If you’ve been to a birthday party as a kid, then you’re probably used to the standard affair grocery store sheet cake, but once in a while, you may have run into a Barbie cake. A domed cake acts as a bell skirt for a plastic Barbie figurine. Yet, before there were Malibu Barbies and Ballerina Barbie stuck into a combo of sugary buttery cake, there was a long-time predecessor to Barbie — Dolly Varden.
Unless you are a literary nut, then the name Dolly Varden may not ring a bell, but the name refers to the protagonist’s love interest in one of Charles Dickens’ least acknowledged novels, Barnaby Rudge. Nowadays, the character, Dolly Varden, would be described as the quintessential girl-next-door love interest. The most distinguishing feature of Ms. Varden would be her attire. She was described as wearing a cherry red shawl, a wide-brimmed hat, layers of colorful big skirts pinned up in the back, and a triangular scarf. When Dickens’ estate went up for auction, a painting of Dolly Varden, done by artist William Powell Frith, caught people’s attention and reignited interest in this colorfully dressed lady.
Soon after, magazines took up this image of red accents and colorful petticoats weaving an image of Dolly Varden into a way of living and dressing. Nowadays we have the it-girl trend, sprinkled with hyper-pink Barbie-core, the 19th century had Dolly Varden. She didn’t stand for anything controversial, instead, she was simply a fresh, young woman brimming with vitality. In an age of societal strictness, with a rather heavy color palette, Dolly Varden stood for youthful girly trendsetting, as many young women took to a colorful menagerie of petticoats, scarves, shawls, hats, and gloves — all under the umbrella of the Dolly Varden aesthetic.
Just like the pink-on-pink-on-pink ice creams, cakes, and cafe drinks we’re seeing with Barbie nowadays, Dolly Varden’s color palette bled into the culinary world as well. At first, Dolly Varden cakes referred to a cake that was (like Ms. Varden’s variety of colorful petticoats) filled with a sampling of different colors and flavors. One recipe for Dolly Varden cake included cake flavors of lemon, rose, vanilla, and chocolate. Another version of the Dolly Varden cake interpreted the colorful style by adding an array of dried fruits into the cake batter.
It wasn’t until the 20th century did you start seeing this doll-in-cake design. The mid-century saw an onslaught of unconventional shapes, carving both flat sheet cakes and domed cakes into a variety of animals and objects. Who stuck a doll’s legs into a sea of cake and buttercream isn’t certain, but it stuck — literally. Dolly Varden’s cake comeback was like a phoenix rising from the ashes, taking on a completely different form. The reappearance of Dolly Varden cakes came when an editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book, contrived a simple but colorfully decorated domed cake with a doll torso and titled it Dolly Varden cake.
The name of the doll cake didn’t make it over to the States, as the famous Barbie doll took the title for this cake. Wilton debuted the dome cake pan in the 70s and soon after created leg-less dolls specifically for making doll cakes. Even though many of the dolls used in doll cakes weren’t Mattel-derived toys, the cake was simply known as the Barbie cake in the US.
While many will consider Barbie to be the victor in this doll-cake naming battle, Dolly Varden paved the way for colorful (girly) whimsy. Dolly Varden’s legacy is still valid. While youth has always been associated with colors, connecting several aesthetics with a fictional character was uniquely done through Dolly Varden, who would later on prep the path for Barbie. Whether you’re in Australia and know it as Dolly Varden cake, or in the States call it Barbie cake, this cake is nothing short of playful (and hopefully tasty!).SKM: below-content placeholder