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Mixed Review: Harry & David Blackberry Jam Cake

"It smelled like cake the way Auntie Anne's smells like pretzels."

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Almost two years ago, I reviewed Harry & David's Key Lime Pie Dessert Squares, which tasters deemed "yummy," "gooey," and "very good for a mix." I found them a bit lacking in authentic citrus flavor, but was nonetheless impressed with the buttery, crumbly crust.

After a recent visit to the Harry & David outlet store in Wrentham, Massachusetts, I decided it was time to test out another mix. Out of their ever-expanding array—which now includes pizza crusts, linzer cookies, and apple cinnamon pancakes—I chose the Blackberry Jam Cake ($8.95, available at your local Harry & David outlet). What can I say? I'm partial to anything baked with swirls.

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The mix, packaged in a pretty gift box, couldn't have been simpler. It consisted of a single packet of cake mix and a small jar of blackberry preserves. To prepare the cake, I combined the mix with one cup of water and four tablespoons of melted butter. As I stood over the bowl stirring, it smelled distinctly like yellow cake. That is, overwhelming and artificial—it smelled like cake the way Auntie Anne's smells like pretzels.

I poured the batter into a greased 8-by-8-inch pan, spooned blobs of jam on top, and then swirled them together with a knife. On its own, the jam was quite good: thick, not too sweet, and filled with little chunks of real blackberries.

After baking at 350°F for 35 minutes, the cake looked like a homespun masterpiece. It was fluffy as a pillow, toasty brown, and shot through with plum-colored swirls. Cakes like this beg to be cut into thick squares and eaten straight from the pan with your fingers. Possibly chased with swigs of milk from the carton.

I cut myself a giant corner piece and dug in. The cake was so moist it stuck slightly to my fingers, like a good whoopie pie or ice cream sandwich. The taste was sweet and buttery, but unfortunately rather flat. After the initial rush of sugar, there was no hint of cinnamon or citrus, no subtle cornmeal or almond crunch (the kinds of flavors that really elevate a simple one-bowl cake to inspired new heights). The jam swirls added a bit of welcome gooeyness and a hint of fresh fruit, but there weren't enough to impart serious flavor.

Ultimately, I would suggest that you use this cake as a source of inspiration. What is your favorite recipe for a simple butter cake? What preserves could you easily swirl into it for a new twist on a kitchen counter staple?

About the author: Lucy Baker is a freelance food writer and the author of the forthcoming cookbook, The Boozy Baker: 75 Recipes for Spirited Sweets.

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