MOORHEAD, Minn. — Don't we love that America is a land where we have the freedom to choose? That includes just how much effort you put into making an Independence Day dessert.

Will you give it the all-American try and make a flag cake with an engineer's precision, or will you opt to be a lazy American who almost phones it in?

I've done both during my time working as a lifestyle columnist at The Forum. I'd like to share what I've learned with you by revisiting two recipes for Fourth of July cake I made a few years ago — one super easy, the other a little daunting. Both were yummy, but was the challenging one worth the extra effort, and was the easy one so easy that it didn't taste good?

See for yourself. You might be surprised.

Whichever recipe you choose, have a fabulous and yummy Fourth of July! Happy 243rd birthday, America!

Challenge yourself: The American Flag Cake

This flag cake is not one of those cute, rectangular flag cakes with strawberries for the red stripes and blueberries for the blue square. That’s child's play — I’m talking a serious, multi-layered cake that will make you want to stand up and sing the national anthem.

I’ve seen versions floating around the Internet for years like black smoke after a fireworks show. (Check out recipes at sugarturntable.com as well as sugarhero.com or Betty Crocker.)

I suspected it might be more complicated than I first thought when I ran across the cake on an article on BuzzFeed called “23 Hilarious Fourth of July Pinterest Fails.” Others had tried this cake before and failed miserably. Could I do it? Did I have the right stuff? I’d have to see for myself.

Here's the result: not too bad. Might not be a colossal fail, but certainly not Food Network-worthy.

The American Flag Cake is fun to make, but it takes a lot of time and effort. Forum file photo
The American Flag Cake is fun to make, but it takes a lot of time and effort. Forum file photo

My observations

  • This is a complicated and rather time-consuming recipe. If you don’t have two to three hours to spare, don’t bother.

  • Make sure to read through the recipe before you tackle it.

  • I kept it simple by using the Betty Crocker version, which suggests using cake mixes. I tweaked it slightly by using red and blue velvet cake mixes instead of white cake with food coloring. Because I was using the colored cake mixes, I left out the food coloring. That was fine with the red layer, but, in hindsight, I think I should have used blue food coloring to get a deeper blue (instead of the mint Scope color I got).

  • Because you cut the cakes into smaller circles, you’ll end up with a lot of extra cake fragments. Consider keeping them intact and freezing them for a quick dessert another time. Or, if you're like me, eat them on the spot. Quality control is everything, right?

  • Be careful when cutting your cakes in half lengthwise. My layers were uneven so my stripes weren’t the same size. I apologize, America.

  • If you love to bake, this recipe might be for you. It was a lot of work, but there was a big sense of satisfaction when I cut into it and saw the flag design.

  • How does it taste? It's pretty good. But this dessert is more about the visual spectacle of it all — style over substance. That’s one way to honor America.

Red, White and Blue Layered Flag Cake

Serves: 18

Ingredients for red cake layers

1 box white or red velvet cake mix

1 pint (2 cups) strawberries, stems removed, pureed in blender or food processor to about 1 1/4 cups

1/3 cup vegetable oil

3 egg whites

1 teaspoon red paste food color (if you use red velvet cake mix, this is optional)

For blue cake layer

1/2 box white or blue velvet cake mix

1/2 cup blueberries, pureed in blender or food processor

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 whole eggs

1/2 teaspoon blue paste food color (If you use blue velvet cake mix, this ingredient is optional but recommended)

3 tablespoons white star-shaped candy sprinkles or nonpareils

For white cake layer

1/2 box white cake mix

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 egg whites

For frosting and decoration

3 containers fluffy white frosting

Red, white and blue sprinkles, as desired

Directions

For red cake layers: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease or spray two 8-inch round pans; place 8-inch round piece of parchment paper in bottom of each pan. Grease or spray parchment paper. In large bowl, beat red cake layer ingredients with electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds, then on high speed about 2 minutes or until smooth. Spread in pans. Bake 29 to 34 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched. Cool 10 minutes; run knife around sides of pans to loosen cakes. Gently remove from pans to cooling rack; remove parchment paper. Cool completely, about 30 minutes. Flatten cake layers by trimming off rounded tops. Cut layers in half horizontally to make 4 thin red layers. In 1 layer, cut small round out of center, using a 4-inch biscuit cutter. Wrap and freeze 1 thin layer and the layer that was cut out of it; save for another use.

For blue cake layer: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease or spray 8-inch round pan; place 8-inch round piece of parchment paper in bottom of pan. Grease or spray parchment paper. In medium bowl, beat all blue cake layer ingredients except sprinkles with electric mixer on low speed 30 seconds, then on high speed about 2 minutes or until smooth. Fold sprinkles into batter. Spread in pan. Bake 29 to 34 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched. Cool 10 minutes; run knife around side of pan to loosen cake. Gently remove from pan to cooling rack; remove parchment paper. Cool completely, about 30 minutes. Flatten cake layer by trimming off rounded top. Do not cut in half horizontally. Cut small round out of center, using 4-inch round biscuit cutter. Wrap and freeze 4-inch round; save for another use.

