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Article about cake mixes in the New York Times

  • s

This article really infuriated me. Sometimes I feel like there's an ongoing plot afoot trying to convince people that really easy cooking tasks are incredibly difficult. The author keeps going on about the tyranny of sifting flour. I mean, yes it's true that sifting your dry ingredients can add extra lightness to a cake, but it's really not necessary to sift anything to make a basic cake that's 3 million times better than a cake mix cake. Not to mention the fact that the cake she raved about (banana cake) is probably one of the easiest, no fuss cakes for anyone to make from scratch. Is it just me who feels this way?

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/08/din...

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  1. I completely agree! plus I would add that sifting flour is really not that difficult of a task. How lazy are people becoming?

    1. s
      Seattle Rose

      Sharon, I agree with you. The "prepared" foods industry has tried to convince us that cooking real food is just too difficult and time consuming for today's adult to deal with. Making a cake from scratch in reality takes little more time than a cake mix and is better and less expensive. Also no artificial flavors, preservatives, etc.


      9 Replies
      1. re: Seattle Rose
        AGM/Cape Cod

        The sad thing is that now a cake made from a mix is considered a homemade cake.

        1. re: AGM/Cape Cod

          Same with pies - people say a pie is homemade if they bought the crust at Safeway and then put filling in it. No way as far as I'm concerned.

          1. re: Celeste

            I'll let them off if the crust is store bought (it's a task I see people screw up many a time) BUT the filling has to be handmade. No opening of a can of pie filling and dumping that in. Do SOME work for goodness sakes.

            1. re: SisterT
              Ann Vuletich

              There's a huge difference between the frozen pie crusts (not very good) and the ones in the red box (Pillsbury, but there may be others as well) which are actually pretty good. Probably don't compare to home made, if you know how to do pie crusts well, but they're not bad.

              1. re: Ann Vuletich

                I agree with you about the Pillsbury refrigerated crusts. They are so much better than frozen, although I have frozen and thawed them with fairly good results. Glad to hear that someone else shsares my opinion. D.

                1. re: Donna - MI

                  I agree too! I cannot make pie crust - but I love pie, so the refrigerated ones work for me, with real homemade fillings.

                  1. re: Barbara

                    Thanks for agreeing! I can make pie crust - but have since passed the honor to my oldest daughter who makes it divinely from the recipe I gave her.

                    I absolutely make my own fillings and egg white meringue when called for. It's just the crust I hate to make anymore. At age 60, I have passed the torch - and the Dough Boy fills the bill. D.

                    1. re: Donna - MI

                      I use prepared pie crusts for savories (like quiches), but one quibble I have is that it's very difficult to find ones without lard, even Pillsbury. This is especially important when I make things for my vegetarian friends. I've been able to find ones with shortening at my local health food store but not at my supermarket.

                      1. re: Chorus Girl

                        I was surprised to read the label and learn that lard is an ingredient. Not an issue for me, as I grew up on lard pie crust, I just said, "no wonder it tastes so good."

                        My boss (previous to that time) always bought those for the restaurant she ran, and enjoyed them. She considered herself to be a vegetarian. Maybe she hadn't read the label.

      2. a
        Ann Vuletich

        I had the same thoughts. As I am just starting to become a bake a holic, it mystifies me how people could think that adding ingredients to a prepared mix is any easier than mixing the ingredients from scratch. I guess it is the power of the media as others have pointed out.

        1. Yoiks, that is irritating. I just walked my roommate, who is a mix-only baker, through a from-scratch brownie recipe last night. She was astonished at how easy it was (and how similar to using a mix), and how much more delicious the final product.

          1 Reply
          1. re: persynna

            With brownies, there's a big difference. Mixes only use as much chocolate (cheap cocoa actually) as will color the product brown. Scratch recipes start much higher and move up from there.

          2. And then she (the writer) was bummed that the first cake "tasted like a mix". I mean, DUH! it WAS made from a mix! Just because you baked it yourself doesn't mean it's not going to taste like the five thousand chemicals that went into the box. Also, if you're going to the trouble to mash the bananas and 'doctor" up your cake, why not just take the extra three minutes and put the baking powder into the flour yourself?

            1. I find the texture of a cake mix absolutely horrendous. Its like biting into cotton candy. My friends from Europe crack up about the textures of our breads and cakes. I personally feel if I am going to bake (and cake is my fav) I'm going to eat big slices and enjoy it. That said, I don't need the hydrogenated junk/sodium and preservatives in it. Also, for cholesteral sufferers, Smart Balance butter products work beautifully for cakes and buttercream frostings and they also now make a Crisco type Non-hydrogenated shortening that works perfectly as well. EggBeaters work perfectly too. I just don't think a box mix comes close to homemade. And whats the fuss about creaming sugar, butter and eggs, then sifting and adding flour. Anytime I ever opened a box mix, I wound up wearing it because I couldn't tear open the innter cellophane bag.

