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pam claughton

Do you use Boxed Cake Mixes?

231 posts in this topic

I don't have a preference.  My thinking is, as long as the person eating the cake is happy and gets what they want, then who cares whether it came from a box or from scratch?

Last month I did a wedding cake for a woman who wanted Duncan Hines Golden Butter cake mix.  A Big.  Fancy.  Wedding.  It was what she grew up with and what she wanted for her wedding.  She searched high and low and could not find a single baker in NYC to make it for her. 

I did. 

And she LOVED it.  Her guests LOVED it.  It was what she wanted, and that's what is important to me -- giving the customer what they want.  I think all the bakers out there who "refuse to compromise their reputations" by making a cake with a mix are...well...compromising their reputations.  They're not serving their customers.

If someone wants a cake mix, I'll make it.  If someone want a labor-intensive genoise that tastes like crap, I'll make it.  If it's what they want, I'll be proud to give it to them. 

While I enjoy the idea of and work involved in making things from scratch, I'm not too shy to say that I, personally, think a lot of scratch cakes out there taste like crap (even 60% of the cakes we made in pastry school).  Is it a good cake when you have to disguise with syrups, fillings and flavors?  I could probably dress up a kitchen sponge in much the same way and have at least a dozen people tell me it's the best cake they've ever had.  Heh.  A preference is a prefence and if you prefer mix cakes, it doesn't mean your pallete is any more or less refined than that of a person who enjoys scratch cakes.  One isn't inherently better than the other.

It's all about the final outcome and whether people really enjoy eating it.  That's what makes a cake a GOOD cake.  Mix or not.

sherri, thank you SO MUCH for posting that.

I have a custom cake business. I've been in business 5 years. I'm very successful, if I do say so myself. All of my cakes start with a box.

I'm so tired of feeling embarrassed for being one of "those" bakers. You know, the kind of baker the "Real" bakers look down on because I use a MIX <gasp>! I'll tell you what though, I spent TWO YEARS doing taste tests with all kinds of scratch cake recipes and never once did someone prefer the scratch cake over my doctored mix recipes. Were my scratch cakes bad? No. Well, maybe a few of the first ones :raz: but I improved and the scratch cakes were great. Why weren't they as popular as the mix cakes? Because *my* clientele likes mix cakes. The people who pay my bills, who order my products WANT box mix cakes.

Yes, I know there are people out there who can sniff out a box mix a mile away and wouldn't dare eat one, but those are not the people paying my bills. Those people are few and far between compared to the people who like and pay for my measely box mix recipes. I give the customers what they want, and frankly the cakes are darn good. Mixes are reliable and far easier than scratch baking. And after putting in a 40 hour day at my "real" job, I hardly have the time or desire to fight with scratch recipes all night long, especially when my customers don't even like them!

Do I enjoy scratch baking? Sure, when I have tons of time and I'm baking something special for me, I love to pull out a recipe book and give a scratch cake a try. Can I taste a difference? Yes, I can. And sometimes it's not good! Like sherri, I think lots of scratch cakes just suck. Do I appreciate what it takes to make a good scratch cake? I sure do. I also appreciate what it takes to run a business and to make my clientele happy.

For me it's all about the money and keeping the customers happy.

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There is no right or wrong on baking all from scratch or using mixes. I've personally been very upfront about my use of and experiences with mixes. Inexperience and or prejudices effect what we personally like, many people have never really been exposed to a good scratch cake or a good box mix. Both can be equally good/great or equally bad.

I believe the only way to really determine what's best is to do a blind taste test using multiple people comparing multiple cakes. Theres tons of misconceptions about both scratch cakes and mixes and people claiming they can taste or detect things that most people simply can't.

I've done fairly extensive taste testings to find out what people in my area like and want. In many cases the boxed mix won over my best scratch cakes. The reasons sited had to do with texture and moisture. I think people expect all cakes to be light, open crumbed, moist and spongie like a box mix. That seemed to be the most important factor. Taste which you'd think would be the most important factor really wasn't a huge issue, BECAUSE people thought all of them tasted good........they thought the hallmark to judge all cakes against is the texture you get with a box mix, which is the dominate cake people are exposed to.

Anyway, that we get people baking is a good thing as far as I'm concerned. The more you know the more you might want to know.

