In the 1970s, housewives stabbed their cakes and filled the holes with Jell-O.
In the United States, the Jell-O brand is all about reinvention. Domestic goddesses of the 1940s welcomed iconic, wobbling mounds of gelatinous savory salads. The 1970s presidential scandal practically begged for the brand’s pudding-filled Watergate cake. That very same decade, the company wanted to make it known that Jell-O could fill any void. And the poke cake was born.
The idea was simple: First, create a hole. Then, fill it with Jell-O. No housewife could resist the promise of a slogan like, “More smiles than ever. Introducing moister, fruitier Rainbow Cake.” It offered a familiar and convenient approach, but elevated the finished product in color and (if you liked Jell-O) flavor, without the need for fancy techniques or real fruit. Just bake a cake from your usual boxed mix, then poke a bunch of holes in it with a fork. Pour warm liquid Jell-O over the top, and revel in the knowledge that the gelatin mix is imparting moist, fruity flavor in each and every hole. After it cools, cover the cake in fluffy Cool Whip (an ingredient sold by the same corporation).
When curious friends and family members sat down for cake, just imagine their delight upon discovering the surprise inside. Cutting into the mysterious swath of Cool Whip revealed a center punctuated by gooey drippings of neon Jell-O. Christmas called for layers of cherry and lime, while pale cake filled with strawberry gelatin was an all-occasion favorite (and a riff on strawberry shortcake that even the busiest of housewives could find time to make). Poke cake became just as much about sensational pops of color as anything else, and few treats allowed mothers so much creative license.
But women weren’t confined by fruit gelatin. Jell-O also introduced pudding-laden poke cakes. Home bakers across America could confidently “stripe it rich” by infusing any old sheet cake with instant vanilla, butterscotch, or chocolate pudding. This style skewed more closely to the sweets that likely inspired poke cakes—think butterscotch-soaked sticky toffee pudding and condensed milk–drenched tres leches. Both cakes called for hole-poking action long before the 1970s.
Even though Jell-O isn’t quite the potluck-table staple it once was, there are still plenty of home bakers poking holes in their cakes and filling them with sugary semi-liquids. At some point, the gooey substances morph the entire dessert into a casserole that has to be scooped out of the pan, which isn’t really much of a cake. But why poke holes? The work’s been done for you, just dig in.