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Exploring Poke Cake: A Brief History + 30 Recipes!

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

The Original Jell-O Poke Cake

The Original Jell-O Poke Cake

What Is a Poke Cake?

A poke cake is a cake that is baked in a single layer and then intentionally poked with holes. Those holes are then filled with something creamy or liquidy. That filling seeps into the entire cake, infusing it with flavorful moistness.

A Brief Story About the Poke Cake

Our story begins in the little town of Le Roy, New York, a center for the manufacture of household chemicals, notably mustard plaster (an old-time remedy for coughs and congestion) and rat poison. That changed in 1897 when a gentleman named Pearle Bixby Wait, a journeyman carpenter, and amateur cough syrup manufacturer, invented a gelatin dessert. His wife added flavorings (orange, lemon, and strawberry). Mr. Wait obtained a trademark for the name of his invention, “Jell-O.” But that was just the beginning.

Wait sold the recipe to the Genesee Pure Food Company and within three years Jell-O became “America’s Most Favorite Dessert.” In a clever bit of marketing, Genesee printed Jell-O cookbooks and distributed them free of charge. By the 1920s, Jell-O was a staple ingredient in just about every American household.

In the 1930s the new trend was aspic and vegetable salads with cabbage, celery, carrots, and green peppers suspended in orange or lime gelatin. In 1964 we were reminded “There’s always room for Jell-O,” but sales were beginning to lag. The food wizards in the Jell-O kitchens devised yet another way to use their product (and it was far better than cabbage and carrots in lime). The poke cake was born.

A new ad campaign was launched, and sales of the wiggly dessert soared once again. However, fads are just that—a whim of an idea that eventually fades away. Cooks in the 21st century have resurrected the poke cake, expanding the cake and filling flavor combinations. If you can imagine it, it’s probably a poke cake.

Here is a sampling—something for every taste!

Original Jell-O Poke Cake

Original Jell-O Poke Cake

The Original Jell-O Poke Cake

1. Our first recipe, the original Jell-O poke cake, is so easy and adaptable. Choose a light-hued cake (vanilla, white, yellow), and then pick your favorite flavor (or color) of gelatin. This recipe uses strawberries for a pretty pink cake presentation.

Fruit-Infused Poke Cakes

2. Banana Pudding: All the flavors of a traditional banana pudding in an easy-to-serve 9x13-inch cake pan.

3. Blueberry Cheesecake: Fluffy vanilla cake is filled with cheesecake pudding and a sweet blueberry sauce and topped with whipped cream frosting.

4. Caramel Apple: This cake is supremely moist and flavorful with apple pie filling stirred into the batter. Jamie uses yellow cake mix, but I suggest using spice cake for even more cinnamon and spice.

5. Cherry: Hands down, this is my husband's absolute favorite. He loves cake and he practically swoons over cherry pie. This recipe is the best of both worlds with cherry pie filling flavoring and topping moist vanilla cake.

6. Lemon Burst: Melissa, the author of this recipe, says that the "bright flavor of lemon is associated with spring and warmer weather. It's a natural progression of thought with fruits like lemons, limes, and oranges being intricate ingredients in many of the warmer weather sweet and savory foods we love."

7. Orange Creamsicle: Creamsicles are one of the best summertime treats from my childhood—sweet orange popsicles filled with vanilla ice cream. This cake has all of those same flavors; orange gelatin and orange juice provide a double boost of citrus flavor.

8. Peaches and Cream: Peaches and cream—what a winning flavor combination! I love all stone fruits and peaches are near the top of my faves list. If you don't have fresh peaches, you could easily substitute nectarines, pluots, or apricots in this recipe.

9. Pineapple Coconut: Perfect for a summertime barbecue, this cake is a taste of the tropics.

10. Strawberry Crunch: When I was a child, playing with friends in the neighborhood, we couldn't hear mom calling from next door, but we could hear "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" from a mile away. Those calliope notes were the happiest sound in the world—they meant that the ice cream truck was near. The best treat in that truck was, without a doubt the strawberry crunch bar. (A few of you might disagree, but you're wrong). This poke cake has all the flavor and crunch of those beloved ice cream treats.

11. White Chocolate Raspberry: I have no words. The photo of this cake really says it all. Drool-worthy!

Chocolate Poke Cakes

12. Boston Cream Pie: Boston cream pie is actually a cake (did you know that?) This version is so much easier than the original. Instead of filling and stacking layers, one layer is baked, filled with custard, and topped with chocolate ganache.

13. Death By Chocolate: This dessert is for serious chocolate lovers only—dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate pudding, oozy dark chocolate topping, and a layer of chocolate mousse. But wait, there's more. Break up a giant dark chocolate bar and sprinkle the shards on top.