We've done some "best of" recipe testing here and I'm not so sure some of the testing has been completed. Have you all read this thread: here. I still don't own a perfect yellow cake recipe. I've got a darn good white cake (look here).........but in blind taste tests I can't win over a mix. Anyone who claims they their scratch cake is better then a mix, I challenge you to post your recipe in the appropriate "best of" thread and offer it up to everyone to test bake. Prove to everyone that your cake is the best, better then any mix. If not...........I think your posting based on prejudices's more then fact.

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I'd like to hear more about this. Does anyone know exactly what chemicals do exactly what to cakes that makes AB say that boxed is superior?

I don't know all the magic ingredients that cake mixes can include, but I think some of the most important ones are the emulsifiers like soy lechithin, polysorbate 60, propylene glycol monoesters, polyglycerol esters, etc. I think that it is compounds like these that give the mix cakes that texture qualities that a lot of people like. It would be really interesting to get some of these compounds to experiment with, see how they affect texture, perception of moistness and so on.

EDIT to add link to overview of the use of emulsifiers and stabilizers in food products.


Edited by Patrick S (log)

"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced" - Vincent Van Gogh
 

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A big part of the choice between using a mix or starting from scratch is your goal. If your goal is simply to bake something in order to serve or eat some cake, then I suppose using a mix would be fine. However, if you're more like me, who takes pleasure in the process and not so much with the end result, then it has to be from scratch. I don't use mixes, but I have enjoyed eating cakes made from mixes. I'm usually the first one to slice into a pistachio cake (yellow cake mix + pistachio pudding mix?) and I go back for seconds. Same for a Kahlua cake made from a mix a co-worker brought one day.

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A big part of the choice between using a mix or starting from scratch is your goal. If your goal is simply to bake something in order to serve or eat some cake, then I suppose using a mix would be fine. However, if you're more like me, who takes pleasure in the process and not so much with the end result, then it has to be from scratch. I don't use mixes, but I have enjoyed eating cakes made from mixes. I'm usually the first one to slice into a pistachio cake (yellow cake mix + pistachio pudding mix?) and I go back for seconds. Same for a Kahlua cake made from a mix a co-worker brought one day.

That is absolutely the truth. If I were standing in my kitchen at 10pm, after a day at the office, shopping on my way home, fixing dinner and then cleaning up the kitchen, helping with homework, giving three kids a round of baths and getting them into bed, and I still had to make cupcakes to take to my daughter's 1st grade class, or my son's cub scout troop, which I often had to do, boxed cake mixes were a godsend. My "goal," as Rhea says, was to mix up something the kids would eat, and then get off of my tired feet and get into bed.

As I've often said here on eG, in my opinion, different circumstances call for different solutions. I'm not one to turn up my nose and declare...."Well, I would NEVER..." :cool:


Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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I can taste the artificial ingredients in cake mixes and frosting in a can, so I don't like them at all. (I will use a pre-made pie crust, though, if it has quality ingredients in it.)

As for cakes, it's scratch, and only scratch, for me. Once I learned how easy (and enjoyable) baking cakes are, I've never gone back. (If I were on a budget, I just wouldn't make cake. There have to be other, better ways to conserve money than by buying fake cake.)

But I guess if you can't tell the diff, what's the diff? I'll have some pie, please. :smile:

EDIT: here is a cake recipe I made week in and week out, when I catered ("Beauty and the Feast"). We had the food concession at Kuumbwa Jazz Club in town, and I made this recipe for three chocolate cakes (with minimal flour) every week, until I got tired of chocolate. Yes, that is English: I got tired of chocolate. I used to have it on a daily basis, and now, only rarely. The honeymoon of 30 years ended when I catered.

Chocolate Gratification Cakes


Edited by tanabutler (log)

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I make the majority of my cakes from scratch. But, recently I have tried 2-3 doctored cake mix recipes- one is a Strawberry cake and they are good...

I've made the strawberry, the lemon and the orange cakes from "The Cake Mix Doctor" and they were all winners. Guess I'm in the "Mix" category when it comes to cakes. "Scratch" for brownies, though.


“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

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As I've often said here on eG, in my opinion, different circumstances call for different solutions.  I'm not one to turn up my nose and declare...."Well, I would NEVER..."  :cool:

Jaymes, you're the coolest.

As I noted above, there are quite a few mixes that call for butter instead of oil. Much better texture, not that 3-year-olds I'm serving it to care much about anything but the frosting.

And I too always make brownies from scratch. I've got a killer recipe and get more consistent results with brownies than with scratch cakes.


Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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We've done some "best of" recipe testing here and I'm not so sure some of the testing has been completed. Have you all read this thread: here. I still don't own a perfect yellow cake recipe. I've got a darn good white cake (look here).........but in blind taste tests I can't win over a mix. Anyone who claims they their scratch cake is better then a mix, I challenge you to post your recipe in the appropriate "best of" thread and offer it up to everyone to test bake. Prove to everyone that your cake is the best, better then any mix. If not...........I think your posting based on prejudices's more then fact.

I really hope someone takes up the challenge for the white cake. I'll try out the recipe, do a blind test with 10 or so people at work against Betty Crocker supermoist white cake mix, and post the results on the white cake thread.


"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced" - Vincent Van Gogh
 

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Cakes from scratch are not difficult to produce but sometimes people have varying results when a recipe is passed along, i.e., the texture is different, even the taste may vary.

This is simply because not all ingredients are exactly the same. Baking powder can lose its potency, some eggs have a different flavor, as does butter or shortening, other ingredients also.

Not all flours are the same, and cake flour varies and also does not age well. Fresh cake flour works much better than a box that is over a year old. I have seen this for myself.

Pillsbury, Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, et. al., spend millions developing box mixes that work every time for every cook, whether they live in Naples, Florida or Nome, Alaska and all points between.

They routinely conduct blind taste testing with up to a hundred ordinary people doing the tasting and often have a few "ringers" - cakes made from scratch, to compare to the box mixes being tested.

I have noting against box mixes and would probably use them if I ever thought to buy them.

However, since I always have the makings for scratch cakes on hand, and it takes me little time to mix one up, I do that, with the exception of the pound cake mixes which I mentioned in an earlier post.


"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

My blog:Books,Cooks,Gadgets&Gardening

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Hi everyone, the aftertaste most people find so undesireable in mix cakes is most likely from the leaveners they use. I don't know about you, but none of my scratch recipes include sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, dicalcium phosphate, or aluminum sulfate. If you make them right, you don't even need baking soda pr powder if you are using a whipped egg white recipe.

From the recipes posted I also see a lot of pure extracts for flavors like Vanilla, most of the box mixes use artificial flavorings--like vanillin which comes from pine trees and has a slight turpentine-ish aftertaste to it to me.

Some people can also taste the food colorants as well.

Now, some people are not offended by these tastes (my absolute favorite cake is Betty Crocker Super Moist Yellow Cake--so much so that I love to lick the beater and spatula--I'd almost rather eat the batter than the baked cake!

I remember in my first baking class back at J&W a million years ago, I tasted the cake batter for a scratch yellow cake we were making and found it YUCKY! I asked the instructor why it tasted so bad and he said I was probably not used to tasting all those raw egg yolks. Well--I think now that it was those weird leaveners I was missing blink.gif

I really like the Betty Crocker Creamy White frosting in the can, too. I find it less sweet, more 'buttery'tasting" than buttercream made with powdered sugar and butter. And that stuff they include with the canned refrigerator cinnamon rolls... rolleyes.gif *sigh* wink.gif

Chocolate cake is another issue. I prefer scratch cake there because you can choose the chocolate you use. Dutch process cocoa is really different from regular, dark chocolate is different from milk chocolate, etc. And canned chocolate frosting is just glurky. There is nothing better, IMHO than real chocolate buttercream.


It's not the destination, but the journey!

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We've done some "best of" recipe testing here and I'm not so sure some of the testing has been completed. Have you all read this thread: here. I still don't own a perfect yellow cake recipe. I've got a darn good white cake (look here).........but in blind taste tests I can't win over a mix. Anyone who claims they their scratch cake is better then a mix, I challenge you to post your recipe in the appropriate "best of" thread and offer it up to everyone to test bake. Prove to everyone that your cake is the best, better then any mix. If not...........I think your posting based on prejudices's more then fact.

For me, I could not compare the two. I remember when I started baking from scratch, my husband tated a cake and said it was different, but good. I told him that the difference was that one was made from a box and one was made from scratch. Even when converting to scratch recipes, I did not want to compare them to the box mixes that I had made. For me, I am not looking for it to be like that of a cake made soley from a mix. I like the texture of scratch cakes. I dont like the texture of cakes made from straight mixes. There are some "doctored" recipes that taste ok, but some of them require just as much work than scratch cakes.

