Hello readers! I appreciate you stopping by. Today we are going to discuss the age old cake question: Box mix or scratch? I have my preferences and I’d like to share them with you.
A little history first: We have a Pittsburgh company called P. Duff and Sons to thank. On Dec. 10, 1930, the company’s John D. Duff applied for a patent for an “invention [that] relates to a dehydrated flour for use in making pastry products and to a process of making the same.” In the application, Duff’s mix for gingerbread involved creating a powder of wheat flour, molasses, sugar, shortening, salt, baking soda, powdered whole egg, ginger, and cinnamon that the home cook could rehydrate with water, then bake.
“What it was really about was about using up molasses,” says culinary historian Laura Shapiro, author of Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America and queen of cake-mix historians. “People were eating differently, and food and how they made it had changed drastically. So Duff figured out how to dry it and add it to a flour mix.”
Let me share a little secret with you. I’d never had a scratch cake until i started pastry school. Criminal i know. My mom was a working mom of 3 boys and my dad liked dinner on the table at 445pm when he walked in from work so he could promptly start his evening chores and projects. Being the youngest of three boys, I was tasked with cooking dinner a lot. My brothers really didn’t show any desire or aptitude to learn and I liked a challenge. After a few years of cooking i decided i needed to do something with the spare time and i started experimenting with baking. And thats how this pastry chef started.
Being naive to a lot of the food world, remembering this is before Food Network and Cooking Channel, I didn’t know any different than what was in our kitchen. Hamburger Helper, Instant pudding and jello, microwave popcorn. My mom did a little bit of cake and cookie decorating but nothing too involved. At Christmas we would gather and spend a day icing cut out sugar cookies but that was as fancy as it got.
From an early age, i was conditioned to like sweets from commercial bakeries and box mixes. I was mesmerized by the fact that i could pick out a box and 30 minutes later have a baked cake ready to ice and eat. To be honest, my favorite was and still is a white cake mix cake with American Buttercream.
When i ended up at pastry school, i was in for a little shock to the system. Nothing bad of course, just out of my comfort zone. Whats the saying? “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there”. Being pushed outside my comfort zone definitely helped shape who i am today.
One of the first things we made was chiffon cakes. If you haven’t had a home made chiffon cake from scratch, you are missing out! Its light and fluffy and flavorful. It was something that was super popular in the 50s and 60s and is still holding its own today.
The thing is, Americans are conditioned to visit the bakery in their local grocery stores these days. Gone are the days of independent mom and pop bakeries that are truly a from scratch operation. In the kitchen were large, hot ovens churning out bread and pastries. It really was a sight to see. Now we have a taste for mass produced cakes made in a factory some where. No judgement, like i said before.
A lot of the reason for this decline in independent bakeries is the amount of labor required to produce large volumes of product. To get someone that is reliable and skilled will cost you money. Also with the human element involved, theres always a chance of variation in the product. I can bake a cake and it comes out exactly how i want it to, but can give the recipe to an assistant and they will bake completely differently. Its just human nature.
By now you are probably asking yourself “well which is it? Box or scratch?”
My answer is this: Both. They each have their appropriate applications. A bakery that is doing a large amount of volume that wants an easy, consistent product would choose cake mix. I have worked in some of the best restaurants and hotels in the area and they all choose cake mix. Heck, even some of the more popular wedding cake bakeries in my area do too. When i had my own bakery cafe, I baked from scratch. I like a more dense cake when it comes to wedding cakes. Its more sturdy and the structure allows for carving of the cake, if needed. I had a few clients who didn’t appreciate the dense cake and they ended up choosing someone else to make their wedding cake. Thats the thing. Everyone grew up differently and have their preferences. If I’m making cupcakes, I reach for a mix. Less work, more consistency. If I’m baking (and charging) for a wedding or birthday cake, i feel i owe it to my customers to bake from scratch.
At home for you, you need to decide whats worth your time. Does your family LOVE cake? Bake it from scratch. Does your family not really eat cake? Then why are you making cake at all? Just kidding. But you see my point. It all depends on your audience.
Until next time, Happy Baking!