              7 Replies
              1. re: Duffelbag

                could you share the name of the crisco-like product that is non-hydrogenated?

                high cholesterol-sufferer...

                1. re: Duffelbag

                  Plus, if you don't feel like creaming the butter and sugar together (never a problem for me!), get Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible. Her basic technique eliminates creaming butter and sugar and, as I recall, greatly reduces the chances of overbeating the batter.

                  1. re: Timowitz

                    I love the Cake Bible - it is perfect for those times when I need a cake NOW!

                    1. re: Danielle

                      Her "Pie & Pastry Bible" is just as good.

                      1. re: Chorus Girl

                        Thanks, I'll have to check that out!

                        1. re: Chorus Girl

                          I agree -- her flaky cream cheese pie crust recipy (RLB's Pie and Pastry Bible) changed my pie-making! It's the single most flavorful, delicous crust I've ever had. I've always liked pastry (I was lucky enough to have a grandmother who rendered lard herself and mixed it with butter to make pie crust -- to those of you who are grossed out -- you'll just have to believe me that it was light, flavorful and wonderful), and enjoyed it as much or more than any of the fillings. I grew up in a family where my mother and two of my four sisters would scrape the filling off the pie crust, leaving the crust on the plate! (meanwhile my brother and I would salvage and devour their pie crusts happily, sometimes leaving a less tha stellar filling on the plate). For me, the filling has always been sort of "yeah, yeah, whatever" -- I'm there for the pastry! RLB has that same kind of focus -- her concept of making such good, integral, sturdy but delicious pastry that you can actually unmold pies -- not just tarts -- was revolutionary to me. And I don't mind her obsessive in-and-out-of-the-freezer endless make-work stuff, since she has a good reason for all of it and the extra work shows in the product.

                          For those of you who like pastry and pie-and-tart making, if you haven't bought this book, get it now!

                          1. re: Mrs. Smith

                            You're quite right. All her 'fussy' little techniques and trips to the fridge really make a difference. I can now make a perfect pie crust. Thanks Rose, if you're lurking. :)

                  2. I always thought it fun to bake "from scratch". I have a co-worker who is always amazed when I scratch bake, "How do you have the [time, money to get all those ingredients, patience, etc...]? It takes no more time than a mix, just about everyone has the basic ingredients in the cupboards to begin with, the few things you add aren't expensive or bizarre. I find baking/cooking relaxing.

                    I gave away bread baker after 4 uses (2 for making bread, 2 as a big kneading machine). I get more pleasure and delicious results by hand. We need a make it yourself revolution in a big way.

                    15 Replies
                    1. re: SisterT


                      I work at home. WHen I am asked to bring something, it is quicker and easier to scratch-bake something. I have encountered some negative comments that I was showing off and trying to make everyone else look bad. Apparently, if I drive over to the grocery and pay $7 for a mediocre frosted cake and crumby cookies, then I am making others feel comfortable. Tooo bad!

                      Though it may be frustrating to see Dunkin' Donuts and store bought cakes at school events. I take pleasure that my homemade stuff disapeers first.

                      Oh well!

                      1. re: cathy2

                        Even weirder are the school districts that have made rules about "no homemade goodies"--if kids have allergies, I guess the theory is that parents want to be able to sue a manufacturer rather than their child's schoolmates or something. Has anyone else encountered these rules yet?

                        I love to bake (typically several times a week from scratch), and once or twice a year will use a brownie mix, adding my own extra cocoa and vanilla, and sometimes extra chips/nuts/candies. Frankly, most people don't notice the difference. I bake from scratch because I like to, and I think it tastes better, and is probably better for the world in the long run--I would never bother doing it if I expected other people to suddenly become converted to Slow Foodism or my own set of beliefs about scratch vs. mix.

                        One evening when some friends were over, I quickly whipped up a batch of chocolate chip cookies for us to much--with the recipe memorized, it might as well be "instant". One visitor was a sous chef (now chef in NYC) at a good local place and he was stunned--he said, "Man, I've never seen anyone just...just...make cookies! Like that!"

                        1. re: alight

                          I don't think it's a question of people being forced to cook everything slowly with complicated recipes and homegrown ingredients. I don't think it's even a question of everyone having to cook all their meals all the time. It's that the fast food corporations foist these lies on people, exacerbating people's insecurities about cooking. Not everyone can cook like a chef in a restaurant. However, ANYONE can cook a simple wholesome meal from scratch in the same amount of time that it takes to follow the instructions on mixes and prepared sauces.

                          1. re: Sharon
                            Stanley Stephan

                            I pre-date wide spread fast food. There were lousy cooks back before packaged mixes, etc were widespread. If anything, convenience food is a blessing for those folks. No, not everyone has the talent.

