Amanda Rettke's rainbow pancakes were meant to be a simple weekend breakfast treat for her three young children. But within days of posting photos of her creation online, the vibrant, multicoloured flapjacks became an Internet hit.
Photos of the syrup-drenched stack of pancakes, individually food-dyed red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple, have reappeared on countless websites, including Trendhunter, The Insider and SlashFood. Meanwhile, Ms. Rettke's own blog, i am mommy, recorded a giant surge in hits to more than 15,000 a day from less than 2,000.
"I just think it's something about the rainbow," Ms. Rettke of Minnesota says of the staggering response. "There's just really usually no negativity associated with that. … Any time people see something like an edible-type rainbow, like a cake or pancakes, it just makes them happy. It's just joy."
Rainbow food is the latest experiment by those looking to inject playful pizzazz to their plates. Using bright new food colouring gels and dusting the cobwebs off old colouring kits, professional and home cooks alike are using dyes unsparingly to turn everyday edibles into eye-popping creations that make Lucky Charms literally pale in comparison.
Rainbow pancakes are just the tip of the technicolour iceberg. Bloggers share tips on making rainbow cakes, cookies and cupcakes. Bakeries, such as the Bagel Basket in New York, offer rainbow bagels. And specialty shops stock striped, candy-coloured pasta.
"I just think so much of eating is about presentation and the aesthetics, and ... when we're looking at special occasions, people get excited about using the different colours," says Kim Conte, food editor of the U.S.-based parenting and lifestyle blog The Stir.
Ms. Conte recently posted a photo essay on the blog showing a variety rainbow foods that included Ms. Rettke's pancakes, as well as tie-dye cakes and cupcakes with multi-coloured swirling batter, and several variations of rainbow cookies, some of which look like they're made of Play-Doh.
The trend, she suggests, likely strikes a chord with those nostalgic for their childhood Candy Land fantasies, back when concerns about consuming artificial additives took a back seat to sheer glee.
Some believe the dye-saturated foods may even be a festive backlash to the current movement toward natural, unprocessed and unadulterated fare.
"You're looking for something just to have fun with and not have to care what it is you're ingesting," says Emily Urquhart of St. John's, who recently baked a rainbow cake, inspired by photos of a similar creation that a friend posted on Facebook.
Ms. Urquhart remembers using food colouring when she was young to make "strange-coloured icing and the kind of stuff that would really delight you as a child but as an adult kind of horrifies."
She adds, "maybe there's some small part of the adult that wants to go back and use those childish colours."
The use of food dyes can be polarizing, however. Along with the exclamations of delight Ms. Rettke received in response to her pancakes were comments from disgusted individuals, lambasting her for serving her children artificial dyes.
"I was shocked. The first time I read somebody calling me a bad mom for doing it, I think I sat and cried," Ms. Rettke says, noting she typically feeds her children a no-sugar, no-starch, raw, natural diet. The pancakes, she explains, were a special, one-time treat.
Nicole Weston, a Los Angeles-based blogger of BakingBites.com, says there are plenty of natural food dyes available on the market, so even the most health-conscious baker can experiment with colouring their food (she recently posted a guide on her site on how to make rainbow cupcakes).
No matter what type of dye you use, the key, she says, is to use multiple colours.
"If you had just a green cupcake or a blue cupcake, you might think that's not really a natural colour for a cupcake to be. But if you have a rainbow, it's so extreme in a way, it looks really fun," Ms. Weston says.
For her rainbow cupcakes, she divides regular, vanilla batter into five separate bowls, adds different food colouring to each, and spoons the batter one on top of the other into a cupcake pan to form layers of red, orange, yellow, green and blue.
Rainbow cakes can be made using a similar technique, combining separately dyed batter into a cake pan and gently swirling it to create a tie-dye effect.
But as Ms. Urquhart learned, it takes a liberal dose of food colouring to pull it off.
Hesitant about using artificial dyes, Ms. Urquhart tried skimping, only to wind up with an anemic-looking, pastel cake.
"I'll do it again some time … for sure," she says. "And next time I'll use a whole lot of colour. I'll just use the whole bottle of each."
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Red, yellow, green and blue food colorings
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease 10 cups of a 12-cup muffin tin (or line with paper cups).
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, buttermilk and vanilla extract. Pour in dry ingredients and stir until just combined.
Divide batter evenly into five small bowls; each should have a little more than 1/3 cup batter (approximately 6 tablespoons).
Add about 1/2 teaspoon liquid food colouring to each bowl to make red, orange, yellow, green and blue batters. Stir well, so no streaks of plain batter remain. Add additional food colouring if necessary.
Starting with the blue batter, add a small spoonful to each of the 10 muffin cups (just over 1/2 tablespoon in each). Repeat with remaining colours, working from green to yellow to orange to red, adding each subsequent spoonful on top of the previous colour. Do not attempt to spread the layers of colour (as it can cause mixing), but allow them to spread on their own.
Bake for about 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Cool cupcakes on a wire rack before frosting.
Source: Nicole Weston of BakingBites.com