A big part of the choice between using a mix or starting from scratch is your goal. If your goal is simply to bake something in order to serve or eat some cake, then I suppose using a mix would be fine. However, if you're more like me, who takes pleasure in the process and not so much with the end result, then it has to be from scratch. I don't use mixes, but I have enjoyed eating cakes made from mixes. I'm usually the first one to slice into a pistachio cake (yellow cake mix + pistachio pudding mix?) and I go back for seconds. Same for a Kahlua cake made from a mix a co-worker brought one day.

This is me! I truly enjoy the process just as much as the end result. :biggrin:

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As an exclusively scratch baker, I read this thread with great interest. It seems that there is some range as to what we all consider to be a "cake mix." Not having been exposed to higher-end mixes (all-organic, natural flavorings, etc.), my opinions are based on standard grocery store mixes such as Duncan Hines. My own preference for scratch is based on taste, economics, and a desire to not have the finished cake be laden with artificial flavors, hydrogenated fats, and extra emulsifiers. I find the quick-and-easy convenience factor with mixes to be marginal over scratch in a home-baking setting (having never baked professionally, I can't speak for production baking), so in my kitchen, there has never been any reason to go with mixes!

A lot of posters have mentioned that their customers or target audience are used to cake mixes, and that they bake from mixes because that's what the customers want. I'd like to suggest that it's a great goal to open people up to the experience of scratch cakes, which they may not otherwise be exposed to.

I am very active with a local theater company, and every year while planning our season, we get caught between wanted to give our audience what they want (big happy musicals) and presenting fare that our artists are more interested in, such as strong dramas. We always attempt a balance and constantly remind ourselves that if we don't make the strong dramas available, our audiences may never have that exposure -- and may never realize that a strong drama can, in its own way, be as wonderful an experience theatrically as a big, happy musical.

I feel the same way about scratch baking. Most folks may be accustomed to mixes and be leery of anything different, but I love to give them an alternative and hopefully change their expectations. My coworkers are mostly youngish folks, in their mid-20s and early 30s. I started bringing scratch cakes in for office birthdays when I was first hired here about 2 years ago. The look on some of their faces was priceless -- I could tell that many of them had never tasted a scratch cake, made with natural flavorings and real butter (let alone real buttercream) in their lives. Those are the moments I love as a baker.

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I've written this before, but I'll add it again. I do use some cake mixes......for various reasons. Only white cake and yellow cake................I've yet to find perfect recipes for those two flavors that people like better then what I can get out of a mix. I only use those on wedding cakes, I make everything else from scratch.

Wendy,

Have you ever tried the white and yellow butter cake recipes from "Whimsical Bakhouse"? I find them to be exceptional -- moist, flavorful, and with great crumb and slicing properties. I did read the "searching for the best" threads and these recipes did not seem to make it into the discussion. I'd be happy to post or PM these to you if you like to try them!

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I use about 90% mixes and 10% scratch and have been in business for 13 years. I tried several scratch white cakes when I first started selling, including the cake bible recipes. I wasn't impressed by them and neither were any of the guniea pigs that taste tested them. Not a single one.

One of my most complimented cakes is a combination of one mix and one scratch recipe. It would be much easier to make either the mix or the scratch, but combining them gives me the best result so that's what I do. For me it's about excellent flavor, neat slices, and satisfied customers. Although I must admit to a wicked inner chuckle when a chef and pastry chef said the half mix half scratch cake was the best they'd tasted.

Everyone has different taste in foods. Although I don't understand why, there are some people who don't care for broccoli. And although I don't understand why, there are some people who prefer a dry scratch white cake that needs to be soaked in syrup to a nice moist mix. Same as I don't understand the people who like carrot cake mixes - with those I prefer scratch. Guess it all comes down to what we grew up with and what our personal tatse is.

I'm not going to try to convert anyone to my way of baking. Why do a few scratch only bakers think they need to convert anyone who use mixes?

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Guess it all comes down to what we grew up with and what our personal tatse is.

I'm not going to try to convert anyone to my way of baking. Why do a few scratch only bakers think they need to convert anyone who use mixes?

Kathy,

I certainly agree that it comes down to personal taste and one's priorities. One of my priorities is to reduce the amount of additives that my family and I consume. Sounds like your priority is satisyfing your customers -- nothing wrong with that. It is my opinion that one can achieve excellent flavor, clean slices, and happy eaters with a scratch cake. Your experience has been otherwise. I don't feel a need to convert anyone (I presume I was the scratch baker you referred to in your post); just presenting my opinions for folks to take or leave.