                            I've spent some big bucks on quality ingrediants to turn out garbage. I've said this quite a lot. I've tons of cookbooks. I love the idea of cooking. It's just that the end result is so rotton. It took me five years to learn to make a decent roast turkey. I thought i would die the first Thanksgiving dinner I made. The horror, the horror.

                            Not everyone can sing. Not everyone can draw. Not everyone can cook. Or wants to.

                            1. re: Stanley Stephan

                              What are these cookbooks you have that provide recipes that don't work? Throw them out, and get real recipe books.

                              What expensive ingredients turned out "rotten"?

                              Are you like that previous poster, who feels that following recipes cramps her style?

                              Do you really think that "talent" is the only factor, and two people following the same directions exactly, with exactly the same ingredients, will have strikingly different results?

                              Sounds like you're speaking of a divine intervention here.

                              1. re: ironmom
                                Stanley Stephan

                                Well, I guess I'm just coming over to your house to eat. I'll buy the ingrediants.

                                I shop at the SF Ferry Plaza Market. That's were quite a few top SF chefs pick up their ingrediants. Other than doing fresh fruits and veggies when I add the element of HEAT, all hell breaks loose. Even without heat.

                                There was this tutti-frutti recipe ... brandy, sugar, fresh fruit. Let marinate. For me, every October it meant throw out. This was with really, really good brandy and really, really prime $3 - $5 a pound fruit. I even talked to the rather well-known and respected auther of the recipe, who I knew, about what the heck was going wrong.

                                There are the anti idiot savants of cooking.

                                I do plan to take a shot at cooking up some pea shoots, my latest restuarnat find. I think it's easier than trying to learn the Chinese for pea shoot. (Although I did print out that translation, Ruth, that I carry around for the next time I eat Chinese).

                                1. re: Stanley Stephan

                                  I've always been suspicious of those marinated fruit recipes, myself. I just figured the end product was not to my liking. Plus, some things seem to spoil when other people claim theirs are only improving.

                                  Did you read that thread on moroccan spoiled butter the other day? Not something I would try making at home.

                            2. re: Sharon

                              It is simply not true that ANYONE can prepared a simple meal from scratch in the same amount of time as from following the directions on a box.

                              People who know how to cook don't understand the depth of ignorance of some noncooks. Many noncooks don't know what basic cooking terms mean, don't know how to use basic equipment, and, most of all, don't have basic staples in their kitchen.

                              I once brought polenta with pesto to a potluck, remarking that I didn't have time to shop so I just used what I had on hand. The friend to whom I made this remark -- a decent cook herself -- seemed quite surprised that I would have all the ingredients for pesto and polenta in my kitchen, but heck, it was summer, the garden was full of basil, and doesn't everyone have cornmeal, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and parmesan at all times? Well no, I guess they don't.

                              My housemate ran into the "no homemade goodies" rule at her son's school. Apparently the issue is sanitation and food tampering. The food is not only supposed to be from a commercial source, but sealed in the original packaging.

                              How sad!

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                Recently Saveur Magazine printed a review of a breakfast cookbook that proposed that you could cook a decent breakfast every morning in no more time than you usually spend futzing around in the kitchen, ending up with a toaster pastry and bad coffee.

                                I know this is true, as I did it every day. I got up no earlier than anyone else at work, and I had cooked my family a complete breakfast, while the others ended up waiting to get to work and scrounge burnt or stale muffins in the cafeteria.

                                The reviewer was sure it could not be done, and that breakfast was probably not worth eating anyway. Did this affect his objectivity?

                                1. re: ironmom

                                  Possibly -- the reviewer shouldn't be making sweeping statement like that, and neither should all the people on this thread making assumptions about what "anyone" can do.

                                  Certainly it is possible for some people to cook a decent breakfast quickly and easily in the morning.

                                  However I don't think it's fair to extrapolate that to say that anyone can do it. Some people can't cook. Some people can't function in the morning. People whose poor cooking is complicated by inability to function in the morning will most likely not produce edible food and will be cranky about the whole process to boot.

                                  Some people don't even want to make breakfast in the morning -- I'm not hungry until about two hours after I wake up or 10:00 a.m., which ever comes first. Making breakfast and choking it down at 7 a.m. is a total waste of time and effort for me.

                                  Moreover, as I pointed out before, people who talk about how quick and easy it is to assemble a meal never include the time and effort necessary to make sure you have a plan in mind and all the ingredients on hand. Many of us have stuff on hand to throw a meal together and the cooking skills to take what's in the pantry and turn it into a meal, but many, many people don't. So for them, they not only have to get up and prepare breakfast, but plan ahead and shop.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    Of course, there's the learning curve, and people who don't like eating breakfast would have no need or desire to tackle it.

                                    But after cooking breakfast X number of times, you settle in on a few menus, which become second nature, so you can do them half-asleep. Only the first few times would there be planning involved, and you do these sometime when you're not rushed, like a weekend. Breakfast is pretty repetitious. You just know what you need, and keep it on hand.