14. German Chocolate: The one thing that sets German chocolate cake apart from all the rest is its signature coconut pecan frosting. It's rich and buttery, almost more candy than frosting. On this poke cake, the frosting blankets the top, giving you a taste of that yummy pecan-coconut confection with every bite.

15. Grasshopper: Here's a chocolate cake that tastes just like Girl Scout thin mints. A layer of moist chocolate cake is covered in hot fudge sauce mixed with thin mint crumbs, mint whipped topping, and Andes Mint chips.

16. Oreo Cookie: Milk's favorite cookie is made even better when it's crushed and folded into marshmallow fluff to fill and cover a dense chocolate cake.

17. Reese's Peanut Butter Cup: Here's the dessert for dedicated peanut butter cup fans (my absolute favorite candy!) Chocolate cake is slathered with peanut butter pudding, chocolate frosting, and peanut butter whipped topping, then sprinkled with Reese’s peanut butter cups.

Kahlua Poke Cake

Kahlua Poke Cake

Boozy Poke Cake

18. Kahlua Chocolate: This poke cake is boozy—Kahlua is baked in, soaked in, and even swirled in the frosting. It's rich and moist and oh, so good, but don't serve it to the kids.

19. Apple Pie: Homemade apple pie filling imparts fresh, tart, not-to-sweet flavor to this apple pie cake. Sweetened condensed milk makes it moist and rich.

20. Carrot Cake: Here's a different spin on the traditional carrot cake. This delicious, gooey cake is loaded with carrots, coconut, and pineapple. Then it's topped with a buttermilk glaze and cinnamon cream cheese frosting. This is the dessert for my Easter brunch.

21. Coconut Cream Pie: On my birthday I will bake this cake. It is moist with cream of coconut and sweetened condensed milk. It's liberally sprinkled with coconut flakes and garnished with bright red maraschino cherries. It tastes just like a coconut cream pie. I am the only person in my house who likes loves coconut cream pie. Happy Birthday to me!

22. Gingerbread: Gingerbread brings to mind baking Christmas cookies and all the wonderful spicy aromas of the kitchen during the holidays.

23. Key Lime Pie: Isn't this a pretty cake? I love the punchy tart flavor of Key limes and that flavor is front and center in the filling and garnish for this lovely summertime dessert.

24. Pumpkin Pie: Imagine all the flavors of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie in cake form.

25. Red Velvet Cake: Red velvet cake was a fad of the 1960s; it disappeared from the food scene for a while but has slowly made its way back into the dessert course. Look on the internet and you'll find an ample supply of red velvet everything (cookies, pancakes, waffles, truffles, brownies, churros, and even cinnamon rolls). This poke cake version is truer to the original concept.

26. Samoa: Are you in need of a Girl Scout cookie fix? This Samoa-inspired poke cake will satisfy your chocolate, caramel, and coconut cravings.

27. Tiramisu: Tiramisu (the name is an Italian word which loosely translated means “pick me up” or “cheer me up”) is a layered, coffee-flavored dessert, somewhat like an English trifle. It differs from the trifle in several ways—crisp ladyfingers stand in for the pound cake and custard is replaced with a fluffy mixture of whipped eggs, sugar, and mascarpone cheese.

My first taste of tiramisu was on a sunny summer afternoon in Venice. It's an amazing treat but sometimes it simply requires more time than I have available. This poke cake version tastes almost like the real thing, and with much less labor.

Inspired by Breakfast and Lunch

28. Cinnamon Roll: My husband loves cinnamon rolls, and I love to bake them for him (I'm talking about real baking, not popping open a can of dough from the grocery store refrigerator case). But, baking cinnamon rolls is an investment of time—a true labor of love. When I consider how much cream cheese frosting he slathers on top of those rolls, they cease to be a healthy breakfast dish. Let's face it—they become dessert. So, why not just bake a cinnamon roll poke cake? This one is loaded to the brim with cinnamon flavor and has that great cream cheese frosting Mr. Carb Diva loves so much.

29. Peanut Butter and Jelly: Your favorite lunchtime sandwich is now a cake.

Chili Cheese Cornbread Poke Cake

Chili Cheese Cornbread Poke Cake

Savory Poke Cake

30. Chili Cheese Corn Bread: Here's a poke cake for dinner. Sweet and moist cornbread is "poked" and those spaces are filled with a savory chili meat mixture you can whip up in 15 minutes while the cornbread bakes. Top with cheese, garnish with sour cream and you have a great meal in a dish.

© 2021 Linda Lum