Bake Like an Alaskan with a Rum Cake Recipe Inspired by 'The Whale and The Cupcake'

Bake Like an Alaskan with a Rum Cake Recipe Inspired by 'The Whale and The Cupcake'

Wednesday, 9 September, 2020

Food and drinks are some of the easiest ways — and the most fun— to vicariously experience another culture. When you add a great book to the mix, you've got the makings of a perfect evening. In Food+Fiction, we recommend a delicious read and a related recipe so you can try the taste of different destinations in your own kitchen.

This post is part of our Food+Fiction series.


In remote areas of Alaska, where perishables like eggs, milk, and butter can be tough to come by, cakes made from a boxed mix are the sweet glue that holds communities together in times of celebration and sorrow. This recipe — a staple of many American households in the 1970s — is a delicious way to bring a little Alaska into your kitchen.

I’ve always called this cake, ‘Mom’s Rum Cake.’ As it turns out, I’m not the only one; so does The New York Times. Another fact I didn’t know: This recipe is also much beloved in Alaska. As author Julia O’Mally writes in her book The Whale and the Cupcake:

‘In the wintertime, when Iditarod sled-dog mushers and Iron Dog snow machine racers pass through Tanana, everybody asks for Cynthia Erickson’s rum cake. It’s her mother’s recipe, from the Athabascan village of Ruby, 120 miles downriver, made with yellow cake mix, vanilla instant pudding, and a half-cup of Bacardi.’

When I read those words in her beautifully written collection of essays, I instantly felt nostalgic for the ’70s holiday buffet tables where my mom’s golden yellow rum cake sat with pride of place, so tender and gushy with rum and butter it threatened to collapse under the weight of its own awesomeness, but never did.

Now, having visited Anchorage myself in the dead of winter — and read books set in Alaska for our show about the 49th state— I deeply understand the appeal of this particular cake for people living in a vast wilderness that threatens to kill them at almost every turn.

This cake is comforting, simultaneously hearty and tender (not unlike the people of Alaska), and it’s so very sweet and buttery. It’s both too much and just right. The taste of parties and love and lingering conversations and enjoying this moment right now. What more could you want from a cake? — Melissa

bundt cake on a white plate
Photo courtesy of McCormick.

Rum Cake

Serves a lot.


  • butter or oil for greasing the pan
  • 1 cup (120 g) chopped pecans
  • 1 package yellow cake mix (Duncan Heinz Golden Butter recommended)
  • 1 (3.4-ounce/100-gram) package vanilla instant pudding mix
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) cold water
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) flavorless oil
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) rum, dark or light


  • 1/2 cup (1 stick/115 grams) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) rum, dark or light
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) water


Prep. Heat oven to 350F (175C). Grease a 9-inch Bundt cake pan, then place the nuts evenly into the bottom of the pan; set aside.

Prep the cake. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, water, oil, and rum. Add the cake mix and pudding mix; whisk until just combined and there are no lumps. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a skewer stuck into the thickest part of the cake comes out with just a few crumbs attached. Meanwhile…

Make the glaze. In a small saucepan, combine the butter, sugar, rum, and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to a measuring cup with a spout.

Glaze it! When the cake is ready, remove it from the oven and let it cool 5 minutes. Invert it onto a cooling rack and place the rack on top of a rimmed baking sheet. Using a skewer or a fork, poke holes all over the top and sides of the cake. Pour the glaze slowly all over the cake, then transfer the glaze from the baking sheet back into the measuring cup. Repeat this pouring pattern until all of the glaze has been absorbed by the cake.

To serve, cut into big slabs and top with whipped cream, if that’s your thing. Served warm, it’s gooey and soft; very decadent. We prefer it cold or at room temperature after it’s ‘aged’ in the fridge for a day or two. You do you. The important thing is to wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and store in the fridge. (Ours was still crazy-delicious even after a week, so it’s pretty hardy.)


Want a from-scratch version of this recipe? For the flavor of rum cake without re-enacting the Alaskan tradition of cake mix as a base, this recipe from Immaculate Bites is a good one.


The Whale and the Cupcake

by Julia O'Malley

The offerings in village stores often resemble those in the mini-marts or bodegas of America’s urban food deserts, at two and three times the price. Food journeys in via jet, small plane, and barge. But milk and eggs spoil fast, and produce gets roughed up. Among the Hostess doughnuts, Spam, and soda, the cake mix is one of the few items on shelves everywhere that requires actual cooking. As a result, tricking out mixes has become a cottage industry, and many villages have a ‘cake lady’ with her signature twist. Some bake as a hobby, while others do a brisk business selling cakes in places where getting to a bakery requires a plane ticket. {more}

This essay collection (176 pages) was published in December of 2019 by University of Washington Press. The book takes you to Alaska. Melissa read The Whale and the Cupcake and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it. is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.

The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska


Top image courtesy of Bryan Goff/Unsplash.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

In this ep, we discuss the surprises of life in Alaska and recommend books that transported us there: a vivid memoir, two novels where snow is a character, a story set in commercial fishing, and two foodie books.
This award-winning building is a work of art itself, with windows that frame the natural beauty of its setting on the waterfront. Inside, you'll find a lovely glass mural, history and art exhibits, and so many books.
Food, wildlife, majestic vistas, quiet moments: the images in these Instagram accounts showcase what makes Alaska such a special place. It's rugged, colorful, somewhat dangerous, and celebrates an independent spirit.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.