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Special Edition: Cake Mixes

This is a special issue of “FCLO”, devoted to chocolate cake mixes. What’s this? The woman who constantly advocates making everything from scratch is working with cake mixes? Well, I’m not unsympathetic to the time crunches in which almost all of us find ourselves these days. If it isn’t extra hours at your job, it’s soccer practice for the kids or getting the cat to the vet or trying to find time for your significant other (or yourself). Cake mixes are usually quick, easy, and convenient; in some cases, they’re less expensive than baking your own cake, too. My objections to them involve the use of ingredients that you don’t need to be consuming (ranging from trans fats to propylene glycol), and the fact that, in the past, I hadn’t thought any of them tasted very good. But I decided to start from the proverbial Square One here. I bought a box or package of every kind of chocolate cake mix I could reasonably obtain (there weren’t as many as I’d thought there would be). If a chocolate frosting mix was sold with the cake mix, I bought that, too; otherwise, I used a canned, ready-to-spread frosting of the same brand as the cake mix (in one case, the only frosting mix available with the brand of cake mix was a vanilla frosting mix, so I used that). All of the mixes were prepared according to package directions, using my KitchenAid stand mixer fitted with a paddle beater. I used the same brand of eggs (graded “large”) for all of the mixes. Where oil was called for, I used one brand of corn oil; where butter was required, I used one brand of butter. Similarly, I used one brand of whole milk where milk was required; any water used was tap water. All of the mixes were baked in a doubled foil pan (I won’t use a single foil pan to bake a cake, as they simply don’t bake well); each pan was of the same brand and measured 12-3/4 by 9 by 1-27/32 inches (the label states they can be used for 13 by 9 recipes). Pans were rotated 180 degrees in the oven every 10 minutes while baking. After recording my reactions to all of the mixes, I then set out to make up one of my own.

One statement to which you’ll see numerous references is “contains ingredients people don’t need to consume”. Just what does that mean, you ask, given that, strictly speaking, nobody really needs to be eating chocolate cake? This is a reference to ingredients, and it’s one of my biggest problems with any type of convenience food. When I make a cake from scratch, I don’t see a need to put in any preservatives or artificial flavors/colors. I understand that the dry ingredients I’m using won’t be boxed and held for who knows how long on a supermarket shelf, and I know the manufacturers of these mixes cannot use ingredients the FDA hasn’t approved. I also recognize that ingesting a minute quantity of propylene glycol or polysorbate 60 probably won’t harm you (although I’m not prepared to say what happens if you continue to ingest these substances). But for how long are American consumers going to continue to trade good taste and healthier foods for convenience? Additionally, I am concerned about the presence of “trans fats” (the partially hydrogenated oils) found in so many of these products. As I was writing this edition, the FDA finally issued an order that food manufacturers must list the presence and quantity of trans fats on their food labels; too bad the regulation won’t take effect until 2006. In any case, there now appears to be overwhelming evidence that trans fats are as artery-clogging as saturated fats. In addition, trans fats may cause cells to be less responsive to the insulin manufactured by your body. Occasional ingestion of a small quantity of trans fats likely wouldn’t be an issue for most people, but too many Americans have a steady diet of partially hydrogenated oils, which are hidden in many kinds of foods.

Mixes are listed in the random order in which I prepared them. Following each listing are my reactions. Please remember that these were my experiences, and yours may be different. And, if you’ve never considered making your own chocolate cake mix before, do give it a try; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


**Betty Crocker SuperMoist Chocolate Fudge Cake Mix and Rich & Creamy Dark Chocolate Ready-to-Spread Frosting
(purchased at local market). Cake Mix: $1.19 (18.25 ounces), Frosting: $1.59 (16 ounces). Fat used: oil.

*General description: a thin batter of a medium chocolate color that rose nicely during baking. Cake baked within time frame specified on package. Baked cake had a dark chocolate color with an airy texture and a taste that was mildly chocolate but mostly sweet. Frosting was a dark chocolate color; amount was adequate for the top of a 13 by 9 cake but would be scant for a layer cake. Frosting taste was mostly salty-sweet, with a bit of a metallic aftertaste, but no chocolate flavor.

*What I Liked: cost, convenience.

*What I Disliked: both cake mix and frosting contain ingredients people don’t need to consume, frosting had no chocolate flavor, sodium level in cake was high, cake mix instructions not suitable for mixer fitted with a paddle beater (instructions call for beating all ingredients “on low speed 1 minute, scraping bowl constantly”. Since I couldn’t do that with a stand mixer, I beat all ingredients at low speed for 1 minute, stopping every 15 seconds to scrape down the bowl and beater. This was insufficient; at the end of the beating time, the batter still contained many large lumps. I whisked the batter briskly for about 30 seconds; there were still many lumps, but at least they were smaller. However, the cake baked up well).


