When we were kids and teens, Mom baked our birthday cakes – and an occasional holiday cake – from box mixes. It was the ’50s and ’60s and housewives were brainwashed into thinking this was the way to go. Easy. Convenient. Just as delicious (that’s what Americans were told anyway). To us they were delicious and, of course, fun. She’d decorate with her own buttercream frosting, some purchased tubes of gel-like icing, a few pre-manufactured (and stiff) sugar letters or shapes, and possibly an appropriate number of candles atop. Voilà! A cake any kid would love. Especially if it came with birthday presents.
On the other hand, we’d be invited to my cousin Rene’s kids’ parties sometimes, where we’d witness cakes seemingly carved to simulate whatever party theme their mom had selected for the day. For example, I’m recalling one such cake, a virtual locomotive constructed of cake, frosting and whatever auxiliary accessories Rene (pronounced Ree –nee) decided would work in the design. Maybe she whipped up her confections starting with a box too, but it didn’t matter. To a child, they were magic. Fun. Even if the child wasn’t the birthday boy or girl. And the cake, of course, satisfied any sweet tooth.
In Kathleen Flinn’s newest book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks (Viking, 2011), there’s a whole chapter entitled “What’s in the Box?,” wherein she relates a story about how her husband Mike one night decided to bake a cake. When he gets stressed out (and this time it was after watching a particularly aggravating defeat of his alma mater’s football team), he has to do something with his hands. So this time he went into the kitchen, searching for a cake mix to beat up. When he found there were no such mixes to be had, his wife said, “We have all the stuff for cake… just look up a recipe.”
“Really? Mike asked. “You mean you can make a cake without a mix?”
A few minutes later, after looking up a recipe, Mike called out, “So what’s in the box?”
“What are you talking about?”
He brought a printout of a recipe for yellow cake into the living room. “You’ve got to see this. So get this, it’s just flour, eggs, baking soda, milk, sugar, and butter. But with a box you already add eggs, milk, and oil, so what’s in the freakin’ box?” He was agitated. “Just flour, sugar, and baking soda?”
Good point, Mike. Great chapter, Kathleen, about just what we’re putting into our bodies. Oh—to end that little tale: Mike made the cake, using his mother’s prized 45-year old mixer (a permanent fixture in their kitchen), and another revelation came through.
…“So that’s it? This doesn’t take any longer than doing it from a mix.”
Perhaps that’s not always true. Pulling out the flour, sugar, baking soda and maybe a few more ingredients than Mike did (he was making a basic yellow cake), plus measuring, might add a few extra minutes – but not much. Certainly not enough to outweigh the fact that the answer to Mike’s question about what’s in the box is, in short, a bunch of chemicals designed to give the high-on-sugar, hydrogenated-and-high-fructose-corn-syrup-included product a longer shelf life. Food science at its finest: add sugar (and sugary substitutes), trigger the necessary neurotransmitters “to provide an artificially enhanced pleasure response,” and there you have it – another customer who will come back for more. Forget about what’s good for them.
And then there’s the flavor. Nothing like a great homemade cake.
Nowadays, it’s rare that you’d find a cake mix on my shelves. I suppose it helps that I’m retired and can more readily “fit” the baking of a scratch cake into my schedule, but retirement doesn’t necessarily mean you’re less busy. It merely allows one to have more personal control of one’s schedule. I do not have to be at a jobsite by a certain time, nor do I have to ask permission to leave for appointments with doctors, dentists, hairdressers and the like. I am my own boss. I can set up a meeting with writing friends or my annual health physical for 1 p.m. in order to allow time to bake a cake – or a batch of cupcakes – in the morning. Still, it was well before retirement that I began to pull away from box cakes. It’s been at least a couple decades since I’d snatch up several Duncan Hines cake mixes whenever they’d come on sale. They’re good. Tasty. Just not as good as homemade. Not as healthy. And the fun, it seems, is in the creating of baked goods from scratch – whole food ingredients, tweaking the spices my way, deciding what way to go with frosting…
So it was fun deciding what kinds of cupcakes to bring to Caffè Lena’s for next week’s open poetry mic. My writing collective, WomanWords, will be “The Feature” that evening, and I suggested – and promised – to bring cupcakes to celebrate our 15-year birthday. We began as a monthly writing group (now evolved into special-events-only, such as daylong workshops and retreats) in April 1997. Hard to believe it’s been that long – that it’s all happened, including meeting some of my now-very-best friends through WW, because of the International Women’s Writing Guild. We’ll celebrate with decorated cupcakes, asking for a donation for each to benefit historic Caffè Lena. I made the first batch yesterday and froze them, to frost and adorn next Wednesday.
Marilyn with cousin Renee, 1991
Before I get to the recipe, I must relate one final family memory related to cakemaking, however indirectly. Cousin Rene was daughter to my Aunt Helen, Mom’s oldest sister, so she was closer to my mother’s age than to mine (five years younger than Dolly, actually). She was a whirlwind of activity all of her life, a creative lady. She also loved to travel, learn new things, attend exercise classes, garden and more. Despite giving up smoking at least a couple decades earlier, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in her 70s, which took her from us in the summer of 2007.