Edited by RuthWells (log)

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Cake mix or from scratch? I think it's just a matter of what taste and texture one grew up with, is used to, or has become used to. In my case, I grew up with both mix and scratch, as my mom was ecumenical. I, too, was ecumenical until I started taking baking "seriously" ten years ago. Now I simply find that scratch cakes taste better. Plus, I like avoiding the chemical additives. That my husband is firmly of the from-scratch school is a major consideration. And my four-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son have never known different from scratch.

Last year, though, in a moment of desperation brought on by a mixture of fatigue and laziness and egged on by manufacturer's coupons, I decided to use a boxed mix and canned frosting for my daughter's birthday cake. A Pillsbury yellow cake, topped with Pillsbury vanilla frosting. Oh, the recriminations! The ignominy. The cake ended up mostly in the trashcan. My family still kid me about that cake.

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Guess it all comes down to what we grew up with and what our personal tatse is.

I'm not going to try to convert anyone to my way of baking. Why do a few scratch only bakers think they need to convert anyone who use mixes?

Kathy,

I certainly agree that it comes down to personal taste and one's priorities. One of my priorities is to reduce the amount of additives that my family and I consume.

Ruth,

I've always wondered what people mean when they say this. What is an additive? I don't ask sarcastically, I'm just curious what it is in cake mixes that you want to avoid and why.


"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced" - Vincent Van Gogh
 

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Plus, I like avoiding the chemical additives.

Surely you don't try to avoid salt, baking soda, and baking powder -- they are chemical additives as well. Strictly speaking, of course, every cake is a melange of chemicals, since every ingredient is a chemical or an aggregate of many chemicals. Do you mean, you wish to avoid man-made chemicals?


"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced" - Vincent Van Gogh
 

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...

A lot of posters have mentioned that their customers or target audience are used to cake mixes, and that they bake from mixes because that's what the customers want.  I'd like to suggest that it's a great goal to open people up to the experience of scratch cakes, which they may not otherwise be exposed to. 

I am very active with a local theater company, and every year while planning our season, we get caught between wanted to give our audience what they want (big happy musicals) and presenting fare that our artists are more interested in, such as strong dramas.  We always attempt a balance and constantly remind ourselves that if we don't make the strong dramas available, our audiences may never have that exposure -- and may never realize that a strong drama can, in its own way, be as wonderful an experience theatrically as a big, happy musical. 

I feel the same way about scratch baking.  Most folks may be accustomed to mixes and be leery of anything different, but I love to give them an alternative and hopefully change their expectations.  My coworkers are mostly youngish folks, in their mid-20s and early 30s.  I started bringing scratch cakes in for office birthdays when I was first hired here about 2 years ago.  The look on some of their faces was priceless -- I could tell that many of them had never tasted a scratch cake, made with natural flavorings and real butter (let alone real buttercream) in their lives.  Those are the moments I love as a baker.

Thanks for this! :smile:

As an aside, one reason that I don't buy cakes from the supermarket or from many bakeries is that they do taste like they are made from cake mixes and often use frostings made with hydrogenated fats. Similar to what halloweencat expressed earlier in the thread, I don't get any "gustatory pleasture" from these cakes.


Edited by ludja (log)

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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Ruth,

I've always wondered what people mean when they say this. What is an additive?  I don't ask sarcastically, I'm just curious what it is in cake mixes that you want to avoid and why.

Hi Patrick,

Per my original post, the additives that I object to are artificial flavors (and colors), hydrogenated (or partially-) fats, and extra emulsifiers. I have to stop by the market on the way home tonight, and am planning to check out the ingredients list on a box of cake mix. I'll take notes and post it if you like!

:wink:

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...As an aside, one reason that I don't buy cakes from the supermarket or from many bakeries is that they do taste like they are made from cake mixes and often use frostings made with hydrogenated fats.  Similar to what halloweencat expressed earlier in the thread, I don't get any "gustatory pleasture" from these cakes.

I'm right there with you on this on, Ludja. I cannot abide Crisco and high-ratio shortening based icings -- ruins the whole cake for me.

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Ruth,

I've always wondered what people mean when they say this. What is an additive?  I don't ask sarcastically, I'm just curious what it is in cake mixes that you want to avoid and why.

Hi Patrick,

Per my original post, the additives that I object to are artificial flavors (and colors), hydrogenated (or partially-) fats, and extra emulsifiers. I have to stop by the market on the way home tonight, and am planning to check out the ingredients list on a box of cake mix. I'll take notes and post it if you like!

