Life is uncertain, eat dessert first!


Ernestine on her wedding day… Um, looks like someone needs dessert?!!

is a quote attributed  to American author Ernestine Ulmer (1892-1987),

or at least I think it was…although widely quoted,

Ernestine herself seems to be a bit of an enigma. 

No amount of searching could reveal any other words of wisdom, anything she ever wrote, or even consistent facts about who she was, all the places she lived, or how many children she actually had (between 2-9… according to which genealogical site you look at).   You can’t get much more UNCERTAIN than that…but I truly hope that maybe she DID get to have her dessert first!

Nonetheless, the witty phrase rings true and reminded me of Jim’s words to Judy in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), “I woke up this morning, you know…and the sun was shining, and it was nice and all that type of stuff.  And the first thing, I saw you, and uh, I said ‘Boy, this is gonna be one terrific day, so you better live it up…because tomorrow you’ll be nothing.’  You see?  And I almost was.”

James Dean was born on Feb 8th, 1931.  So this posting is all about my annual personal challenge, to create a James Dean birthday cake.   I’m posting a week early, because the annual Fairmount celebration is coming up on the 2nd (AND also, perhaps a few “Deaners” might get inspired to make their OWN James Dean birthday cakes).

I always save the video for the END of the blog…but in keeping with the theme of the day…we’re gonna start it all off with…









I start seriously thinking about these cakes, shortly after the New Year’s festivities begin to die down…  What kind of cake?  Whose recipe?  How to decorate it?

My powdered sugar stencil…

The first year that I made one, I mixed up Bob Pulley’s mother’s (Bob was one of James Dean’s best childhood friends in Fairmount, Indiana) Miracle Whip Cake…a great vintage recipe that’s fast, easy, moist, and indulgently chocolatey!  (The recipe’s in the Recipes for Rebels cookbook…I haven’t blogged about it here…yet.)  For the top, I created a somewhat elaborate stencil, and after dusting the cake in cocoa, sifted powdered sugar over the stencil to create the image.  It was fun.

Although I consider myself artistic in several ways…I AM CERTAINLY NOT A CAKE DECORATOR!  That’s why this really IS a personal CHALLENGE.



FBCT on classic yellow birthday cake

The second year, I did a classic yellow birthday cake recipe with a Frozen Buttercream Transfer (FBCT, for short…cake bloggers, as I’ve learned, LOVE to talk in acronyms…) for the decoration.  I really enjoyed the process!  Fun, creative, and easy enough to give a pretty convincing result.



FBCT on vanilla/chocolate checkerboard racing flag cake

I loved the FBCT technique so much, that I repeated it last year…hoping to improve on it.  I stepped the cake up a notch too…creating a chocolate/vanilla checkerboard racing flag interior.  I had a few mistakes, but for a non-baker/decorator…I was fairly pleased with the outcome.   Again…it was fun!



This year, I’m going with the FBCT again (because I haven’t found anything I like better).  After LOTS of switching back and forth, I decided that I was going to play with boxed cake mixes (and maybe even canned frosting).  Boxed cake mixes would have been historically accurate for James Dean’s era afterall (see below).

BUT…the day before I was planning on baking, I went to the grocery store…only to discover they DON”T HAVE ANY here in Greece!  (I was CERTAIN I had seen them there previously…CERTAIN!  Now then…boxed cake mix is not something I’ve ever used before…was I mistaken?  Everyone here must either be baking from scratch, or going to the Ζαχαροπλαστείο [the sweets bakery, of which there are many wonderful ones…].)  SOOOO…gotta NIX that idea! 

The BIG PLAN was to “up” my cake game this year, by trying a “surprise inside” cake (based on the great book and techniques developed by baker/blogger Amanda Rettke of I AM BAKER).  That’s why I was intending to go down the Boxed Cake Mix path…taking one more element of uncertainty out of the equation.  But hey, “life is uncertain…” and we’re gonna have dessert first, one way or another! 