                                    People who don't like something shouldn't review cookbooks about it or restaurants that specialize in it. Somewhere I may still have that Thai cookbook someone gave me from the 60's, where the author said right in the intro that fish sauce is "distressingly fishy-garlicky" and proceeded to leave it out of all the recipes.

                                    1. re: ironmom

                                      You've got some good points.

                                      However as the person who smells the scorched scrambled eggs my housemate (not a morning person) makes for her son many mornings, I'd have to say that cooking in your sleep isn't as easy as you might think.

                                      I totally agree that if you don't like something, you have no business writing a cookbook about it. I've seen that kind of stuff in other cookbooks from that period, though, so I guess it was pretty common.

                                      If you ever want a good chuckle, read the introduction to Irma Goodrich Mazza's "Herbs for the kitchen" with her hysterical descriptions about how a nice WASP girl was taught to love olive oil and garlic by her Italian husband, and taught her friends about "all those green things" she was putting in the food!

                                    2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      Exactly. I think it is easy to draw, and I have a really hard time understanding why otherwise intelligent students draw telephone poles lying down flat on the ground instead of sticking up. It is SO obvious to me. I think generally we take for granted things that come easily to us, and expect them to be easy for everybody else.

                                      This is why it is important to cook with your kids, and to support the home ec program at your school. Cooking is not a skill that comes naturally, necessarily.

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                        ugh. I started cooking at 14. Simply by asking my mom "how do you scramble an egg?" (because she didn't have time to do it). I followed instructions and voila. Everyone CAN cook. It's just that some people aren't motivated, or willing to be patient and try, or they just don't WANT to. If you can't cook there must be a mental flaw somewhere...and everyone CAN function in the morning. Some people have been coddled to believe that they can't.

                                    3. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      about the school thing, it IS sad for those of us who have fond memories of bake sales.

                                      However, I'm a middle school teacher and I have seen the conditions under which many of my students live. Like with 20 cats crawling everywhere, or they have to go in through the garage because the front door is nailed shut and you have to lift a blanket to go in. Meth HOME production is at an epidemic level here, and you don't want your kids eating cookies made in a meth lab, right?? Teachers sometimes buy changes of clothes for kids so they can launder the child's clothing in the home ec room because they are NEVER washed at home, and we have had kids who shower in the gym because they don't have a bathtub, or because their parents simply don't have them wash.

                                      So, maybe if you're in a posh suburb and you know everybody, it's fine, but in the rest of the country, "no home-baked goods" is not always a bad idea.

                            3. Thanks for this. I am a die hard from scratch baker and I am sick to death of people foisting their made from a mix items at me and than gazing intently while I taste. "See you can't even tell it's from a mix, can you?" they purr. And how does one tactfully respond to this? "No, it tastes like hamster feed. How dare you make me waste even a single calorie on this slop?" or "Yes, dear. You sure did have me fooled. This is deliciously yummy. I'll never use anything but a mix ever again in my whole life..." I think the cake mix doctor can rot in hell.

                              14 Replies
                              1. re: Slow Foodie

                                Yes, how *does* one respond tactfully?

                                I realize others have different tastes due to what they grew up eating, regional differences, personal preference, etc. But I hate to lie and say that *I* like it for fear that they'll make it a point to serve it especially for me every time I see them from now till eternity. I know of several people who got trapped into a specific meal or dessert for their birthdays because they once politely said they liked it. Then 50 years later when their spouse or parent or sibling or whatever dies they tearfully claim their spot in heaven, earned by smiling and eating a food they never liked, and now in fact hate ... all in the name of politeness.

                                If someone asks me why I don't finish something on my plate, I think it's OK to just say "I'm stuffed!" or "I've already gone way over my carb allowance for the day" or something along those lines.

                                But if someone asks specifically if I like something, or asks a direct question like the one asked of Slow Foodie, I'm at a loss as to how to reply without hurting anyone's feelings and not appearing judgemental or disdainful.

                                What can one say to honor individuality and not gain a holier-than-thou reputation in these circumstances?

                                1. re: Sarnie

                                  In America (as opposed to England or France) criticism is the absence of enthusiasm.

                                  I think it's easy to be polite but not misleading if one reserves enthusiasm and just says, "Thank you very much. That was nice." Damning with faint praise?

                                  1. re: lucia

                                    Reminds me of the Southern way of describing someone as "he/she is such a nice man/woman", which can take all sorts of shades of meaning....

                                    1. re: Karl S.
                                      Mary Montgomery

                                      To get more subtle, my Midwestern mother used to say, "She's as nice as she is pretty," when she thought the woman in question was neither.

                                    2. re: lucia

                                      But why bother? Why hurt someone's feelings? It's not my mission to educate people on becoming a chowhound. So if a white lie spares their feelings, I'll say the food is great.

                                      If they honestly want feedback on how to improve it, that's another story, of course.

