Poke cakes go back to the ancient days of the 1970s, the heyday of boxed cake mixes, Jell-O, and Cool Whip. Colorful and easy to make, poke cakes are the white patent leather go-go boots of the bakery case — kitschy and dated, but still a heck of a lot of fun.
Poke cakes were originally created to increase sluggish sales for Jell-O gelatin. Magazines like Redbook and Ladies Home Journal were peppered with full-page advertisements introducing the recipe for the clever, new "Jell-O Gelatin Poke Cake." Perfect for the busy housewife, poke cakes became potluck and pool party staples. Transforming a simple white sheet cake into a classic Jell-O poke cake couldn't be easier. A fork, chopstick, or the handle of a wooden spoon is used to poke deep holes all over the top of the cake, and for added fun and flavor, a colorful Jell-O syrup (strawberry was the early favorite) is poured over the top, trickling into the cake like brightly colored streamers. Refrigerated until set, the cake is served cold and slathered in Cool Whip.
Cheerful, tasty, and easy to make, poke cakes boomed in popularity, moving beyond the simple sheet cake to multicolored layer cakes streaked with bright strawberry red and lime green Jell-O for Christmas, or raspberry and blueberry to celebrate the 4th of July. Ever innovative, Jell-O introduced "stripe it rich" poke cakes using vanilla, butterscotch, and chocolate puddings instead of gelatin to pour over yellow and chocolate sheet cakes.
Cheerful, tasty, and easy to make, poke cakes boomed in popularity, moving beyond the simple sheet cake
to multicolored layer cakes streaked with bright strawberry red and lime green Jell-O for Christmas, or raspberry and blueberry to celebrate the
4th of July.
Although it seems like poke cakes are a phenomenon born in corporate American test kitchens, drenching cake in flavorful liquids is not a new, or entirely American, tradition. England's sticky toffee pudding? It's a poke cake. While still warm from the oven, a fluffy, single-layer date cake is poked all over with a fork or skewer, and drenched in sticky butterscotch sauce. Génoise, the classic French sponge cake, is almost always soaked in sugar syrups spiked with liqueur, not just for flavor, but to keep the cake fresh and prevent it from drying out. Pastel de tres leches, or "three-milks cake," is a beloved Latin American classic. Made from sponge cake soaked in a milky syrup combining evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream, it is probably the world's favorite and most famous poke cake.
Creative bakers these days are raising the bar on poke cakes, and they're not relying on Jell-O and boxed cake mixes anymore. The best modern poke cakes start with a homemade cake. Vanilla, banana, chocolate, and lemon cakes are being poked and drizzled with a variety of flavorful toppings from jam-spiked fruit purées and homemade custards to cream of coconut and caramel sauce to trickle sweetly into all the nooks and crannies. Poke cake provocateurs are turning to popular cocktails, ice cream sundaes, and campfire favorites for inspiration, and creating mojito and piña colada poke cakes, banana split poke cake, and, my favorite, the s'more poke cake that combines chocolate cake, chocolate-toasted marshmallow pudding, and lots of whipped cream and a graham cracker crumble.
Poke cakes don't take themselves too seriously, so feel free to get extravagant or go a little crazy with your flavor combinations — even if you feel like hopping on the latest trend and inventing a unicorn poke cake, complete with a rainbow Jell-O dyed cake, sparkling pink whipped cream, and a glittery cotton candy garnish. Poke cakes can handle the fun.