There’s a certain sense of nostalgia aroused in my taste buds involving Jello and dips and chips when I recall summer picnics and pool parties that my parents hosted for our friends and family when my brother and I were young. It is perhaps, for this reason, I feel the need to create some memorable and magical food items for my kids during their childhood.
I grew up in the 80s and easy-prep convenience foods were typically the stars of the meal, although my mother, bonded to her Italian heritage, always included homemade items in her spread. I fondly remember all the home-cooked meals I grew up with, however, summer party food was definitely excused from being nourishing in the sense of the word wholesome. It did, however, forever nourish our young bellies with comforting memories to carry into our adulthood. Cheesy seven-layer Mexican dip, shrimp-laced creamy pasta salad dotted with hard-boiled eggs, hot dogs, super sweet baked beans, soda and potato chips with onion dip. I don’t remember much green being present, except the celery and Spanish olives that made their way into the pasta salad. We grazed for a long time and then waited in anticipation for dessert.
On the subject of dessert, let’s discuss one of my favorites as a child: Rainbow Jello, the quintessential summer dessert of my childhood, next to ice cream.
Its appearance in the pan didn’t look inviting or special. If anything, it appeared bland and curious from above, but I knew what hid beneath the top flat layer of color. We’d spent hours in the kitchen together the day before, my mother and I, painstakingly adding layer upon layer, letting them set carefully so the colors didn’t blend. She would slice into the pan and extract the very first piece, topping the beautiful gelatin-cake, resembling stained glass, with whipped cream. It was like layers of jewels, wobbling and wiggling as she set it down on the plate. I licked my lips and could not wait for the first burst of fruity flavor as I took a bite.
The brightly colored rainbow on my plate contained both vibrantly translucent and opaque pastel layers consisting of grape, lime, strawberry, lemon, and orange. It delighted me.
Sometimes, I would peel the flavors apart, layer by layer, and eat them separately. Other times, I gulped them all down together in one bite, one that burst with artificial fruity overload within my mouth. That treat was the perfect ending to the meal for everyone. Sticky fingers and purple lips adorned all the young ones as the adults lingered with happy goodbyes, with everyone relaxed and sleepy from the sun-kissed day. Dreamy memories prompted me to get creative for my kids.
I decided to recreate cakes inspired by the 1980s rainbow Jello with a more healthy approach (i.e. less sugar and artificial coloring) for my daughter’s birthdays the last two years.
Kids love rainbows right? I made a rainbow jello cake for her last birthday using only 100% fruit juices and plain gelatin. Use any recipe online for homemade Jello using juice (not from a box) and make that recipe for each flavor of juice you use. Spray a 9” x 13” baking dish with oil and take a day to make those layers! Remember, each layer has to solidify before you add the next layer. You can also add coconut milk or cream to alternate layers, rather than water, to create an opaque pastel layer! The kids giggled and “oooohed” and “aaaahed” the entire time I was attempting to slice attractive pieces from the baking dish. It was totally worth the time and effort the day prior, but let me tell you, my slices were not too pretty and the kids gobbled theirs up so fast so I don’t have any jello slice photos to share!
The year prior, I made an epic rainbow layer cake with traditional batter!
Truth be told, this cake took some time. Was it amazing in the end? Yes, and I would do it again if my kids asked me. I used this recipe and escaped the project with complete sanity, even with a one-year-old in tow. If boxed cake mix makes this work better for you, by all means, use it. King Arthur has great options. By the way, I have amazing news for you. In the time since I made this cake, McCormick has come out with a line of natural food colors and you can buy them at locally at the supermarket! Save time and add these beautiful, brilliant natural dyes to your cake mixes and wow your kids this summer with some rainbow cake to celebrate any day!