:wink:

Thank you kindly for the offer, but that won't be necessary, as I am already familiar with the ingredients in cake mixes.


"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced" - Vincent Van Gogh
 

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I've written this before, but I'll add it again. I do use some cake mixes......for various reasons. Only white cake and yellow cake................I've yet to find perfect recipes for those two flavors that people like better then what I can get out of a mix. I only use those on wedding cakes, I make everything else from scratch.

Wendy,

Have you ever tried the white and yellow butter cake recipes from "Whimsical Bakhouse"? I find them to be exceptional -- moist, flavorful, and with great crumb and slicing properties. I did read the "searching for the best" threads and these recipes did not seem to make it into the discussion. I'd be happy to post or PM these to you if you like to try them!

Ruth,

I for one would greatly appreciate it if you would post these recipes to the Best Yellow Cake/Best White Cake threads.


"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced" - Vincent Van Gogh
 

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      What was it that tugged at my heart, telling me to delve deeper into the meaning of the Cakewalk? Why did I sense that there was an underlying truth I hadn’t discovered as a child? The only way I could unveil the mystique behind my relationship with this odd little dance to win a cake would lie in retracing the footsteps of my childhood, setting forth on a quest to discover the history of the Cakewalk.

      + + +
      We moved to Salem, Oregon from The Dalles, in the Summer of 1964, when my Father, Edgar Ross, accepted a position at the Oregon Department of Agriculture in the Commodity Commissions Bureau. My parents settled on a ranch-style, three-bedroom home on the corner of Ward Drive and 46th Avenue in the new community of “Jan Ree” Gardens. Our lot was bordered by new homes on two sides and to the East was a field of Blue Lake bush beans that would soon be consumed by the encroaching development. Mother and Father shared a few details about our new home. It had a second bathroom, a wood-paneled living room and an unfinished family room that my father promised would have a metal wood stove. But they kept one little secret from my sister and me until we were a block from our final destination on the day we drove to Salem -- our new house was next door to the grade school. I didn’t know whether to feel good or sick at the thought of living next door to the school where I would spend the next five years.

      Hayesville Elementary School was typical of the architecture of grade schools built in the early 1960’s-an L-shaped, non-descript building painted in drab green and grey. The assembly room, cafeteria and administrative offices anchored the building with the classrooms jutting out from the principal’s office. I started the school year in Mrs. Rhonda Sample’s second grade class. She was young, blond and attractive, totally unlike the spinster vision I had of the teacher that awaited me at my new school. The highlight of the school year was the annual “Open House at Hayesville.” Students showcased their talents, dazzling parents with displays of frogs and snakes in aquariums, samples of cursive writing on paper chains hung over the blackboard and paper mache busts of historic American figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Mothers and fathers could take a tour of the gleaming, stainless steel kitchen where Mrs. Fox prepared our hot lunches each day-warm, billowing cinnamon rolls dripping with powdered sugar frosting and her buttery, oven-fried chicken. But the most anticipated event of Open House at Hayesville was the annual Cakewalk Raffle -- a silly fun dance around the classroom. The winner won a cake and the proceeds went to fund other activities at school.

      We cut footprints out of colored construction paper and pasted them in a large circle on the spotless, pink vinyl-tiled floor. Each “foot” was given a number from one to twenty. Red, white and blue streamers were tacked on the outer walls and then brought to the center of the ceiling to define the center point of the cakewalk circle. When the room was ready, Mrs. Sample turned on the lights and opened the door, welcoming a parade of Mother’s who pranced into the room carrying Tupperware cake caddies, Pyrex baking dishes, glass cake domes and disposable aluminum trays coddling their precious cake creations.

      Three long tables were placed against the wall and covered with proper linen tablecloths. The tables served as the stage upon which the cakes would strut their stuff. The chorus line of cakes went on and on through the annals of cakedom-Chiffon, Angel Food, Devils Food, Sponge Cake, Pound Cake, Marble Cakes, Chocolate Torts and Jelly Rolls. There were cakes garnished with coconut, dusted with nonpareils, frosted with peanut butter, sprinkled with peppermints, and dotted with spiced gum drops. I entered the Cakewalk over and over until I won, seemingly always at the end of the evening when very few of the best cakes were left on the table. While Mother’s “Burnt Sugar Cake with 7-Minute Frosting” was good, it would be a total embarrassment in front of ones classmates for a kid to choose the cake made by his mother. No, should I win the Cakewalk and should it still be available, I would choose the Spiced Praline Crunch Cake made by Bernie Bennett’s Mother.

