able to find an existing schematic – Mom’s strips have instructions for making a dog. Other shapes may require an internet search or a model to copy. If you only have a rectangular pan, look for patterns that use rectangles. If you only have round pans, use a pattern that begins with circles.

Create or place your pattern. Sketch or lay out the shapes you need in a space the size of your cake pans. Once you’ve puzzled the best way to make the pieces fit, print the pattern on paper, place the paper on foam board, and cut out the foam board shapes. Put the shapes on top of the cake and cut around them.

If you’re a decent freehand artist, you don’t even have to go to that trouble. Transfer your puzzle directly to the top of the cake by scoring each shape into it gently with the tip of a knife. Another option is to draw the shapes on the cake thin lines of frosting and cut along those lines.

Some directions for cut cakes may suggest layering. With gluten-free cakes, it’s probably better to bake the cake in thin layers rather than slicing layers in half. This may require more pans or more time so that pans can be used twice, but will help the cake hold together.

Most retro cut cakes keep it simple, but if you’re looking to construct something tall, you may need support pieces in the form of cake boards, foam core, or plastic sheets. You may also need straws to stabilize vertical builds. Make sure any surface that touches the cake is made of food-safe material.

Before construction begins, choose a base to hold your cake. It can be your serving pan, a cake board, a foil wrapped piece of cardboard, or a plate. Whatever it is, the cake will need to stay on it. Transferring risks destroying all of your hard work.

As you build, you may want to use frosting to hold layers together or disguise an accidental oops. You’ll also need frosting for decoration. Either store-bought or homemade is fine. Making your own frosting and tinting it with food color as needed will be the most economical route to take. It will also give you the most flexibility to alter your design as needed.

For perfectly smooth surfaces, you can purchase fondant. My cakes won’t require this effect, so I’ll stick with buttercream. Other decorative effects can be made using combinations of candy, marshmallows, coconut, cookie crumbs, colored sugar, sprinkles, and piped frosting. Premade cake decorations are available as well. Don’t worry too much about things looking perfect. Just have fun with your design.

Get the kids involved! Cut-up cakes are a visual geometry lesson. In my kitchen, they’ll most likely be an exercise in problem solving as well. I just keep in mind that the best food often comes from near disasters and keep moving forward.

I’m looking forward to solving some cake puzzles this month. I plan to go crazy with color and texture on top. I’m not too concerned about the visual results. The appeal for me is the puzzle solving and the chance to play with my food!

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!


Salad or Dessert?

I ran across a salad that begs the question – salad or dessert? I was researching regionally favored dishes when I noticed a mention of Snickers Salad. SNICKERS® like the candy bar, I wondered. So, I looked it up. And yes, it is Snickers like the candy bar.

Snickers salad is popular in the US Upper Midwest. It’s made by combining chopped up Snickers bars with chopped Granny Smith apples, whipped cream, and pudding. Some people drizzle it a little caramel sauce. And while it fits one dictionary definition of salad – any mixture or assortment – this is definitely dessert.

granny smith apples

Snickers salad reminds me of a salad my family served made by combining Cool Whip, cottage cheese, uncooked strawberry Jell-O®, and canned pineapple. You can include mini marshmallows and I think someone dared to add coconut once. I didn’t understand why we called that salad either, but I consumed it.

Both of these dessert salads get 5 stars when you search online recipes. And it looks like some families have fancy names and use fresh fruit in their Cool Whip/Jello salad. We were never that sophisticated.

Now I’m learning there’s a similar salad in the Midwest called Watergate salad. This version is made with pistachio pudding, canned pineapple, Cool Whip, marshmallows, and crushed pecans. Pistachio and crushed pecans are a bit highbrow for my family so no surprise I haven’t heard of this one. Apparently, the recipe was published by General Foods, I’m guessing around 1972.

I guess the molded Jello salads of 1960s popularity set the stage for more decadent salads to follow. And thank goodness, because I’ve never met a Jello salad I liked. You may be able to coat fruit cocktail in bright red Jell-O and make it more pleasing to the eye, but you can’t make the texture or flavor appeal to me.

A discussion of dessert salads has to include ambrosia. This occasionally made the table at family gatherings. Popular here in the South, it contains mandarin oranges, pineapple, marshmallows, coconut, and chopped pecans. My grandmother liked to add apples. Seems like there may have been maraschino cherries in it as well although I don’t think they were always included. All of this was tossed with a combination of sour cream and Cool Whip.

One of the best things about dessert salads is how quick and easy they are to make. Sometimes there’s a little chopping, but mostly there’s dumping, mixing, and serving. And as desserts go, at least some of them contain nuts, fresh fruit, and cottage cheese or sour cream.

I’ve been known to eat in a nontraditional order. That means I can eat one of these salads at any point in a meal and feel just fine about it.

There are enough of these mixtures, we should probably create a food category specifically called Dessert Salads. But until we do, you just have to go by the ingredients to know whether the course they belong in is salad or dessert.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Space Food

Space Food – fit for man on the moon. Today’s scrapped launch of the Artemis I moon rocket reminds me of the food I ate as a child courtesy of the space program. And since a trip to the moon now that I have grandchildren feels like a throwback, why not take a trip down memory lane?

