If we still used phones, the kind with rotary dials or raised buttons, the phone would have rung, and Christopher Muther’s voice would have delivered the news — breathless, urgent — into the waiting ear of Devra First. Instead, her phone pinged, which makes for much less exciting copy.
“Dolly Parton is making cake mixes,” the text read.
Say no more, Christopher. Preheat the oven. Devra was on her way over.
For Christopher, there was no way to escape the allure of Dolly Parton’s cake mix collaboration with Duncan Hines. The bubblegum pink packaging with a Barbie-style illustration of Dolly smiling benevolently from the box was really all the encouragement he needed to click “buy.” When he saw the words “limited edition,” he clicked again. And again. It was as if the product was marketed specifically to individuals like Christopher, a.k.a. men who identify as white trash and love to consume confections from boxes adorned with illustrations of gay icons.
For Devra, the connection to Dolly Cakes (as they became known in subsequent, in-depth text conversations) traced back to her childhood, when Parton’s ethereal voice frequently emanated from the turntable in the den of her familial suburban home. What could move a child’s budding maudlin sensibilities more effectively than “Coat of Many Colors,” played on repeat by said child, clad in head-to-toe navy blue whilst her sneering peers sported pastel Esprit? In her Wrangler corduroys, she was rich as she could be, she sobbed dramatically. Mainly, however, Devra was here to support Christopher as he followed his bliss.
After weeks of effusing over a baking date, it finally happened on an afternoon as sunny and warm as the singer herself. We had a box of Dolly’s Southern Style Banana Flavored Cake Mix, a box of Southern Style Coconut Flavored Cake Mix, a can of her buttercream frosting, and a can of her chocolate frosting. Because these cakes needed to express the essence of Dolly, we also purchased 50 edible paper butterflies. Although labeling them as edible was verging on false advertising.
Anyone who has ever made a cake from a mix — which means nearly every person on the planet except Devra — knows how simple the process should be. Milk, eggs, butter, a bit of mixing, and an oven at 350 degrees are generally the only requirements. You could go the simple route with Dolly’s mix, but along with her cartoon visage, she also blessed us with a recipe on the box for her Favorite Banana Puddin’ Cake.
If cartoon Dolly could make an effort to tease her wig to the heavens and put on false eyelashes, the least we could do was make her favorite banana puddin’ cake recipe. In the spirit of Dolly, we will no longer be using the extraneous “g” in the word puddin’. Ever. Dolly’s special puddin’ recipe is where a simple Duncan Hines caterpillar emerged from its cocoon as a beautiful banana cake butterfly. And if you thought that metaphor was messy, you should have seen Christopher’s kitchen by the time the cake was finished.
Making Dolly’s favorite banana puddin’ cake was a bit, well, extra. Just like the Pigeon Forge chanteuse herself, there’s a lot of razzle-dazzle involved. Both Devra and Christopher knew their way around a cake, but making the puddin’ cake was surprisingly arduous. The cake itself was straightforward. It was the dazzle that razzled us. We originally planned to make both the banana and coconut cakes in the same afternoon but admitted defeat after hours of banana cake shenanigans.
Not only did the cake require the usual ingredients, but we also needed a package of puddin’ mix, a box of Nilla Wafers, heavy cream, bananas, and a blast of Pam cooking spray. Thankfully we had 50 semi-edible butterflies to swarm the cake in case we failed.
Dolly gave us the choice of using vanilla or banana instant puddin’, which wasn’t really any choice at all: banana, of course. Devra reconstituted the powder with milk as the cake layers cooled, then whipped some cream to mix with the frosting, which would take place about 14 intricate instructions later. She spread the puddin’ over the first layer, topping it with exactly 12 slices of banana and six crushed Nilla Wafers, per Dolly’s command (then adding a bunch more banana slices and crushed wafers when Christopher wasn’t looking). Dolly is a detail queen, to no one’s surprise.
