Make this for your last minute Easter dessert

Let me first apologize for the lack of good photos here. I didn’t intend to write about this one.

You know, the “oh, shit!” dessert that pops up when you thought you would be spending the day at home but now you’re spontaneously going to the BBQ you vowed to skip when you got the invite three weeks ago? No? That’s just me? Well, anyway. If not today, at some point this summer, you’re bound to need a quick dessert for something. Everybody seems to want to be outside and social in the summer time.

Everybody clearly does not live in Florida.

We can probably agree that having a homemade dessert beats grabbing boxed cookies, even if they are from The Fresh Market or Whole Foods.

True story: I once spent an entire semester angry with a graduate class I was in. For some reason, someone thought it was a good idea to try to “outcook” one another every week (I did not go to cooking school). Students were dragging crock pots and casserole dishes into a seminar room and parading their “skills” far more than they were parading evidence they’d read that week’s articles. The food was, at its best, bland or overly salty and, at its worst, overcooked and/or covered in cheese and/or ranch and/or topped with potato chips and/or bread. Vegetables rarely made an appearance at all, and if they did, they were either canned or disguised. It was a struggle. Man, oh, man, it was a struggle.

The worst part was, you were included in the cooking rotation whether you wanted to be or not. I did not want to be, often abstaining from eating the food in hopes it would get me out of cooking (and because, well, ew). Nope. Publicly avoiding participation in the eating of this “stuff” did not get me out of cooking. One night, the ringleader of this sheer lunacy nominated me to make dessert for the following week’s class.

Too busy studying to care about baking freakin’ cookies or a damned cake, I focused instead on the three papers I had due that week and vowed to forego the stupid dessert altogether. No one needed that much sugar on top of the copious amounts of dairy and carbohydrates sure to be circling the table.

A nagging sense of guilt began to creep into my writing. What would it hurt to stop for a bit and whip up a boxed cake? How hard are sugar cookies to throw together? It turned out that sense of guilt was actually my brain seeking respite from the depths of first amendment theory and the ontology of constructivism. See?

I pushed it down and continued to write, proud of myself for finishing all the readings (this was before I learned the art of reading only what I absolutely had to read to seem informed. Shame on me), completing the papers in enough time to tidy them, and having a little time to spare before I had to leave.

Up crept the guilt once again. I gave in. Fine, you bunch of showoffs! If you can’t compete academically, you can continue to compete culinarily (oh, yeah, that’s a real word). Besides, if you want to keep feeding me two nights a week, I will ultimately not say no. I just won’t spend the same amount of time or money to return the favor. I, unlike you space aliens, do not have either. 

Instead of cooking or baking anything, though, I hit up the ol’ Fresh Market on the way, grabbed an overpriced box of enormous black and white cookies, stopped by the kitchen at school to grab a knife, marched into class, tossed them on the table, and declared, “Cut ’em in half if there aren’t enough.”

Oh, the stink eye I received! I cared not. I still care not. However, I do keep this cake on standby for the times when I actually don’t want to look like a total dick.

What you need:

  • Boxed yellow cake (dealer’s choice on brand. I recommend Jiffy Golden Yellow Cake Mix, but if you go this route, you will need two boxes. Second choice: King Arthur Flour Golden Vanilla Cake Mix. King Arthur also offers a gluten free option)
  • Whatever ingredients the boxed cake calls for (some call for 3 eggs, others for 4. Some need oil, some water. Follow the box. I DO substitute unsweetened applesauce for the oil, but that, too, is a choice)
  • 1 11 oz. can mandarin oranges (do not drain)
  • 1 20 oz. can crushed pineapple
  • 1 8-serving box of instant vanilla pudding
  • 1 16 oz. container of Cool Whip (yes, you may use fat free if you so desire)
  • Some walnuts (the amount is negotiable)
  • Two 9 in. round cake pans (grease, flour, and/or oil according to the cake directions)


  1. Follow the instructions on the cake mix for preheating, greasing the pans, and mixing the batter (add the mandarin orange juice as described in step 2).
  2. Reserve 1/3 cup of the juice from the mandarin oranges. If your cake mix calls for water, replace 1/3 cup of the water with the juice. If it does not call for water, just add the juice to the cake mix.
  3. Add mandarin oranges to the cake batter. Mix until the oranges are broken up.
  4. Add 1/2 cup walnuts. Mix thoroughly.
  5. Pour batter into the two prepared cake pans.
  6. Bake for the cook time indicated on the box plus a couple minutes. That sounds confusing, yes, but it’s a matter of feel here. This cake is going to be very moist, and with the extra liquid, it may take a couple minutes longer to bake. Use the dry toothpick method as you would with any other cake recipe.*
  7. Let the cakes cool completely before making the topping and icing the cakes. DO NOT mix the topping until you’re ready to use it.
  8. Once the cakes have cooled, it’s time for the best part!
  9. Drain the pineapples.
  10. Add vanilla pudding mix and pineapples to the Cool Whip. Mix thoroughly. The mixture will feel grainy as you stir, but it should smooth out. Stir until it actually is smooth.
  11. Place one cake on a cake tray. Add some of the topping to the center of the cake and smooth out. Do not smooth down the sides of the cake yet. It’s okay to make this layer pretty thick because it makes the cake higher.
  12. Sprinkle a light layer of walnuts on top of the topping of this layer if you want (this is optional).
  13. Add the second layer carefully on top of the first.
  14. Spoon more topping onto the center of the top layer. Smooth out and down over the sides of the cake. Basically, you’re icing a cake with Cool Whip pudding.
  15. You can leave it as is, or you can decorate it. I sprinkled some walnuts around the outer rim, dropped a dollop of the topping in the center, added a maraschino cherry, and sprinkled the dollop with walnuts. It also looks nice with a couple of the orange slices on top or a pineapple slice. Use your imagination.

This looks like a lot of steps, but they’re very easy. I promise this is a quick one. It’s delicious and different. It’s usually a hit. The only catch is that it needs to stay pretty cool, so if you’re headed to an outdoor shindig (and it’s 100 degrees in the shade), prepare accordingly.

By the way, that grad class dared ask me to bring food again, this time nominating me and two of my friends to bring actual dinner items. Boy, you should have seen the looks on their faces when we tossed three $5 carryouts from Hungry Howie’s and a stack of paper plates on the table!

What’s your go to dish to take to a gathering? Talk to me in the comments.

*To test whether a cake is done, stick a toothpick in the center. If it comes out dry, it’s done. If it comes out covered in batter, keep baking.