Once space flights began to last past a few minutes, it was necessary to address food for astronauts. In the beginning, there were packets of things like mushroom soup, orange-grapefruit juice, chicken with gravy, beef and vegetables, pears, strawberries, and a cocoa beverage in the form of semi-liquid inside tubes. The other option was bite-sized cubes of compressed, dehydrated food that needed only saliva for rehydration.

As time went on, the selection became wider and more tasty. Freeze-drying was used to preserve food while preserving the flavor. The freeze-dried food needed water to be rehydrated and was still primarily squeezed out of tubes.

For the Apollo program, advances made it possible for astronauts to eat with utensils and enjoy tuna salad, chocolate pudding, and cornflakes. I really hope they were crunchy. But keep in mind, there was no refrigeration so even if they had crunchy cornflakes, there was no ice cold milk to go with it. Not to mention, if you tried to pour milk over the cereal, you’d end up with a floating trail of milk – a visual I find amusing.

As these progressions were made, some ideas were incorporated into the Earth food market. The two I remember best are Tang and Space Food Sticks. I ate my share of Space Food Sticks as a kid. Caramel was my favorite flavor.

Unlike banana Fudgsicles®, I don’t specifically remember the taste, but I’m pretty sure I would recognize the texture. The appeal of this snack was two-fold. One, astronauts ate them! Duh! And two, they could stay in the pantry for a long time so they were always handy.

Oh who am I kidding. We didn’t have a pantry. We had a kitchen cabinet with Alka-Seltzer® on the top shelf, Premium saltine and Ritz crackers one shelf down, and Space Sticks and uniced strawberry Toast’em® pop-ups below. Sunday dinner was oven-fried chicken breaded with cornflakes baked on the oven timer while we went to church. It was served with reconstituted powdered milk poured from a wide-mouth gallon pickle jar. But the vegetables were most likely fresh and from the garden.

Now, back to Tang. I don’t know anyone my age who didn’t drink Tang. It was universal. My grandmother even mixed it with mayonnaise to make salad dressing for carrot raisin salad.

Tang wasn’t actually developed for the space program but became inextricably linked with NASA when it was consumed on early manned space missions. Sales increased dramatically when John Glenn sipped an orange beverage out of a pouch during a Mercury mission. To capitalize on this sales boost, a series of Tang commercials in the1960s featured space explorers and related taglines culminating in the 1969 “For Spacemen and Earth Families” ad campaign.

General Mills used this association to its advantage and found long-term success with expanded flavors and popularity around the world. While sales have diminished in the US, Tang is still readily available.

Given the supply chain disruptions of late, shelf stable foods look more and more appealing. Perhaps GM can capitalize on this new round of space missions to orchestrate a resurgence of sales in the US. I’m sure there are numerous people my age who would enjoy having a glass of Tang with a grandchild while watching a rocket launch.

You won’t be able to eat a Space Food Stick along with your Tang though. Sales floundered as enthusiasm for the space program waned. Production finally ceased in 2014 although the snack was brought back for a brief appearance on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

Personally, I’m ready for NASA programs to feel like they’re moving forward rather than backward. But if we’re stuck in the way-back machine could somebody please get me a banana Fudgsicle?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Good For Your Heart

If you’re looking for a hot date on Valentine’s Day, why not choose one that’s good for your heart? And no, I don’t mean Paul Rudd or Idris Elba. I mean red hot chili peppers (not the band)!

In a study published in the Journal of The American College of Cardiology in 2019, Italian scientists observed that people who eat hot peppers 4 or more times per week were 40 percent less likely to die from heart attack and 60 percent less likely to die from cerebrovascular disease compared to those who do not consume chili peppers regularly.

The study was based on data from over 22,000 subjects and the results held true whether the rest of the diet was healthy or not. Health status was tracked over a period of 8 years.

Another study with about the same number of subjects demonstrated a reduced risk of death in those who eat spicy foods six to seven days per week. This Chinese study was published in the BMJ in 2015 showing a 14% relative risk reduction in death. The study spanned seven years.

As with most dietary observations, it’s hard to draw a hard fast line between the specific properties of chili peppers and their positive effects. Is the microbiota of each person’s gut the key? Is it the antioxidant effect of capsaicin that does the trick? Is it the antiobesity effect of capsaicin? Does vitamin D have an effect in individuals with hypertension? All of these may be a piece of the puzzle. And we may never put the puzzle together perfectly.

While that may mean we don’t have enough information to formulate a soup that perfectly protects the heart, we can rely on the take away that chili peppers have a positive effect even when the rest of the diet is less than ideal. That gives us the opportunity to up our spice game on a regular basis.

There’s no better day to get started than today! Add some cayenne to your chocolate covered strawberries, throw some spiced pecans in your brownies, or serve black cherry blooms for happy hour. It’s easy to keep it festive and make it healthy on Valentine’s Day!

To that I say, “Bring on the heat!” Your heart with thank you for it.