I like to bake and am happy to step up to make chocolate chip cookies, biscuits or banana bread without needing an occasion, but I really don’t enjoy making birthday cakes. I used to hate making them because, whether I used a mix or not, the layers turned out puny or misshapen and dry. Better cake pans were bought and in-date baking powder was secured, but to no avail. My cakes didn’t take the cake. Now that I am doing more baking lately, I’ve gained some confidence and feel like I should try again to raise my comfort zone with making ‘from scratch’ cakes.
So yesterday I decided to go ahead and make a cake from scratch for my daughter’s birthday. The deciding factor for me was wanting to uphold my cut down on waste tenet. I am trying to keep costs low and nice store bought cakes cost at least $15.00 to $25.00. So can’t it be considered a waste to blow that kind of money when all the ingredients I would need to make it myself are staples that I regularly have in my house? I kind of thought so. (I could’ve used the time is money argument but it would be a stretch given that I’m not employed at the moment.) At least the frosting the cake part is fun, and having a child clamoring to lick the bowl makes it feel like the effort is worthwhile. Also the stress factor isn’t high for turning out a perfect product. Kids don’t usually care if a cake turns out a tad dry or has other imperfections, because to them cake is just a frosting-delivery system. If they fill up on frosting, they may not even deign to taste the cake. Still, I wanted it to be good as long as I was going to the trouble.
I had to go through several cookbooks to find the right recipe. The goal in my head still is the Duncan Hines yellow cake mix, but the recipes for birthday cakes and white cakes varied a lot between oil and shortening choices and whether or not they used whole eggs or just egg whites. Tastewise, I didn’t really know what to compare a white cake with, compared to yellow. One book mentioned that their white cake worked as a basis for a Lady Baltimore cake. Lady Baltimore sounded familiar from children’s books, though I’ve never come across one in real life. It felt frustrating to know that I was so removed from basic cake batter types that I couldn’t identify a good solid recipe outside the box of the cake mix box. I was beginning to waver and think this was becoming too much of an undertaking for a dubious outcome.
Then it came back to me that we’d decided that the last cake I made had suffered because I’d used unbleached all-purpose flour, the type that was now the staple in our pantry these days. But for cake to be light and tasty you really need the bleached stuff. As I went across the street to our little market to get a small bag of Gold Medal, I thought that it’s at least a trend in the right direction – that is, getting bleached flour into the house was cause for a special trip and not the other way around.
I decided to use the basic yellow birthday cake recipe from Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe cookbook. I followed the instructions diligently – including sifting the flour into a measuring cup, which was a messy mistake – but the cake was the best one I’ve made to date. My fudge frosting choice came from the Williams Sonoma Desserts cookbook. For the lettering on top of the cake, I punted, grateful to find a can of unopened vanilla frosting from the previous year when we did cupcake decorating and I didn’t want to make two varieties of frosting from scratch. (The frosting had at least six more months to go before expiring; hurray for corn syrup and muy chemicals when you need them in small quantities!) I also had food dye in the cupboard, so I mixed up a nice pale purple, loaded it into a small ziplock bag reinforced in one corner with regular Scotch tape, then snipped off about a quarter of an inch (an eighth of an inch would’ve been better) from that small corner to make a quick ‘n’ dirty ‘n’ disposable pastry bag that worked well to squeeze the “Happy Birthday” onto the top of the cake. I did not get into flowers or anything like that.
In my perusal of cookbooks I came across a very eloquent passage in the Joy of Cooking by Madames Rombauer (mere et fille?) about why you should avoid mixes. I’ve come to really enjoy the little explanatory pieces in Joy of Cooking. These passages are quite charming (her intro to baking bread is a personal favorite) and now that Frances Sternhagen has played Irma Rombauer in Julie & Julia I have a picture of that actress in my head when I read them:
About Packaged Baking Mixes We know that people think they save time by using mixes – just how much time is a sobering consideration – but we also know they do not save money, nor are they assured of good ingredients and best results. Use mixes, if you must, in emergencies. But consider that, under present distribution methods, the mix you buy may be as old as 2 years – if the store has a slow turnover. Remember that, in contriving the mix originally, everything was done to use ingredients that would keep. Egg whites were used in preference to whole eggs, as the fat from the yolks might turn rancid. For the same reason, non-fat dry milk solids were preferred. Even when the natural moisture content of flour has been greatly lowered, what remains in the packaged mix can still deteriorate baking powders, flavorings and spices. Furthermore, even the most elaborate packaging is not proof, over a protracted storage period, against spoilage by moisture from without. (Irma Rombauer, The Joy of Cooking)
I was happy that the cake was good and that a standard frosted 2-layer cake made about 16 reasonable slices. Like everything else with baking, familiarity breeds ease and now that I’ve nailed down a good recipe I’ll be a lot more willing to go down the DIY path.
Have I mentioned yet that between the cake and the frosting, the end product used up a pound of butter? I was also reminded, as I mopped flour from the counter and excavated splats of creamed sugar from the window of the toaster oven, that Michael Pollan points out in In Defense of Food that certain less-than-healthy foods were typically reserved for more special occasions because they were labor intensive or used expensive ingredients. Would we eat French fries once a week with our lunch sandwiches if we had to peel, pare and blanch, then deep fry the potatoes ourselves?
In novels depicting prosperous middle class families in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, households often had a domestic servant or two as a full-time part of the household. Can you imagine that going on on any sort of scale today? I can’t see how our nuclear family spaces would really allow for that sort of thing any more. Culturally, wealthy families today might have a full-time person like a personal assistant or housekeeper working in their home, but the equivalent household from a hundred years back probably would have had a full staff of a dozen or more. I am not trying to spark a class discussion (what is it about cake that does that?) but only bring this up to say that people who want to cook slow, whether they work outside the home or not, should cut themselves some slack, in attitude and method, knowing that it’s not unreasonable to feel stretched thin, even if we do have smart phones and dishwashers and online shopping. One day it’s a cake from scratch, another day it’s pizza rolls, salad and no apologies.
Joe Oppenheimer said:
I’ve read that when “food scientists” were first developing cake mixes they found they could make them so they only needed water to be added, but their test groups of housewives found these unsatisfying. They eventually revamped the mixes to require adding an egg or some milk because it made the experience of using the mix feel more like cooking and less like cheating.
Fascinating. Thanks, Joe. I wonder how those water based ones tasted.
Ellen M said:
Adam Curtis does a great job of covering this and other pr/marketing trends in some of his Century of the Self documentaries. I learned about the “add an egg” concept there. It’s fascinating.
I, too, am a happy baker….happy to bake anything, that is except for layered birthday cakes. I’m a geometric perfectionist and it drives me nuts if I can’t get a cake level, or with perfect arches or angles. ugh. but, you give me courage to revisit the pans again.
I’m glad to know it’s not just me. Yes, go forward with courage! And frosting can hide a multitude of sins.
If you have a chance, check out picture book The Duchess Bakes a Cake, by Virginia Kahl. One of my childhood favorites, and it has been back in print for a few years:
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