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Reviving Lemon-Lime Icebox Cake

Growing up the youngest of nine children during the Depression in rural Pennsylvania, my grandmother Virginia never took anything for granted. And she never threw anything away.

After Grandma died last year at age 87, my mom tossed out hundreds of rubber bands, stacks of odd-sized envelopes and shoes Grandma hadn't worn in 20 years. But one item I kept: her battered tin recipe box.

Among the fading recipes for dumplings, Swedish sausage and watermelon pickles, I found several recipes she clipped from newspapers, magazines and from the back of food packages. I even found a recipe for American chop suey that was sent in the mail with the gas bill.

My favorites are the stash of recipes Grandma kept for the Jell-O desserts and salads that punctuated my own childhood memories with their sweet and odd flavor combinations.

While a salad of orange gelatin and shredded carrots served over iceberg lettuce and topped with a dollop of mayonnaise may seem quaint today, it was cutting-edge food in mid-century America.

One Jell-O-based recipe I found in Grandma's box brings back memories of my youth of picnics and family gatherings, where Grandma was often in charge of the dessert: lemon-lime icebox cake. Grandma must have liked it, too, because there are four copies in her box.

The special chilled cake was served straight from the icebox, an insulated chest that held ice and predated the refrigerator. The cake has vibrant colors, a long shelf-life and inexpensive ingredients. This magic combination appealed to the practical and thrifty Lutheran women of northwestern Pennsylvania.

I remember barreling indoors on hot summer days as a child, still dripping from the sprinkler, and watching my grandmother make the lemon-lime icebox cake (though she now had a refrigerator). She carefully smoothed her ruffly apron, bent over the stove and poked holes into a still-warm lemon cake while she told us stories.

Then she steadily poured unset lime Jell-O into the holes so that when the cake was chilled and later cut, it would sport bright green stripes in every piece. She frosted it with a combination of instant whipped topping and lemon pudding mix.

The hard part was waiting until it was cold. The cake went back into the fridge for at least a few hours to set, or sometimes into the freezer for up to a month to be taken out later for a church supper or a family birthday.

My sisters and I would jockey for the piece with the most electric green slashes, sitting around the kitchen table, listening to how Grandma's sisters stuffed her in a suitcase, her romance with her high school sweetheart — my grandfather — and most amusing to us, tales of my mother's childhood antics, like the time she wanted to run away but cried because she couldn't cross the street alone.

Jell-O has been around since the turn of the last century, but it really caught on during World War II as a substitute for pricier side dishes and desserts. It continued to entice home cooks through the decades with its rainbow of colors, its ability to take on the shapes of any mold and its distinctive wiggle.

As Americans have gone back to fresher, more natural foods, Jell-O has lost its caché. However, there are still diehard fans. There's even a museum dedicated to Jell-O in its hometown of LeRoy, N.Y.

I recently made my grandmother's icebox cake, although I hadn't made anything with Jell-O for years. It tasted just like I remembered: cool and summery and very, very sweet. But I wondered how I could capture the essence of the cake with fresher ingredients and without resorting to commercial mixes.

After some experiments with a sponge cake that was too light to keep the curd from spreading out and some ethereal-but-impractical whipped cream-based frostings that didn't hold up in the fridge, I settled on replacing the lemon cake mix with a sturdy lemon butter cake, the lime Jell-O with lime (or lemon) curd, and the whipped topping and pudding mix for mascarpone with lemon zest.

As summer fades, I love to make this cake and imagine I'm sitting with Grandma at the kitchen table. I can almost hear her stories and see her wink as she wraps up the remnants of the cake for dessert another day.

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April Fulton
April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to Shots, NPR's health news series.