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**Kitchen Krafts Chocolate Cake Mix and Chocolate Buttrcreme Icing
(1-888-241-3614 or www.kitchenkrafts.com). Cake Mix: $1.95 (16 ounces), Icing: $8.95 (sold only in a 3.5 pound tub) (neither cost includes shipping). Fat used: oil.

*General description: a thin chocolatey-colored batter with many small lumps. Cake baked within time frame specified on package. Baked cake was only 2/3 inch high; very low volume. A nice velvety texture, without the airiness associated with most mixes. Some chocolate flavor, but it was overridden by a mildly salty/acidic taste. Icing very fluffy and a bit stiff; not as easy to spread as some. Resembled chocolate vegetable shortening in appearance, texture, and taste.

*What I Liked: velvety texture of cake.

*What I Disliked: icing sold only in 3.5 pound tub, must remember to order cake mix and icing, both cake mix and icing contain ingredients people don’t need to consume, salty/acidic taste in baked cake, low volume of baked cake, taste and texture of icing.


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**Pillsbury Moist Supreme Devil’s Food Cake Mix and Creamy Supreme Chocolate Fudge Frosting (purchased at local market). Cake Mix: $2.19 (18.25 ounces), Frosting: $1.99 (16 ounces). Fat used: oil.

*General description: a smooth, medium-chocolate-colored batter that had a lot of tiny, dark flecks in it (undissolved cocoa powder, perhaps?). Flecks disappeared during baking. Cake baked within time frame specified on package. Top surface of baked cake had many small cracks. Cake had a mild but “fake” chocolate flavor; primary tastes were salty and sweet. Airy texture common to cakes made from mixes. Frosting, though a chocolatey color, had no chocolate flavor and tasted salty, sweet, and slightly metallic. Adequate amount of frosting for top of a 13 by 9 cake, but it might be scant for a layer cake.

*What I Liked: convenience.

*What I Disliked: both cake mix and frosting contain ingredients people don’t need to consume, “fake” chocolate flavor in cake, salty taste in cake, lack of chocolate flavor in frosting, general flavor of frosting.


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**King Arthur Flour Traditional Chocolate Cake Mix and Chocolate-Fudge Icing Mix

(purchased from catalog by calling 1-800-777-4434, also at www.KingArthurFlour.com). Cake Mix: $4.50 (22 ounces), Frosting Mix: $4.25 (17 ounces) (neither cost includes shipping). Fat used: butter in cake mix, butter in frosting mix.

*General description: a fluffy, rather thick batter (it might be difficult for an older hand-held mixer to deal with) of a good chocolatey color that filled the pan nicely when baked. Cake baked within time frame specified on package. Baked cake had a moderately chocolate flavor; icing had a mild-to-moderate chocolate flavor. Frosting was fluffy, of a paler chocolate color than cake, and there was a very generous amount of it.

*What I Liked: use of unbleached flour in the cake mix, you add your own salt to the cake batter (this means you can adjust the amount to your tastes), there are almost no ingredients to which I can object (although I could do without the artificial chocolate flavor in the icing mix), neither cake nor frosting were too sweet, baked cake had a nice velvety texture without the airiness associated with so many mixes, icing didn’t get too hard when cold.

*What I Disliked: both cake and icing mixes are expensive and you must remember to order them, the recommended use of half shortening and half butter in the icing (despite what the package tells you, the icing spreads beautifully when made entirely with butter, and I think the taste is much superior).


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**Duncan Hines Moist Deluxe Devil’s Food Cake Mix and Creamy Home-Style Classic Chocolate Frosting
(purchased at local market). Cake Mix: $1.19 (18.25 ounces), Frosting: $1.79 (16 ounces). Fat used: oil.

*General description: a medium-thick batter with many small lumps that rose much higher in the center than on the edges during baking. Baked cake a dark chocolate color with a mild chocolate flavor. Airy texture common to cakes made from mixes. Frosting was a slightly lighter shade of chocolate brown than the cake, with an initial mild chocolate flavor and a salty, almost metallic, aftertaste. Adequate amount of frosting for top of 13 by 9 cake, but might be scant for a layer cake.

*What I Liked: cost, convenience.

*What I Disliked: both cake mix and frosting contain ingredients people don’t need to consume, general flavor of frosting.


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**Homespunn Originals Chocolate Dreams Cake Mix and Butter Cream Frosting Mix (1-866-587-3427 or www.homespunnoriginals.net). Cake Mix: $6.99 (38 ounces), Frosting Mix (Vanilla): $3.99 (10 ounces) (neither cost includes shipping). Fat used: butter in cake mix, butter in frosting mix.