                                      1. re: Scooter Pie
                                        Rochelle McCune

                                        I think the reason to bother was stated in the original question - if its a family member or friend and you say "its great", then they may decide to serve it to you again and again.

                                    3. re: Sarnie

                                      Maybe you could say " You did a great job, but I think I may have gone off from eating X, its not relly doing it for me anymore" or something to that effect. first praising their work and then acknowledging your lack of enthusiasm...I think tactful delivery is key.

                                      1. re: Sarnie
                                        Stanley Stephan

                                        Be indirect and change the topic as quickly as possilbe.

                                        To the person who says that "You can't tell it's a mix"

                                        Isn't it wonderful the time mixes save. Followed by, "Have you heard of the Food Doctor" cookbooks?

                                        Or you could be subtly sarcastic

                                        i appreciate the time you spent baking. How thoughtful of you.

                                        If someone asks how you like something dreadful, there is:

                                        Really interesting (but that's a little overworked)

                                        You always amaze me with your cooking ability. One of my favorites was your sardine soup (this assumes that the person DID make a good dish in the past).

                                        What a beautiful looking dish. What else do you enjoy cooking. I'd like to hear about more of your recipes.

                                        This tastes like you took a lot of time and effort. I am always amazed that someone as busy as you has time to cook. So how are things going on the job?

                                        This reminds me of a dish my Aunt Wanda made (of course you don't mention that it was a good thing for the cooking world that Wanda took her recipes to the grave with her). Followed by, I'm sure someone in your family was a fabulous cook because someone must have taught you too cook like this. (ok, that needs work).

                                        So be prepared. Have some stock answers then next time you go out to eat at someone's house so you are not caught unaware. Perhaps there should be a chow passport for responses to bad food.

                                        Of course, now I'll never get invited to dinner by any hounds.

                                        1. re: Sarnie

                                          Oh Sarnie, it's so very hard. I agree, this is one of those situations it's almost impossible to tell the truth and be nice at the same time.

                                          I was raised in Minnesota, the Land of Nice, where no one says mean things even to their worst enemies. My extremely well-mannered, ultra-proper grandmother would say:

                                          "Oh dear, this isn't exactly to my taste. May I please have some more of your wonderful (coffee, tea, different dessert, cookie, whatever"?

                                          I never would have said this on my own if I hadn't watched her do it. I am EXTREMELY shy about offending people, especially when they have cooked for me, and I would never say this unless, like the example you brought up, they SPECIFICALLY asked me if I liked it.

                                          In my experience, the "to my taste" phrase somehow makes it acceptable. If the people I've said it to were offended, they sure didn't act like it. They usually found me something else that I did like, and then I lavished praise upon it and everyone was happy.

                                          1. re: Sarnie

                                            My ex-mother-in-law is a dreadful cook, from the thick layer of grease on her gravies, to the vegetables not trimmed of the bad spots, to the cigar ash-like store-bought black pepper she used to garnish the vegetables, to the failed desserts that got served. And nobody else there could tell the difference.

                                            She was trained to cook by a maiden aunt in a rural coastal area, and rarely used recipes.

                                            I think that when she got married and moved to a more metropolitan area, she must have perceived that her cooking was not the same as other people's, and purchased a set of booklets designed for modern housewives, by Good Housekeeping or some other national group, books that were on sale as a supermarket promotion. The pictures and recipes in there are right out of the Gallery of Regrettable Food.

                                            But for me, the family "gourmet", she had a repetoire of dishes she considered classy. She would make them and set them in front of only me proudly, and I had to eat them in gratitude.

                                            I shudder to remember.

                                            It happens.

                                            Note here that I say my ex-mother-in-law.

                                            1. re: ironmom

                                              First, ironmom, you should read the short piece "'I' is for Innocent" by MFK Fisher, especially the long footnote on eating fruit cup. If you don't have it I can post the damn funny thing here; it's not long.

                                              And now, for the first time ever, I'm going to reveal something nobody has ever said before: My grandmother can't cook. Well, maybe once she could, so my mom says. But surely not since the day I was born and definately not since I began the annual task of eating Thanksgiving dinner at her house for EVERY YEAR OF MY LIFE. Every November those Bon Apetite magazines flood the shelves with moutwatering Thanksgiving recipes that I can only stare at with longing, knowing the dry turkey, drier bread stuffing, salvaged--to put things in perspective--only by the Durkee green bean casserole. Now, I love my grandma (who just turned 88) and would gladly suffer another tasteless meal to see her, but (despite all I hear and read) I have trouble conceiving of the words "turkey" and "delicious" used in the same sentence.

                                              1. re: adam

                                                Sorry, but we cannot allow you to post verbatim something that is copyrighted, even if short. Fair use is a few sentences, quoted and given proper attribution, but if you posted the whole essay, we'd have to remove it for legal reasons.

                                          2. re: Slow Foodie

                                            the phrase "I don't care for any (more), thank you" has served the ladies in my family very well, probably since the revolution.

