Before There Was Dump Cake, There Was “Do Nothing” Cake — The Ultimate Cake for Lazy Bakers

updated Sep 8, 2020
Do-Nothing Cake

Do-Nothing Cake often starts with boxed cake mix, but our homemade version is just as easy and tastes so buttery and sweet.

Serves15 to 20

Makes1 (9x13-inch) cake

Prep20 minutes to 30 minutes

Cook40 minutes to 45 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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Credit: Shelly Westerhausen/Kitchn

The dog days of summer, when one can barely stand to glance at a stove, are finally starting to end. Soon we’ll be enjoying a literal breath of fresh air as we step onto a chilly fall kitchen floor and fire up the oven.

But before diving into the more complicated holiday recipes of High Baking Season, I like to get primed with some quick, one-bowl recipes. 

That doesn’t mean I fall back on boxed mixes or processed shortcuts. Why bother when there are plenty of recipes from the pre-boxed era designed to solve this exact problem? One in particular is so simple it sells itself with its name: Do-Nothing Cake.

The Original Dump Cake (and Poke Cake, Too)

In short, Do-Nothing Cake is a low-tech, dump-and-stir combination of pantry staples, canned pineapple, and a hybrid icing/soaking glaze packed with a mound of chopped nuts and shredded coconut. It’s also technically a poke cake, and, come to think of it, you might actually consider it the original “dump cake.”

Adding to its intrigue is that this same cake is called by many names depending on the region — Arkansas Doodle Cake, Cajun Cake, Granny Cake, Ugly Duckling Cake (when made with cake mix), and Texas Tornado Cake (using canned fruit cocktail instead of pineapple), just to name a few. But regardless of the name, the vibe is the same: There’s a church-basement-potluck level of satisfaction that comes together with less effort than it takes to grab a paper plate and sink into a folding chair. 

Although this recipe can be found in community cookbooks and Pinterest boards galore — and some of its names assume Southern ties — trying to uncover the origins of Do-Nothing Cake had me coming up — ahem — fruitless time and time again.

Speaking of which, even though Do-Nothing Cake is loaded with pineapple, many versions of the cake taste, oddly, of not much at all. (I will say that pineapple, as the sole source of moisture in lieu of oil or butter, does give the cake a bouncy sponge that many low-fat products of the 1990s had. My nostalgic SnackWell’s-loving heart is grateful.) 

Credit: Shelly Westerhausen/Kitchn

A Do-Nothing Cake That Tastes Like You Did Something

In thinking about how to play up the pineapple flavor, I turned to one of my favorite baking spices: Chinese five-spice powder. It’s great in fruit-forward desserts that need a little extra something. Five-spice powder contains a handful of flavors that individually pair well with pineapple (think: cinnamon, cloves, and star anise), so adding a few pinches to the cake batter allows the pineapple to sing, and adds dimension to a dish that often reads as layers upon layers of sweetness. 

The nature of the rather lean cake makes the job of a silky glaze topping all the more heroic. It not only forms an icing atop the cake once it sets, but also adds a buttery richness to a cake that would otherwise lack any fat. Packing this topping with chewy shredded coconut and crunchy pecans (toast them first for yet another flavor boost!) makes for a dessert that’s just as crave-worthy in texture as it is in taste. Using evaporated milk, as original recipes call for (as opposed to swapping with half-and-half or cream), does indeed add a distinctly delicious milky note to the topping, so here we should do what we’re told. But a handful of brown sugar brings that canned milk closer to the creamy, dreamy flavor of sweetened condensed, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

With a few easy twists, this simple, quirky recipe not only becomes a bridging cake between summertime confections and the dense spice cakes of late fall and winter, but also allows for a do-nothing recipe that tastes like you actually did something. 

Do-Nothing Cake

Do-Nothing Cake often starts with boxed cake mix, but our homemade version is just as easy and tastes so buttery and sweet.

Prep time 20 minutes to 30 minutes

Cook time 40 minutes to 45 minutes

Makes 1 (9x13-inch) cake

Serves 15 to 20

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the cake:

  • Cooking spray

  • 2 cups

    bleached all-purpose flour (see Recipe Notes)

  • 2 cups

    granulated sugar

  • 1 teaspoon

    baking soda

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    Chinese five-spice powder

  • 3/4 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 (20-ounce) can

    crushed pineapple (packed in fruit juice)

  • 2

    large eggs

  • 1 tablespoon

    vanilla extract

For the topping:

  • 1 cup

    chopped pecans

  • 8 tablespoons

    (1 stick) unsalted butter

  • 3/4 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 1/4 cup

    packed light brown sugar

  • 2/3 cup

    evaporated milk

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon

    vanilla extract

  • 1 cup

    lightly packed sweetened shredded coconut

Instructions

  1. Arrange 2 racks to divide the oven into thirds and heat the oven to 350°F. Coat a 9x13-inch baking pan (we prefer a light-colored metal baking pan for this cake) with cooking spray.

  2. Make the cake: Place 2 cups bleached flour, 2 cups granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder, and 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt in a large bowl and whisk until lump-free. Add the can of crushed pineapple, 2 large eggs, and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract. Whisk to blend well. Scrape into the prepared pan. Bake on the upper rack until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.

  3. While the cake is baking, place 1 cup chopped pecans on a rimmed baking sheet. During the last 10 minutes of baking time, toast the pecans on the rack below the cake, which will take 5 to 7 minutes. You may need to open the oven quickly a time or two to shake the pan to keep the pecans from burning.

  4. When the cake is done and the nuts toasted, remove both pans from the oven. Set the cake on a wire rack while you make the topping.

  5. Make the topping: Cut 1 stick butter into a few pieces. Place in a medium saucepan and melt over medium-high heat. Add 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar, 2/3 cup evaporated milk, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Stir and bring to a full boil, all the way to the center of the pot. Continue to boil for 3 minutes more, until slightly thickened.

  6. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Stir in about three-quarters of the toasted pecans and 1 cup lightly packed sweetened shredded coconut.

  7. Using a wooden skewer or the handle of a wooden spoon, poke holes all over the surface of the cake that go most of the way through the cake (but don't hit the bottom) and are about 1 inch apart (the skewer may get a bit sticky with moist cake crumbs — just wipe it off as needed). Spread the hot topping over the hot cake and smooth gently. Sprinkle over the remaining pecans. Let cool and set completely before slicing and serving, at least 2 hours.

Recipe Notes

Flour and coconut: Bleached all-purpose will give you a lighter, finer crumb here than unbleached, but unbleached can still be used with great results. Unsweetened shredded coconut can also be used in place of sweetened.

Storage: Store any leftovers tightly covered at room temperature for up to 3 days.