*General description: a huge quantity of a rather thick, fluffy batter of a light chocolate color that baked into a very solid cake slightly above the edges of the pan. Batter problematic for a hand-held electric mixer, something not specified in instructions. Cake contained a couple of pecan pieces; could cause problems for people with allergies. Cake mix instructions too vague. Package stated that cake would require 30 to 35 minutes to bake; cake required 70 minutes. Heavy top crust on much of baked cake, probably due to extended baking time. Baked cake tasted mostly of applesauce (mix requires two cups of applesauce). Frosting mix contained pecan pieces but this was not specified on website or via phone; could cause problems for people with allergies and during mixing process. Once pecan pieces had been sifted out, frosting mix yielded a very generous amount of a cream cheese-butter vanilla frosting. Texture of frosting a bit “loose”, but this was not a problem for the top of a 13 by 9 cake. Frosting not too hard to cut well even when cold.

*What I Liked: no artificial ingredients, taste of frosting.

*What I Disliked: both cake and frosting mixes are expensive, you must remember to order them, vague instructions, excessive quantity of batter, excessive baking time of cake, overly-solid texture of cake, lack of chocolate flavor in cake, sloppiness of manufacturer in allowing nut pieces into cake mix and not informing consumers that frosting mix contains nuts.


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**Dr. Oetker Simple Organics Chocolate Cake Mix and Chocolate Icing Mix
(purchased at local market). Cake Mix: $2.69 (17.1 ounces), Icing Mix: $2.69 (11.3 ounces). Fat used: oil in cake mix, butter in frosting mix.

*General description: Both mixes use mostly organic ingredients. Smooth batter of medium thickness. Package instructions specified 30 to 35 minute baking time for 13 by 9 inch pan; cake tested done in 27 minutes. Bake cake sank moderately in a palm-sized patch halfway between center and one short edge of pan. Baked cake a dark chocolate color. Texture less airy than that of most cakes from mixes. Cake of a mild yet dulled chocolate flavor. Icing mix instructions vague; no beating time specified. After icing was beaten at high speed for one minute, it was still slightly gritty and too thin to spread neatly (not a problem for top of a 13 by 9 cake, but would be difficult for a layer cake). Icing not as dark-colored as cake but still chocolatey-looking. Initial sweet-chocolate taste of icing fades to salty/sour/strong metallic aftertaste. Cake and icing seem mismatched; icing too sweet for cake. Amount of icing adequate for top of 13 by 9 cake; might be scant (and would be runny) for layer cake.

*What I Liked: use of many organic ingredients, lack of preservatives and artificial ingredients, convenience.

*What I Disliked: flavor of cake, flavor of icing, vague instructions on icing, icing texture, mismatch of cake and icing flavors.


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**ShopRite Deep Chocolate Cake Mix and Creamy Fudge Frosting
(purchased at local ShopRite). Cake Mix: $0.97 (18.25 ounces), Frosting: $1.19 (16 ounces). Fat used: oil.

*General description: A medium-thick, mostly smooth, mud-colored batter. Cake baked within time frame specified on package. Baked cake a dark chocolate color with airy texture common to cakes made from mixes. Very mild chocolate flavor with salty/slightly acidic overtones. Frosting a very dark chocolate color. Mild chocolate flavor, mostly tasted of sweetness. Amount of frosting adequate for top of 13 by 9 cake; might be scant for layer cake.

*What I Liked: cost, convenience.

*What I Disliked: chocolate flavor too mild in both cake and frosting, salty/acidic flavor notes in cake, frosting too sweet, both cake and frosting contain ingredients people don’t need to consume.


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**My Chocolate Cake Mix

Tips: This contains no partially hydrogenated fats or preservatives or artificial colors/flavors; it’s just a basic mix for a basic chocolate cake. If you’re going to make this, I’d suggest making up several batches of the mix at one time. Store it in an airtight container (or a doubled airtight plastic bag) in a cool, dry place (not the refrigerator!) for up to two months. I have used unbleached all-purpose flour; my assumption is that it would work with bleached all-purpose flour, but since I never have that in the house I haven’t tried it. You’ll need unsweetened, Dutch process (also referred to as “alkalized”) cocoa powder. I have used both Hershey’s and Droste successfully. Make sure your baking powder is dated as far ahead as possible.

This cake can be made with either unsalted butter or a tasteless vegetable oil (I used corn oil in my tests). For instructions with oil, see Note. The baked cake will keep at room temperature for a couple of days, if stored airtight; it also freezes. If you frost the cake, you’ll need to store it in the fridge.

Approximate cost of dry ingredients: $1.50, about 23 ounces of mix

Ingredients:

  • 2-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, stirred before measuring and spooned lightly into measuring cup
  • 1-2/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder
  • Large pinch of salt
Method:

Sift or strain all ingredients into large bowl. With large spoon, blend well until of an even color. Carefully pour or spoon into airtight storage container. Seal; store at cool, dry room temperature for up to 2 months.