                                            I also have a grandmother who CAN'T COOK. a favorite story is that my cousin and aunt stayed with her for a few days once. Claire was very small (three or four) and aunt Linda told her before they got off the plane, "whatever you do honey, don't eat anything grandma cooks for you." Well, aunt Linda is tired and sleeps maybe ten or 15 mimutes longer than little Claire. Grandma comes to Claires room and offers breakfast items. Oatmeal. No thank you grandma. Cold cereal. No thank you grandma. french toast. No thank you grandma. pancakes. No thank you grandma. waffles. No thank you grandma. toast. Well, ok grandma. Aunt Linda comes to the kitchen moments later to find Claire in tears. "I didn't think she could ruin toast!"

                                            1. re: renee
                                              Stanley Stephan

                                              That story should become a classic. Very funny.

                                          3. This never ceases to amaze me. I think people who were never taught to bake by their parents are scared of baking. These people think you need special knowledge or to go to cooking school to bake anything. They don't understand that -- in most cases (and certainly with simple layer cakes ) -- if you can read, you can cook!

                                            Also, I know people who really detest cooking and baking (can you imagine?), but they occasionally want something closer to homemade than what they can buy at the local bakery. These people use mixes because they don't want to measure or buy baking soda, etc. A lot of these people who hate cooking that I know are women -- and if they have children and/or a husband they are often "guilted" into baking, even if they really hate it. I try to imagine how awful that would be -- for example, if my family "guilted" me into, say, repairing my own car! This is something I have no interest in and have no desire to learn about, and if I could buy a "mix" for it to shut them up, I certainly would!

                                            I feel sorry for those people who really truly hate cooking and baking, but I know they exist. If they are a wife or a mom, especially, they are often made to feel inadequate or inferior in some way. Perhaps they cling to these yucky mixes for support?

                                            5 Replies
                                            1. re: Mrs. Smith

                                              I love cooking, but I hate baking. It's a pain in the rear end because you have to follow a recipe. (The cheesecake I made for Thanksgiving was the last one I'm making for a long time. By the time I actually found the stupid hand mixer blades I'd given up and used the blender for the cheeses and made a fairly significant mess, though it tasted fine even if I did fudge the amounts of ingredients by estimating) I mean, I regularly cook dinner for 8-10 people and make a big fancy meal of it every week, but I don't have any measuring spoons and i've got very little idea of where my measuring cup is. Having to be precise or follow a recipe takes all the pleasure out of it for me, and baking requires a lot more of that than regular cooking. So if I've got to make a cake, I'm likely to use a mix. Chowhound or no, cake just isn't worth the effort of having to follow a recipe and buy measuring implements.

                                              But that's just my 2 cents.

                                              1. re: Bunny-Bunny

                                                You sound like you must be a talented and experienced cook if you can whip together dinner parties without recipes.

                                                So I'm a little curious...at that level of culinary sophistication, don't you find the flavor & texture of the mix cakes below your standards? Wouldn't you rather just BUY a cake? I don't mean offense, I'm just not sure why one would go to the trouble of using a mixing bowl, adding eggs, & oil, greasing the pans, waiting for the cake to bake, then washing bowl, beater, spatula,pans, etc. when they don't really enjoy the process in the first place and are going to wind up with a product that I'm sure is GOOD (or I know you wouldn't serve it) but is not GREAT.

                                                1. re: danna

                                                  A good cake mix cake can be far better than an often dried out bakery cake.

                                                  1. re: danna

                                                    I don't actually like cake cake. I mean, I like cheesecakes and such, but I don't really like layer cake type cakes, so it's sort of 6 to one, half a dozen to the other for me. If I can get away with it, I delegate the cake making to someone who enjoys that sort of thing. Step 2 is the buying from a good bakery (and there are a few really good ones around here), and step 3 is deal with the mix. To be honest, it's probably been 2 or 3 years since I've even had to resort to step 3.

                                                    I love to cook, and I think that when you get comfortable with it, get comfortable with a cuisine, and get used to how ingredients nad techniques will work together you can do a lot without recipes. I buy a ton of cookbooks and usually read through them to get a sense of what's going on (like, what ingredients, cooking methods, themes, etc are central to Basque cooking) and then go from there. So other than the Italian cooking that is almost identical to my mom's stuff, almost nothing I cook would ever be considered traditional for any one ethnicity. I also buy a lot of books that talk about technique. One of the best I've found is the Dean and Deluca book that David Rosengarten wrote, because he has these great passages about, say, the characteristics of different fish available, which cooking methods work with each kind and why, which herbs and flavors work with each and why. With that kind of information and a little confidence, recipes are rarely necessary. I also spend a lot of time trying to reverse engineer dishes I've had in restaurants and really like, and you kind of need to do that more by sense than measurement.