      The historical importance of the Cakewalk wasn’t a part of Mrs. Sample’s second-grade curriculum at Hayesville in 1964. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we were insulated from the racial struggles of the South at that time. I was a young white boy in a middle-class American family. I led the colorful life of a kid, yet I lived in a country that saw only shades of black and white.

      Only three years before my second grade, in the Spring of 1961 the Freedom Riders set out on a campaign to test the Supreme Court Ruling that upheld the segregation of blacks and whites at bus depots, waiting rooms, lunch counters and restrooms throughout the South. The Freedom Riders were met with ignorance and violence. African-Americans couldn’t drink from the same water fountain I drank from. I never knew.
      + + + The Cakewalk played an important role in the history of America -- a long-forgotten chapter that tells the story of the struggles forced upon the enslaved, who in spite of their burdens rose above the oppression of race and found a new form of the expression of freedom.

      The seeds of the Cakewalk were sown in the segregated deep South sometime around 1850, as a parody of the way plantation owners escorted their ladies into a formal ball. The women wore long, ruffled dresses of silk and glass beads with long, white gloves that reached above the elbow. The gentlemen were outfitted with top hats and tail coats. Couples pranced and paraded into lavishly decorated ballrooms, arm-in-arm in high-stepping fashion, marching into the center of the party, often to the music played by a banjo-strumming fiddler who worked in the fields.

      The winner of the dance contest sometimes won a cake presented by the master of the house, leading many to think this is where the name the “Cakewalk” comes from.

      African-American slaves who watched the proceedings took the dance on as their own in the yards outside their shacks, mocking what they saw as the frivolous customs of the plantation owners. According to the oral histories of slaves and their descendants, the Cakewalk was a marriage of traditional African tribal dances and rhythms combined with the dance steps of the upper classes. When the land barons and ladies saw the slaves dance, they missed the satirical element entirely, but the popularity of the Cakewalk had been established among the elite and it now transcended the boundaries of class.

      Wealthy farmers went on to sponsor competitions between plantations and the dance moved to large cities in the South and then to the East where it became a staple of traveling minstrel shows and ultimately to Vaudeville, the lights of Broadway and throughout Europe.

      On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation with these humble words, “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Inspired by the renewed freedom gifted to them through Emancipation, a freedom that allowed them to express themselves openly through dance and music, African-Americans led a creative revival that would usher in new forms of dance and music that had never before been seen or heard. The artistic contributions of former slaves and their descendants would forever change the creative landscape in America.


      From this humble beginning in the sweltering, humid heat and back-breaking work of picking cotton, African-American artists penned the notes of a new from of music called ragtime that would eventually evolve into jazz. It was the Cakewalk, unintentionally and ironically, that crossed the bounds of race and class status as it burst into the popular consciousness of America By the 1890’s, African-American actors, dancers and musicians had started forming their own production companies and staged versions of the Cakewalk became all the rage.

      Scott Joplin, (1867-1917), was an early musical pioneer of the Cakewalk style of music. Known as the “King of Ragtime,” Joplin wrote and performed in the style of rag—a combination of dance and marching music entwined with the “ragged” rhythms and soul of African music. One of Joplin’s most famous pieces was “The Ragtime Dance,” (published in 1902), that included a Cakewalk:

      “Turn left and do the “Cakewalk Prance, Turn the other way and do the “Slow drag, Now take your lady to the World’s Fair and do the ragtime dance. Cakewalk soft and sweetly, be sure your steps done neatly.”

      The vaudeville team of Mr. Egbert Williams and Mr. George Walker were two of the first African-Americans to take their musical show on the road in a grand scale. Crowds packed into The New York theatre in 1903 for 53 stunning performances of song and Cakewalk dances in William’s and Walker’s new production “In Dahomey” -- the first all-black musical to be performed on a grand scale in a major Broadway venue. After its raging success in America, “In Dahomey” crossed the Atlantic, performing for seven months of standing-room-only audiences at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London before returning to New York.

      By the turn of the century, Americans were moving off farms and into towns and cities in record numbers. Ragtime music transformed into a new genre called “Jazz,” with emerging talents like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington playing at the Cotton Club in New York.