Ortense’s Angel Food Cake

My next thought was to use Aunt Ortense’s Angel Food Cake recipe (James Dean’s aunt, who raised him from age 9)…  I’ve made it before, and it IS wonderful!  But NO ONE on the internet does a “surprise inside” with Angel Food…it’s too light and delicate…much less stand up to the heaviness of the buttercream frosting I was planning…  And what about that hole in the middle of an Angel Food cake?  That’s gonna totally throw my FBCT design off…

Okay…this sounds like a challenge to me!  My inside “surprise” will be a red heart (red velvet cake)…representing all the “Deaners” who love James Dean…    I didn’t want the chocolatey Red Velvet and chocolatey buttercream to totally overwhelm the Angel Food, so I decided to make a lemon curd out of some of the leftover egg yolks, to serve along side…maybe that will tie it all together.  Tart citrus and rich, sweet chocolate with the delicate vanilla/almond flavors sounds good to me 🙂  (Yes…I’ve been watching too way much Food Network TV!)




So before I learned that I can’t get Boxed Cake Mix at my local supermarket (I could swear, I’ve seen them there before!), I did a little reading up on them.  Seems they’re an all-American creation.

A collection of Duff’s recipe pamphlets and advertising

Dehydrated mixes (just add water…) were first introduced in England (there was a commercially produced “custard mix” that dates back to the 1830s).   But it took until 1929, when John D. Duff, trying to figure out something to do with a Great Depression surplus of molasses at the P.Duff & Sons, Inc canning company in Pittsburgh, PA, to develop the very first, boxed cake mix.  He combined wheat flour, dehydrated molasses, sugar, shortening, salt, baking soda, powdered whole egg, ginger, and cinnamon to create a  boxed, gingerbread cake mix.  He patented the “Dehydrated Flour Mix” idea in 1930 (which was granted in 1933).

Duff hired psychologist Ernest Dichter to form a “focus group” (Dichter coined that term) to attract sales of his boxed cake mix.  They learned that American women wanted to feel more involved in the cake baking process…a cake mix that involved adding fresh eggs would sell better.  “The housewife and purchasing public seem to prefer fresh eggs,” stated Duff.  In 1935, he patented a mix that required the addition of eggs (he also patented mixes for white, spice, and Devil’s Food cakes that year).  But in 1939, due to resources being diverted to WWII efforts, production of boxed cake mixes at P.Duff & Sons was put on hold.

1950s cake decorators gone wild…

Boxed cake mixes were embraced by the public in the 1940s.  Pillsbury brand  launched Devil’s food and Party Cake mix in 1948 (still with powdered eggs).  It sold for 35 cents/box.  In 1951, Arlee Andre developed Duncan Hines Cake Mixes (the first to use fresh eggs).  Duncan Hines controlled more than 1/2 the market within the first few weeks of the product’s introduction (Dichter’s “focus group” study, proved to be right).

Post-war flour companies were now in the business of selling convenience more than flour.  They had created a brand new demand for consumers in the “modern” world.  Over 200 companies were selling their own versions of boxed cake mix.  By the 1950s, sales had leveled off.  Pillsbury hired psychologist Dichter, to again form one of his famous “focus groups.”  This time the solution was “the icing on the cake”…literally.  Canned cake icing and a campaign that included magazine photos, pamphlets, and even whole cookbooks dedicated to the elaborate art of cake decorating, invigorated sales.  1950s homemakers began expending their creative energies on all kinds of over-the-top creations.

Salad oil, the “secret ingredient” to Chiffon Cakes, began being added to boxed mixes in 1958.  The boxed cake mix has remained an American staple ever since.

There are lots of suggestions on the internet for making that boxed mix, taste more like homemade…  The best ones include adding an extra egg and to replace the water with milk, buttermilk, or soda pop.

So now you can rest assured, that when choosing to use a boxed cake mix, you know you’ll be serving up a (James Dean-era) slice of history!

Time to get thinking about what kind of James Dean birthday cake YOU’RE going to make!