                                                    1. re: Bunny-Bunny

                                                      That's exactly the way I feel about cake and precisely the way I cook. I don't often choose to bake because of the boring necessity to measure but I certainly don't think it is HARD. And I would never choose to make a cake unless tradition demanded it as for a birthday. I'd rather go for fruit and cheese, or a phyllo something, or ice cream if dessert is necessary. The pleasure of cooking is as you describe: reading and absorbing, getting a sense of the tools, techniques, and ingredients and setting off on an adventure which rarely turns out the same way twice!

                                              2. Let me be a partial dissenter on this (hey, I love being contrary). I have a very close friend who is an excellent from-scratch baker who also when pressed for ingredients (like in snowstorms or when she is sick, etc.) makes wonderful cakes from mixes that taste nothing like what happens if I or others make a cake from a mix versus from scratch.

                                                1. s

                                                  I don't bake much and have actually never used a mix but a baking break through came for me when I realized I didn't have to use a sifter, which is truly one of those space-hogging single use tools. Sometimes I just use a whisk, but usually I use a wire mesh strainer and simply shake or tap it against my hand. It gets every last lump. If sifting before measuring, I shake over waxed paper and funnel it into the measuring cup. Really, how hard is that?

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: suzannapilaf

                                                    I agree about sifters. I own two (I bought the second becuase I thought that the first was just a bad sifter), and rarely use either. I find that my wire mesh strainer works so much better, is easier to use, and is far easier to clean, and I use it constantly.

                                                    I really should just throw those sifeters away.

                                                  2. I admit that I do have the Cake Mix Doctor's book, just because it's fun to look through (and it does have a good caramel frosting -- from scratch -- recipe). The thing I don't understand about the book, though, is that you don't really save any time by using a mix!! By the time you add all of her "fancy" ingredients (in order to try to make it taste homemade) and make a homemade frosting (which she insists on), it sometimes takes longer than a simple 1-2-3-4 cake. Cake mixes really only save you the "hassle" of mixing flour, baking powder, sugar and salt together, which as many have said, you don't even necessarily need to sift. Neverthless, her books are always top sellers at amazon.

                                                    1. s
                                                      Stanley Stephan

                                                      I will say that I can remember dozens of cakes from scratch that either my mother made or I made that were disasters - those ski hill cakes where only one side rises, cakes that sink in the middle, cakes that are too dry, cakes that are tough. I've never had a cake mix cake that turned out bad.

                                                      There's not all that business about alternating egg, milk and flour mixture.

                                                      In terms of time, if you are working one or more jobs and taking care of a family, the thought of pulling out quite a few bowls, sifters, measuring spoons, measuring cups and then cleaning up is exhausting. Not to mention pulling out the old cookbooks and searching through recipes and making sure you have all the ingrediants. Yes, I am that lazy.

                                                      If you look at those cake doctor recipes, for the most part, it is one bowl, dump in mix and extra's, mix up. Less work and you can count on reliable results instead of a SURPRISE.

                                                      I don't eat cake that much these days and have the luxury of extra time, but cake mixes can come in handy. Of course if I had time and talent. I'd prefer to bake from scratch. Occasionally I will allow myself the luxury of making a cake from scratch, but baking just isn't my interest. I enjoy these little adventures occassionally, but it's a long, long time until I get the next urge.

                                                      With all the wonderful cooks on this site, I get inspired to actually bake. I find myself looking longingly at the kitchen. But in the long run, it really, really, really bores me to cook. I mean just reading one poster's New Year's dinner made me exhasuted (the one that make Martha Stewart look like a slug). I rise to my feet in a standing ovation but couldn't imagine personally doing something like that.

                                                      So, look at the site. She has a lovely sounding recipe for a pmmegranite and rose frosting.

                                                      Also, look at some of the testimonials. People who are afraid to bake get some confidence. Maybe some of these people will take the next step and start baking from scratch.

                                                      Not all of us have the same talents. What is easy for some is hell for others. I'm sure Martha Stewart thinks everything she does is simple.

                                                      Link: http://www.cakemixdoctor.com/testify/...

                                                      Image: http://www.cakemixdoctor.com/recipe/i...

                                                      14 Replies
                                                      1. re: Stanley Stephan

                                                        I'm not saying that making fancy cakes does not require time or talent. The best bakers I know take incredible pains to measure everything carefully, preheat their ovens just so, etc. And I am DEFINITELY not a great baker. All I'm saying is that SIMPLE cakes like banana bread and brownies really are INCREDIBLY easy. They don't require much time at all, one can be fairly lax in the measuring/sifting department, and they ALWAYS taste better than the mixes which the "Cake Doctor" wants us to spend hours on "improving".

                                                        1. re: Stanley Stephan

                                                          "Not all of us have the same talents. What is easy for some is hell for others. I'm sure Martha Stewart thinks everything she does is simple."