So far, so good. While Devra dealt with the hard labor of the puddin’, Christopher fussed around with the Dolly playlist. “Here You Come Again” filled the house, along with the delicious artificial banana scent wafting from the cakes and puddin’. He sidestepped her disco cross-over hit “Baby I’m Burning” as not to tempt fate with baking.
It was when we each got a finger into Dolly’s buttercream frosting that our brows furrowed with concern. It tasted like neither butter nor cream. It was more like Play-Doh mixed with artificially sweetened lard. This frosting was our personal Jolene. It looked lovely, but tasted rotten to the core. Thankfully Dolly’s puddin’ cake recipe only uses ⅓ of a cup of the frosting, which then gets mixed into that whipped cream. Christopher furiously fluffed the two together to hide the Play-Doh flavor.
The hard work was almost over. Soon it would be time to sit and bask in the Dolly-ness of it all. Devra frosted the cake, and Christopher began adding the butterflies and Nilla Wafers. Even if we didn’t have time for a crumb coat to achieve full glamour (or even to let the layers fully cool), the end result would have made Dolly proud.
We sliced it up and started the important business of taste testing. The cake itself was quite good. It’s billed as “Perfectly moist” on the box. Perfect would be a stretch, with “moist” occasionally veering into “gummily dense.” But banana puddin’ cake is banana puddin’ cake, no matter how you Dolly it up. And banana puddin’ cake is inherently delicious. We suspected that when the Moderna angel-slash-literacy champion-slash-Steel Magnolia-slash-theme park impresario takes to the oven in her spare time, she omits that nasty buttercream altogether. Combining just the right proportions of artificial sweetness and natural, hand-hewn, wholesome whipped cream for public consumption feels like a very Dolly move. We wound up with a slightly cloying, slightly engineered confection cloaked in a camera-ready dairy halo. It was a cake to please all comers, a looker with both commercial appeal and honest substance. Like Dolly herself.
We’ll call the banana puddin’ cake the highlight of our dive into the culinary world of Dolly Parton mixes. A few days later, Christopher made a round of banana cupcakes topped with the country diva’s chocolate frosting. The chocolate frosting was much improved over the buttercream, but still tasted chalky and somewhat artificial. He also bought a box of sugar cookie mix that the singer lends her name to for Williams Sonoma.
Unlike the Duncan Hines mixes, which retailed for $2.29 a box (they’re becoming increasingly tricky to find), the Williams Sonoma cookie mix sells for $16.95 and makes 24 cookies. You can tell the cookies represent a classier side of Dolly because there’s no neon pink on the box, and her hair is not as tall. Sugar cookies are exceedingly simple to make, so the mix almost seems unnecessary. However, it’s the closest most of us will come to having Dolly at our holiday table, so Christopher gave it a thumbs up for that reason alone. Otherwise, the cookies were rather ordinary, even after he rolled them through multiple plates of pink sugar.
Meanwhile, back in her own kitchen, Devra baked up Dolly’s Favorite Coconut Cake using the Southern Style Coconut Flavored Cake Mix. She even adorned it with semi-edible paper butterflies, per Christopher’s instructions. (He can be a bit of an aesthetic bully, but he’s usually right.) This cake left out all the puddin’, banana, Nilla Wafer charm of the other, but did call for a fluffy coating of sweetened flaked coconut. There was no ameliorating whipped cream influence, just a thick spackling of noxious buttercream. The cake suffered, and Devra suffered with it. Its tanning-lotion faux-conut scent wafted over her kitchen as she ate a few perfunctory bites. At least her innards wouldn’t be getting sunburned any time soon.
The cake did remind her how good coconut layer cake can be. And there was plenty of leftover flaked coconut in the bag. Devra made a mental note to try again soon. If this cake wasn’t soft and gentle as a sigh, well, maybe the next one would be. Like her music, Dolly’s baking mixes taught us this much: Life doesn’t always turn out perfect, but it’s still plenty sweet.