      By 1930, the public fascination with dance theatre began to fade as America was lured by the intrigue of other forms of entertainment like talking motion pictures. But the early concepts and the heritage established by the Cakewalk endured throughout the twentieth century and into the 21st, namely, as a contest to raise money at church socials and school functions. The Cakewalk also delivered new words into the American vocabulary-“take the cake,” and “it’s a real cakewalk,” are terms used to refer to something that is “the best,” or a job easily done. Cakewalk software is a cutting-edge firm today that produces award-winning digital audio and recording software to the music industry.

      + + +
      I’m nearing my 54th birthday in November, some 46 years removed from my second-grade class. I had been lost until that Cakewalk at Yoke’s, yet now I’m found. I’ve learned a lesson in respect through the Cakewalk -- a lesson that taught me how emancipation allowed the enslaved to express themselves through music and dance. A lesson that freedom is an unalienable right bestowed upon all Americans. I’ve gained a deep appreciation for the place that this little ditty we call the Cakewalk plays in the history of America, opening our eyes to a world that was color blind.

      I found my personal truth in the Cakewalk -- a truth far richer and deeper than the dreams of a boy winning a cake.

      * * *
      David Ross lives in Spokane, but works a one-hour plane ride away. When he's not tending to his day job -- or commuting -- he writes about food and reviews restaurants. He is on the eGullet Society hosting team.
    • By JohnT
      I have been asked to make Chinese Bow Tie desserts for a function. However, I have never made them, but using Mr Google, there are a number of different recipes out there. Does anybody have a decent recipe which is tried and tested? - these are for deep-fried pastry which are then soaked in sugar syrup.
    • By shain
      Makes 40 cookies, 2 loaves. 
       
      50-60 g very aromatic olive oil
      80 g honey 
      120 to 150 g sugar (I use 120 because I like it only gently sweet) 
      2 eggs
      2 teaspoons of fine lemon zest, from apx 1 lemon 
      230 g flour 
      1 teaspoon salt 
      1 teaspoon baking powder 
      75 g lightly toasted peeled pistachios
      50 g lightly toasted almonds (you can replace some with pine nuts) 
      Optional: a little rosemary or anise seed
      Optional: more olive oil for brushing
       
      Heat oven to 170 deg C.
      In mixer (or by hand), mix oil, honey, sugar, lemon, egg and if desired, the optional spices - until uniform. 
      Separately mix together the flour, salt and baking powder. 
      Add flour mixture to mixer bowel with liquids and fold until uniform. Dough will be sticky and quite stiff. Don't knead or over mix. 
      Add nuts and fold until well dispersed. 
      On a parchment lined baking tray, create two even loaves of dough. 
      With moist hands, shape each to be rectangular and somewhat flat - apx 2cm heigh, 6cm wide and 25cm long. 
      Bake 25 to 30 minutes until golden and baked throughout, yet somewhat soft and sliceable. Rotate pan if needed for even baking. 
      Remove from tray and let chill slightly or completely. 
      Using a sharp serrated knife, gently slice to thin 1/2 cm thick cookies. Each loaf should yield 20 slices. 
      Lay slices on tray and bake for 10 minutes. Flip and bake for another 10-15 minutes until complelty dry and lightly golden. 
      Brush with extra olive oil, if desired. This will and more olive flavor. 
      Let chill completely before removing from tray. 
      Cookies keep well in a closed container and are best served with desert wines or herbal tea. 
       
        
    • By Tennessee Cowboy
      I'd like help from anyone on making the best Pistachio Ice cream.  This forum is a continuation of a conversation I started in my "introduction" post, which you can see at 
      I recently made Pistachio ice cream using the Jeni's Ice Cream Cookbook.  I love Pistachio ice cream, so I've launched an experiment to find the best recipe.  I am going to try two basic approaches:  The Modernist Cookbook gelato, which uses no cream at all, and ice cream; I'm also experimenting with two brands of pistachio paste and starting with pistachios and no paste.  Lisa Shock and other People who commented on the earlier thread said that the key is to start with the best Pistachio Paste. &nbsp;  
      Any advice is appreciated.  Here is where I am now:  I purchased a brand of pistachio paste through nuts.com named "Love 'n Bake."  When it arrived, it was 1/2 pistachios and 1/2 sugar and olive oil.   I purchased a second batch through Amazon from FiddleyFarms; it is 100% pistachios.  I bought raw pistachios through nuts.com.  The only raw ones were from California.  If anyone has advice on using the MC recipe or on best approaches to ice cream with this ingredient I'd appreciate them.  I will report progress on my experiment in this forum.
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