This years design…

The Frozen Buttercream Transfer (FBCT) technique was pretty well explained in last years birthday blog…so I won’t repeat it here…(CLICK HERE to look at that). Here’s the design I used for this years cake (based on the Roy Schatt photo series)…feel free to use this rendition for yourself.  (Here’s the reverse image too, you’ll need it if you’re doing a FBCT…just click to see the image full-sized and print it out.  You may have to play with resizing it, depending upon the size of your pan.)  I decided to go with shades of chocolate buttercream…kind of like a vintage, sepia photograph.

The reverse design. Click to view larger and/or print…

Ortense’s Angel Food Cake is also previously blogged, you can find that recipe HERE.  It’s a good one, and one that Jimmie enjoyed for sure.  I made a cardboard circle to cover the hole in the cake middle and support my FBCT.

The Red Velvet Cake was a random recipe from the web…mine didn’t turn out like the vibrant red that theirs showed (perhaps they lied, and used a gel or powdered food coloring instead of liquid…which is the only kind I can get here).  I even let half of my coloring evaporate over a couple of days…leaving a powder, which I reconstituted with more coloring…resulting in a double strength color…  BUT ALAS, my Red Velvet Cake turned out a color that I’m calling “Hamburger, Rare!” (or “Steak Tartar”).  LOL.  It’s not  a hideous color…kind of brownish-mauve…just not at all what I was intending.  It still contrasts nicely with the white Angel Food,,,and kind of coordinates with my mixed shades of chocolate buttercream.

The result

I added more cocoa, instant coffee, and blue food coloring to get the darkest, brownish-black color in my buttercream (the only food coloring I can get here comes in a 3-pack of red, blue, and yellow…there’s no other options that I have found).  This worked out fine though and I really like the flavor that the instant coffee adds.

My egg whites deflated a bit more than usual while mixing the Angel Food…and my pan leaked, so I didn’t really get the volume I needed.  I made my own heart-shaped cookie cutter, so they would be the exact right size for the Angel Food Cake pan.  My hearts should have actually been smaller, so that there was more room between the heart and the edges of the cake.  I made the Red Velvet Cake and did the cut-outs the day before.  I froze the heart-shaped cutouts, so they’d be sturdier when it came time to assemble the cake.  So even though I had other issues, I still think the freezing idea was a good one.

Due to filming the process (which often triples the time of whatever I’m making), refrigeration and freezing times, and because I film with natural daylight, I worked on this cake for 3 days.  Despite a few aesthetic issues, the flavor was GREAT!  Creamy chocolate/coffee from the buttercream blended beautifully with the almond of the Angel Food and the cocoa of the Red Velvet…the added lemon curd brightened everything, counterbalancing the sweetness without taking over.  There were many different flavors, all going on at the same time…good or bad…it was still fun.  I learned a lot (we always learn from our mistakes…).




Poster for the annual James Dean Birthday Weekend

Every year, on the weekend preceding Feb 8th, David Loehr and The James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, IN host a James Dean Birthday Weekend.

This Year, this celebration falls on the 2nd through the 4th, with a Friday night dinner at the outrageously delicious Payne’s Restaurant, a Saturday night birthday cake/punch and Gallery Exhibition of Lenny NYC‘s James Dean collages, assemblages, bottle cap art, and clothing (sure to be the absolutely coolest scene around) held at Carter’s Motorcycle Shop (a favorite hangout of James Dean), and then Sunday brunch at The James Dean Gallery!

One of Lenny’s assemblages that will shown at the exhibition.



















The birthday celebration is an intimate affair…no giant crowds like at the festivals in September.  It’s a very special, up-close and personal event that shouldn’t be missed.  Afterall, “Life is uncertain…”, why pass up these once in a lifetime opportunities?

(And here’s a little self-plug…) High quality prints of this years poster (seen above, right), which were designed by me, will be for sale in The James Dean Gallery gift shop…



What’re we cookin’ up next in the Recipe4Rebels kitchen?

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Happy Birthday James Dean!




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