Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Cherry Dream Squares

I dreamed a dream that these childhood recipes are turning me into a Sandra Lee “semi-homemade” clone. This recipe walks the same line as Beefaroni Stuffed Peppers and Rainbow in a Cloud, reliant as it is on boxed cake mix and cherry pie filling.  And, like many of these recipes, Cherry Dream Squares hew to my newly developed Sugar Cereal Principal – that I was drawn to what I didn’t eat on a regular basis (like sugar cereal), lending it a mystique and fascination.

This dreamy dessert comes courtesy of the Pillsbury Co., whose cake and brownie mixes are certainly a lifesaver to many a harried cook. It’s nice to see a variation on a standard use for a cake mix, and this one – essentially a cakey bar cookie – is easy. The finished squares are pretty and festive, with their licorice-red filling peeking out of the crumbly oat topping.

I have a somewhat tortured relationship with canned pie filling. I admit, I have heeded the siren song of cherry filling – most memorably for Fourth of July 2003, when I made a pie that looked like the stars and stripes and relied, yep, on cherry pie filling for two third of its innards. (The backdrop of the “stars” being blueberry.) The pie was deliciously patriotic – a total work of art. But I’m not sure even Paul Revere would have enjoyed the gluey filling. (That original recipe was from Woman’s Day, though I don’t know the year.)

I recollect playing at my friends Tasha and Sam’s house when I was about four years old. Their next-door neighbor, an older girl, came to join us in the back yard – snacking on a can of lemon pie filling. Let’s stop to let the awesomeness of that sink in. She was snacking – spoon into can – on lemon pie filling. She must have seen my mouth drop open, because she generously offered us each our own can – and our own spoon. Tasha and Sam took the offer – and their cans – it as a matter of course – maybe this was an everyday occurrence in their neighborhood. But I don’t think I’ve been so high on sugar or elation before or since. Sugar Cereal Principal indeed.

I busted out this recipe for a staff luncheon celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week at my daughter’s school. The 13”x9” pan made a generous amount – so generous I was able to take smaller portions to my daughter’s classroom the next day. Because the school has a strict “no nuts” policy, I substituted shredded coconut in the topping.

My problem with Cherry Dream Squares, surprisingly, is not the cherry filling. It’s the cake mix – the annoying fake vanilla flavor dominates even the sugary fruit filling. I miss the nuts, too, which I believe would have made the topping a bit heartier, but the coconut was tasty, and if I made this again I would probably use both.

I’d also take a page from Sandra Lee, who usually advocates adding some type of extract – vanilla, orange, rum – to boxed cake mix to cut the chemical taste. Almond would be a natural choice here to accompany those cherries. Instead of being a dream come true, though, Cherry Dream Squares left me thinking about how much better this dessert would have been with fresh fruit filling and homemade cake batter.

Cherry Dream Squares
1 pkg. Pillsbury Plus White Cake Mix
1-1/4 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup margarine or butter, softened
1 egg
21-oz. can cherry fruit pie filling
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

Heat oven to 350-degrees. Grease 13x9-inch pan. In large bowl, combine cake mix, 6 tablespoons margarine and 1 cup rolled oats. Mix until crumbly. Reserve 1 cup crumbs for topping. To remaining crumbs, add 1 egg; mix until well blended. Press into prepared pan. Pour cherry pie filling over crust; spread to cover. To reserved crumbs, in large bowl, add remaining 1/4 cup rolled oats, 2 tablespoons margarine, nuts and brown sugar. Beat until thoroughly mixed. Sprinkle over cherry mixture. Bake at 350-degrees for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely. If desired, serve with a dollop of whipped cream. 12 servings.

·      I couldn’t find the “Pillsbury Plus” cake mix called for in the original recipe. I substituted their “Super Moist” mix.
·      I found the instructions a bit overzealous in their encouragement to "beat thoroughly" the topping ingredients. To take a page from my perennial fave, Ina Garten, "clean hands are the cook's best tool." I rubbed the ingredients together with my fingers.
·      I used ½ c. shredded coconut in place of the nuts.
·      I find these firmly in the bar cookies camp and, as such, think a "dollop of whipped cream" would be misplaced. Maybe you find them more cobbler-esque, though, in which case, dollop away!
·      Twelve servings? Easily 24 cookie-sized portions.

Why Don’t You …
·      Add ½ tsp. of almond extract to the cake mix, or the cherry filling.
·      Mix up the nuts. The original recipe doesn't specify, but toasted almonds, walnuts or pecans would all be yummy.
·      Try chocolate cake for a Black Forest-type dessert.


  1. This is GREAT, Stef. I've been reading through the recipes and love your humor AND cooking tips. I plan to try some of these--and I'll let you know how they go. Thanks for the nod to my slim balletic figure, although these days, after two pregnancies, I'm not so sure that description still applies.

    I'm waiting for a nod to lime jello and bananas sometime. (-:

    PS--you've gotta get the word out about this . . . I'll bet you'll have readers devouring every word.

  2. Oh your tequila lime chicken has become a staple summer dish in our house. Let's both raid her collection.

  3. I don't make any other Chicken Soup but Ina's. Love her!