To make a cake, you’ll need:

  • One package or container of cake mix
  • 1-1/4 cups water
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened (butter must be soft but not melted)
  • 3 eggs, graded “large”
  • Optional (but good): 2 tsp. vanilla

Method:

Adjust rack to center of oven; preheat oven to 350 degrees F. This can be made with a stand mixer or a powerful hand-held mixer; if stand mixer is used, fit with paddle beater, if available.

Select and prepare pan(s). To use a doubled foil pan as described above, simply place one empty pan inside another; pans need not be greased. To use layer pans, choose pans either 8 OR 9 inches in diameter, and at least 1-1/2 inches deep. Grease pans, line bottoms with circles of wax paper cut to fit, grease paper, and dust entire inside of pans lightly with flour, knocking out any excess. I usually use solid vegetable shortening to grease my pans. Yes, this is partially hydrogenated, but you’re using a very small quantity and I use it almost exclusively for that purpose these days. You can substitute additional butter to grease the pans if you wish.

Pour cake mix into a large bowl or large bowl of electric mixer. Add remaining ingredients. Beat at lowest speed until dry ingredients are moistened (if using a hand-held mixer, beat at a low speed). Thoroughly scrape bowl and beater(s) with rubber spatula. Beat two minutes at medium speed. Batter may appear slightly curdled, but will bake up fine. Pour into prepared pan(s).

Bake in preheated oven for 27 to 35 minutes, turning pan(s) back-to-front once about halfway during baking time (if using layer pans, switch their positions in the oven as you do so). Cake is done when toothpick inserted in center emerges with a few moist crumbs still clinging to it. Do not overbake!

Remove pan(s) to cooling racks. For doubled foil oblong pan, allow cake to cool completely before serving or frosting. For layer pans, cool 10 to 15 minutes. Gently loosen cakes from edges of pan; invert onto cooling racks. Carefully peel off wax paper circles from cake bottoms; re-invert to cool right side up. Cool completely before frosting.

Note: to make cake with oil, use a tasteless vegetable oil (such as corn oil), and use only 1/2 cup (yes, 1/2 cup oil instead of 3/4 cup butter). Prepare cake as directed above with stand mixer, hand-held mixer, or by hand using a whisk EXCEPT: after dry ingredients are moistened and bowl beater(s) scraped, beat only one minute at medium speed. Bake and cool as directed above.


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**My Chocolate Frosting Mix

Tips: A simple, confectioners’ sugar frosting. Again, you’ll need unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder. If there is a trick to this, it lies in the beating. It’s important to scrape the mixing bowl and beater(s) thoroughly and often as you beat this frosting, as a darker mixture of cocoa and butter likes to hide on the sides and bottom of the bowl.

Approximate cost of dry ingredients: $1.70, about 16 ounces of mix

Ingredients:

  • 3-1/2 cups unsifted confectioners’ sugar
  • 2/3 cup unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder
  • Few grains of salt

Method:

Sift or strain all ingredients into large bowl. With large spoon, blend until of an even color. Carefully pour or spoon into airtight storage container. Seal; store at cool, dry room temperature for up to 2 months.

To make frosting, you’ll need:

  • One package or container of frosting mix
  • 2/3 cup unsalted butter, softened (butter must be soft but not melted)
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Method:

This can be made with a stand mixer or a powerful hand-held mixer; if stand mixer is used, fit with paddle beater, if available. Pour frosting mix into a large bowl or large bowl of electric mixer. Add remaining ingredients. Beat at lowest speed until dry ingredients are moistened (if using a hand-held mixer, beat at a low speed). Thoroughly scrape bowl and beater(s) with rubber spatula.

Beat at medium-high speed for 2 to 3 minutes, until fluffy and well-blended (stop mixer a few times during beating process to scrape bowl and beater(s)). Check consistency; if frosting is too stiff to spread well, add a few more drops of warm water and beat again until it’s incorporated. Use frosting immediately on thoroughly cooled cake.

Store frosted cake airtight in refrigerator. To serve, use a large, sharp knife to cut serving pieces. Allow to stand at room temperature, loosely covered, 20 to 30 minutes before serving (cake and frosting will both have a much fuller flavor if served with the chill off).

Each frosted cake will yield about 12 servings.


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Stephanie Zonis provides the above information to anyone, but retains copyright on all text. This means that you MAY not: distribute the text to others without the express written permission of Stephanie Zonis; "mirror" or include this information on your own server or documents without my permission; modify or re-use the text on this system. You MAY: print copies of the information for your own personal use; store the files on your own computer for your personal use only; reference hypertext documents on this server from your own documents.

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