Long before the modern cookbooks were published about fixing up cake mixes, my Great-Aunt Annie was famous for her Strawberry Layer Cake. It was my mom's favorite cake growing up and the centerpiece at my first birthday celebration. When I was old enough to actually request my own birthday cake, "Pink Cake" was at the top of my list.

The history of this family cake parallels the rise of ready-made cake mixes and convenience products' acceptance in the consumer world. Great-Aunt Annie didn't have time to bake cakes from scratch as her mom did before her. Working full-time in a hosiery mill in the '40s and '50s, she turned to box mixes for special occasions and added her own ingredients to make it hers. She kept the actual recipe secret for years until my mom begged for it in the late '60s — since I requested the cake at every special occasion, beginning with my birthday in January and ending with Christmas in December.

Fast-forward to today. When I (a self-proclaimed "non- baker") bake this cake, it's considered an extra-special labor of love. Round layer cakes, even those that start from a box mix, are "fancy" and extravagant, even for me. Aunt Annie would probably be shocked, but maybe proud that her "cheat cake" is considered a special "baked at home" dessert and not cheating at all. So celebrate Valentine's Day this year with a cake that has said, "I love you" for almost 70 years.

Alicia Ross is the co-author of "Desperation Dinners!" (Workman, 1997), "Desperation Entertaining!" (Workman, 2002) and "Cheap. Fast. Good!" (Workman, 2006). Contact her at Kitchen Scoop, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106, or send email to [email protected]. Or visit the Kitchen Scoop website at www.kitchenscoop.com.

© Alicia Ross

Dist. By Universal Uclick For UFS

Aunt Annie's Strawberry Layer Cake

Start to finish: 10 minutes prep, 30 minutes baking, 40 minutes cooling, 15 minutes frosting

1 cup frozen strawberries packed in light syrup, thawed

1 box (16.25 ounces) white cake mix

1 box (3 ounces) strawberry Jell-O

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup vegetable oil

4 eggs

1/2 cup water

2 batches Strawberry Butter Cream Frosting, recipe follows (see Note)

Fresh sliced strawberries for garnish, if desired

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Spray three (8-inch) round metal cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and dust well with flour. Set aside.

Drain strawberries well, reserving the juice for frosting. Combine cake mix, strawberry Jell-O powder and flour in large bowl of an electric mixer. Add oil, eggs, water and drained strawberries. Mix well on low for 30 seconds, then medium for 2 minutes, scraping sides as necessary.

Divide the batter equally among the three prepared pans and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven; cool in pans for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks. Cool cake rounds for another 30 minutes.

Frost (see Note) with Strawberry Butter Cream Frosting and garnish with fresh strawberries, if desired.

Yield: 16 servings

Approximate values per serving: 626 calories (42 percent from fat), 30 g fat (10 g saturated), 77 mg cholesterol, 3 g protein, 89 g carbohydrates, trace dietary fiber, 319 mg sodium.

Strawberry Butter Cream Frosting

Start to finish: under 10 minutes

1 stick butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup strawberry juice

1 pound powdered sugar

Using an electric mixer, mix the butter, juice and sugar together on low until blended. Then cream on high until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape sides of bowl as necessary.

Yield: approximately 2 cups (will frost 1 sheet cake, 24 cupcakes or 1/2 three-layer cake)

Approximate values per 1/4 cup: 326 calories (32 percent from fat), 11.5 g fat (7 g saturated), 30 mg cholesterol, trace protein, 57 g carbohydrates, no dietary fiber, 83 mg sodium.

Note: It is easier to make one batch of the frosting and frost the tops of the first two layers of cake, then make another batch and finish frosting the top of the third layer and the sides. For effortless frosting, dip your knife or spatula in a glass of warm water to help smooth the frosting without tearing the cake.