It’s not summer until you start sweating the second you step out of the shower on at least one occasion. It’s not summer until you jump up and down on one leg to dislodge chlorinated pool water from your ear canal. And it’s not summer until your local grocery store’s bakery starts stocking cakes that look like gigantic hamburgers.
As a Fourth of July baby (turned Fourth of July adult), cake and summertime are inextricably linked in my psyche. For as long as I can remember, the go-to has been the American flag cake, particularly this Kraft Heinz recipe for pre-made shortbread or pound cake slathered in Cool Whip and then emblazoned with a rectangle of blueberry “stars” and rows of strawberry stripes. It was huge in the ’90s, when a tub of Cool Whip seemed like more of a fridge staple than it is today, each tub predictably full of divots from people just going at it with their index fingers.
A few years ago, a new summertime icon reared its head. I first remember seeing a novelty hamburger cake at a Jewel-Osco in Chicago around 2014 or so. There are variations on the form, but that cake had two unfrosted yellow cakes as buns and gobs of frosting as the burger’s insides (patty, lettuce, tomato, mustard, ketchup). More recently, at a Pavilions grocery store here in Southern California, I spotted a fully-frosted and airbrushed variation, a regular eight-inch layer cake frosted in a thick layer of extremely dense buttercream, with buttercream sesame seeds on the “bun” and even more buttercream piped around the center to look like the patty, etc. I shelled out $12.99 for the cake, and it was every bit as cloying and artificial as I’d imagined it would be. It made up for all its shortcomings by giving me the ability to say, “You want a burger?” and then bust out a whole-ass cake instead.
I like to think of the hamburger cake not only as a precursor to the current “Is it cake?” craze, but as an extension of our collective affection for things that are larger than they’re typically supposed to be. In the 1990s, there was an entire genre of school photo that featured a kid posting with an oversized crayon or pencil. The hamburger cake might not be as tall as a seven year old, but its whimsy makes a BBQ or picnic just a little less mundane. In its great benevolence, grocery chain Food Lion (where I happen to have worked as a cashier in high school) even shared a recipe for a make-at-home version of the hamburger cake in which the patty is a gigantic disc of chocolate ice cream.
One thing’s for sure: No one’s turning down a slice of hamburger cake. It’s a controversial crowd-pleaser, but a crowd-pleaser none the less—a burgeoning summertime classic we can all embrace.