For white cake layer: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease or spray 8-inch round pan; place 8-inch round piece of parchment paper in bottom of pan. Grease or spray parchment paper. In medium bowl, beat white cake layer ingredients with electric mixer on high speed about 2 minutes or until smooth. Spread in pan. Bake 29 to 34 minutes or until top springs back when lightly touched. Cool 10 minutes; run knife around side of pan to loosen cake. Gently remove from pan to cooling rack; remove parchment paper. Cool completely, about 30 minutes. Flatten cake layer by trimming off rounded top. Cut layer in half horizontally to make 2 thin white layers. In 1 layer, cut small round out of center, using 4-inch biscuit cutter. Wrap and freeze the layer that was cut out; save for another use.

To assemble cake: Place 1 red cake layer on cake stand or serving platter; spread 1/3 cup frosting on top. Top with 1 white cake layer; spread 1/3 cup frosting on top. Top with second red cake layer; spread 1/3 cup frosting on top. Gently top with blue layer. Carefully spread thin layer of frosting on cut edge inside of blue cake layer. Gently insert white 4-inch cake round; top with frosting and then red 4-inch cake round; press slightly. Frost side and top of cake using remaining frosting. Top with sprinkles. Store loosely covered in refrigerator.

Recipe altered from Betty Crocker

Keeping it simple: The Patriotic Rollup Cake

The Patriotic Rollup Cake is easy to make and still delicious. Forum file photo
The Patriotic Rollup Cake is easy to make and still delicious. Forum file photo

A Facebook friend of mine shared this recipe a while back, and I chose to make it for a Memorial Day gathering at the lake. I didn’t have a ton of time to fuss with a complicated recipe, so I just threw this together. This is a light and airy angel food cake, topped with a cream cheese and whipped cream frosting and berries.

The Patriotic Rollup Cake is inspired by the Triple Berry Angel Food Cake Roll found at Recipe Rebel. I used full fat cream cheese and altered the amount of powdered sugar and vanilla and added some candy decorations. Another time, I chose to use almond extract in place of the vanilla — and that was yummy, too.

My observations:

  • This cake delivers — in this case, ease does not mean tasteless. This tastes like it was much harder to make.
  • It was a huge hit when I brought it to Memorial Day, and it was one of those recipes people kept asking for. I almost feel silly bringing it to potlucks now because it isn't that much more complicated than bringing a package of store-bought cookies.
  • It’s low in calories, only 245-300 per slice. It depends if full fat or light cream cheese.
  • Experiment with extracts. As I said, I've tried vanilla and almond. But because of the light flavor in this cake, it's almost a blank canvas for whatever flavor you like.

Patriotic Rollup Cake

Serves: 8

Ingredients

1 angel food cake mix, plus ingredients to prepare

1/3 cup + 3/4 cup powdered sugar, divided

8 ounces light (or full fat) cream cheese, room temperature

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (or 1 teaspoon almond extract)

1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries, diced

1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries

1 1/2 cups fresh raspberries

Sliced almonds (optional)

Red licorice

Red, white or blue stars or other patriotic cake decorations

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line the bottom of a 10-by-15-by-1-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper (make sure it lays flat on the bottom). Do not grease the pan.

Prepare cake mix according to package directions. Pour into prepared pan and bake for about 20 minutes, until the top is golden and the edges start to crack. Once out of the oven, loosen cake from the edges of the pan while still warm. Spread out a clean kitchen towel and sprinkle evenly with ¼ cup powdered sugar. Flip warm cake onto the towel, peel off the parchment paper and immediately roll up starting at the short end, with the towel inside. (This helps the cake to set in the rolled formation.) Let cool completely at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours (or pop it in the fridge or freeze momentarily if you're impatient like me). You don't want it hot inside when you add your filling.

In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese with an electric mixer until smooth. Add ¾ cup powdered sugar, vanilla and cream and beat on low until combined, then on high 3 to 4 minutes until fluffy and stiff peaks form.

Unroll cooled cake (you can just leave it on the towel) and spread with half of the filling and top with half of the berries. Carefully roll back up (this time without the towel!) and place on a serving plate. Spread top and sides with remaining filling and top with remaining berries in a decorative design. If you use almond extract, consider adding a few sliced almonds to the cake. I used red licorice to line the square of the starred part of the flag. You could use other patriotic decorations as well. Use your imagination! Serve immediately (leftovers — if there are any — are best eaten within 24 hours).

Recipe altered from The Recipe Rebel