Mom attended Rene’s wake/funeral with us. Although we told her where we were going, that Rene had passed away, she didn’t quite “get it” until we walked into the large sitting room at the funeral home (her dementia or Alzheimer’s had progressed to where she could no longer live alone as well). She chose to sit with her sister Helen near the front, holding her hand almost the entire time. Bill and I found seats further back in the crowded room. Toward the end of the service, when attendees were asked to offer memories about Rene, I eventually stood up to comment. “No one has yet mentioned her creativity,” I said. “It came out in lots of ways but my first memory is about the cakes she made.” I went on to explain that she’d create amazing stuff, contrasting it with my mom’s delicious but simply-adorned cakes. From the front row, to my far left, a slightly indignant voice piped up with “Thanks a lot!” My mother, who by then couldn’t tell you what she had for breakfast an hour beforehand and sometimes still thought she should be at the job from which she’d retired at age 72, still had her spunk – and she’d apparently decided her cakes had been insulted! The whole room cracked up in laughter, a welcome break in the sorrow. (Sadly, Mom passed away two weeks after her niece and we were back in that same funeral home far too soon.)
Below is the recipe (with pictures) for the cupcakes thus far baked for the WomanWords 15th birthday at Caffe Lena, tweaked from the Chocolate Heaven Cake recipe in The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook (by Cheryl & Griffith Day, Artisan, 2012), mentioned in another recent post (for Brown Sugar Banana Bread). When these chocolate bits of heaven are frosted, there will be another recipe and more photos on KitchenCauldron. For now, I still haven’t decided on the icing type yet…
HEAVENLY CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES
Yield: My batter produced two (2) dozen regular-sized cupcakes, plus six (6) muffin-sized; original recipe was for one (1) 9-inch 3-layer cake
- 3 cups cake flour (not self-rising, not all-purpose)
- 4 cups granulated sugar
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 9 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped (I used Ghiradelli)
- 2 cups hot freshly brewed hazelnut decaf coffee, made with Saigon cinnamon and fresh-ground nutmeg while brewing (original cake recipe used regular coffee; I just wanted extra flavor kick)
- 1 tablespoon vanilla powder
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup canola oil
- 1 cup sour cream, at room temperature
- Position rack in lower third of oven, and pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Place cupcake liners in cupcake baking tins (or butter and dust with cocoa powder or flour, shaking out excess), enough for 3 dozen cupcakes or, as I did, 2 dozen regular-sized cupcakes plus a half-dozen muffin-sized.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl, using a portable mixer), combine flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Mix on low speed for two or three minutes to aerate the flour (something new for me – I’d have never thought of “aerating” without the Back in the Day cookbook).
- Place chocolate in a medium bowl and add hot coffee and vanilla. Let stand until melted (about 2 or 3 minutes); then stir to smooth consistency.
- In another medium bowl, whisk together eggs and oil until thick, satiny and light in color.
- Whisk sour cream into egg mixture. Do not overmix; leave some streaks of white.
- Pour egg/sour cream mixture into melted chocolate, slowly, stirring as you do so.
- Add the entire now-chocolatey mixture, one third at a time, to the flour mix in the large bowl, mixing on medium speed until well blended.
- Use a rubber spatula to incorporate any ingredients “hiding” at the bottom (remove the bowl from the mixer stand first, if using stand mixer). Be sure batter is completely mixed.
- Fill prepared cupcake-tin spaces (or liners in tins) ⅔ to ¾ full with batter (I did the latter and that worked fine). NOTE: Back in the Day suggests “tapping the (cake)pans firmly on the countertop to remove any air bubbles from the batter,” which I forgot to do – don’t worry if you forget too ’cuz they’re still scrumptious!
- Bake in oven for 20 to 22 minutes (25-28 for muffin-sized) or until a toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean (or centers spring back when touched). They’ll have slight cracks on them and come out a deep chocolate color. (If you opt to bake a cake with the batter, the cookbook says to bake for 40 to 50 minutes.)
- Let cool for 5 minutes in pans, then remove to wire racks to cool completely.
- Sprinkle cooled cupcakes with sifted confectioner sugar, or top with favorite icing/frosting, or freeze as soon as cooled (individually wrapped in plastic wrap, eliminating all air) for up to two weeks. (I’ve never frozen cupcakes before this batch but am told that, when thawing, take the wrap off before thawing or they will have a gluey top texture – then frost; I intend to make the frosting while they’re thawing and then ice the cakes immediately.)
Note: I didn’t freeze the muffin-sized ones. Bill and I had one each, with confectioner’s sugar sifted atop, for dinner the same night baked. Two are getting delivered to our daughter today. The last two are dessert for tonight, maybe with Cool Whip atop. I think they had to have “heaven” in their title because they are To Die For.