Orange supreme cake mix. Instant vanilla pudding. A chaser of vodka, orange juice, and Galliano. For 10 years, every time I’ve looked at the shoddy spiral-bound book of family recipes from my grandmother, I’ve fixated on this one, for something called Harvey Wallbanger Cake.
“Have you ever had a Harvey Wallbanger?” I asked. My dad laughed. A child of the early 1990s who now drinks only craft cocktails and microbrewed beer, I admitted nope, no way, no how.
“Try it,” he replied.
So I did. The cocktail itself consists of vodka and orange juice over ice with a floater of the herbal liqueur Galliano. It’s about as terrible as it sounds. Legend goes that it was named after a surfer called Tom Harvey who, after losing a competition, banged his head against the wall. But in reality it was a clever marketing tactic and drink from a Galliano importer and an ingenious bartender who together helped make Galliano the number one most imported liquor in the 1970s. Drink historian David Wondrich and tiki cocktail expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry have called the cocktail part of the dark ages of mixology, tracing its popularity to fern bars, preppy 1970s pickup bars where men and women mingled over super-sweet, easy-to-make concoctions that required little skill or expertise (White Russian, anyone?).
You could make the same argument for the cake version.
“I was always looking for shortcuts,” my grandmother said when I asked her where the recipe came from. “It was a fun version of a cocktail we liked.”
Turns out, the recipe isn’t unusual at all. Google “Harvey Wallbanger cake” and you’ll find a million versions that look almost identical: Start with a box of orange cake mix, throw in some instant vanilla pudding and liquor, bake, and ice with a dizzying mix of powdered sugar and more alcohol. (My family’s recipe says it’s from 1960, but since the cocktail itself didn’t become popular until about 1970, either my grandmother was a baking genius ahead of her time, or someone got a date wrong.)
The cake is an extension of a cocktail in more ways than one. Beyond using similar ingredients, it also points to the first time in history where people (especially women) were subjected to marketing ad nauseum, with hilarious taglines like “My wife’s cake is really moist.” Women still wanted to be domestic goddesses and express “a touch of tender loving care,” but they’d learned they could do it more quickly, with the help of packaged and canned goods, giving them the time and freedom to work an office job or—once divorce became more acceptable—even hit up a fern bar. In other words, the cake reflects women’s changing roles in the home as much as the fern bar cocktail showcases societal changes around sex and gender roles.
It also tastes a heck of a lot better than the cocktail. I tried my hand at the recipe, holding my nose while I poured a lot of powder into my retro aqua-colored mixer and let her rip. I dutifully iced the warm monstrosity when it came out of the oven. At the same time I was also making a “gourmet” interpretation that I thought would be awesome: a pound cake with orange zest, topped with vanilla-and-fennel simple syrup to make it even more moist (see above). When both cooled a bit, something funny happened. The Harvey Wallbanger cake was better. I appealed to my boyfriend for a second opinion.
“You can’t mess with an O.G.” he said.
He was right. Why was I trying to change a classic? What disgusted me about the family recipe was not the cake itself but the fake ingredients. So I set about to make a Harvey Wallbanger cake from scratch, using cultured butter, organic eggs, and other real ingredients that would (hopefully) take the cake to the next level while still using the signature Galliano, orange juice, and vodka (although I still don’t understand why you’d put something as flavorless as vodka in a cake). The result? A more subtle, less bouncy version of the original that tastes like a classic pound cake with a nice twist.
Of course, I’m all too aware that just as my grandma’s cake recipe was a product of her generation, my recipe is a product of mine. Millennials want everything to be made from scratch and by hand with love. We flock to small-batch, artisan ingredients. We are moths to a whiskey-scented hemp candle’s flame. Maybe it’s a reaction to all of those cake mixes and afternoons at daycare; maybe it’s a sense that we want to get back to something honest and close to the Earth. Regardless, both recipes use their fair share of processed flour and sugar, with more powdered sugar on top for good measure. Which one is better? I couldn’t say. I’ll let you choose.
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Megan Giller is a Brooklyn-based food writer and chocolate expert. Find her work in Slate, Food & Wine, and The New York Times among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @MeganGiller. She’s currently embarking on an exploration of the American craft chocolate world through her digital project Chocolate Noise.