                                                          I agree with you Stanley. I'm a pretty fair baker, and prefer doing it from scratch. But sometimes a box mix of brownies is just easier.

                                                          Some people find waiting tables easy; I wouldn't do it for the world and, therefore, give tons of credit for those who do it well!

                                                          As for Martha's thinking everything she does is simple....well, all I have to say to that is *she* doesn't do it - her minions do, but she takes the credit. :-)

                                                          1. re: Stanley Stephan

                                                            I think I have to stand up for published recipes here. I've made a zillion cakes in my life, all from scratch, from a large variety of sources. Rarely have I had a recipe fail. The vast majority of published recipes work.

                                                            Talent has nothing to do with it. I've found that people who regularly have cake recipes fail are not following the instructions. Either they don't understand what the terms intend, and do something different without realizing it, or they take everything as a suggestion, not a precise list of components and instructions. Most people like this get stuck in a rut. What they are doing doesn't seem to be working, but they are unable to see what they are doing wrong. In fact, since they think they are doing it right, they try harder along the same lines and just do more of the same.

                                                            My ex-mother-in-law cooked like this. She always thought that I cooked well because I was talented. She would substitute ingredients for no reason, change quantities at random, and change the method if was not what she usually did. She would stir by hand for a few strokes if she didn't feel like getting the mixer out to beat for the full 15 minutes on high that was called for. Regular recipes didn't work for her, but she was always on the lookout for a more gimmicky recipe in a newspaper or other non-food source that purported to be really easy and different. People like this are always seeking out such sources, as they find cookbooks baffling, but recipes from extraneous sources are generally less likely to work, and even if you do make them exactly and come out with the intended result, the end product can be weird. The recipes were not written by food writers. They were devised by auto writers on assignment, by editors, and fashion writers who lust over star chef books, but find them baffling. A lot of these people are clueless about how standard techniques can make a recipe work, and their writing appeals to others like themselves. I've found that even if a recipe from the paper sounds really interesting, following the instuctions may result in having to take evasive action mid-recipe to save the project.

                                                            Martha doesn't think her stuff is easy or simple to do. She just thinks that if you cared enough for your family, you'd make the sacrifices to do these things. Like she does.

                                                            1. re: ironmom

                                                              Ha ha, love your martha comment. hee hee.

                                                              Anyways, I have to say that the newspaper recipes in the NY Times are generally very good and I haven't been led seriously astray yet.

                                                              1. re: Celeste

                                                                The NY Times is atypical in every way.

                                                                Most papers in this country (if you add in the small daily and weekly ones) view food writing as a filler, a throwaway.

                                                              2. re: ironmom
                                                                Caitlin McGrath

                                                                I so agree with you. I think it's very telling that people who laud mixes and think scratch baking is just too difficult often complain about having to measure things. It is not difficult to measure accurately, but some people just refuse to do it, even if they're not really aware of that - and baked goods will obviously suffer, as an "eyeballed" amount of baking powder is not likely to produce a palatable product. The same goes for basic mixing techniques and the successful substitution of ingredients, as you note.

                                                                Sometimes you'll find someone commenting that cakes from mixes taste better thab scratch-baked or that no one can tell the difference anyway. To me, this just shows that people have grown up with cake mix cakes, so that's what cake made in someone's home tastes like (not far-fetched, if, as Ms. Byrn says in the article, 60 percent of American households use cake mix).

                                                                1. re: ironmom

                                                                  "Martha doesn't think her stuff is easy or simple to do. She just thinks that if you cared enough for your family, you'd make the sacrifices to do these things. Like she does."

                                                                  After reading two biographies about Martha, I don't know if I'd associate her with caring or sacrificing for her family. I'd rather say that she's sacrificed her family for her own goals. But, don't get me wrong: I actually quite like a lot of what the woman does and watch her show often; and I laude the empire that she's created.

                                                                  1. re: Emma

                                                                    Tongue firmly in cheek. I read "Just Desserts" too.

                                                                    1. re: ironmom

                                                                      I also read "Just Desserts" and have read " Martha Inc." which is even nastier. I still admire her and most of her recipes work very very well. D.

                                                                    2. re: Emma

                                                                      I read "Just Desserts" and although I imagine a lot of it is true (actually I sat next to a man on a plane once whose wife was the sister of Martha's ex husband-or something like that- and he said she was pretty evil) but I thought the author was BLATANTLY trying to make up bad stuff about her. If you think about it, he made a lot of inferences about what Martha's thoughts or motivations were. I thought all that commentary from people who barely knew her in school was ridiculous. And comments from people who didn't want to pay their catering bill...how reliable is that?

                                                                      Anyway, who gives a damn? I just want the recipes.

                                                                    3. re: ironmom
                                                                      Stanley Stephan

                                                                      Computers are really easy. It doesn't take any talent to master them. All you have to do is follow the instructions. There are excellant books and instructions. Just follow them ... uh ... to many people it is BORING !!!

                                                                      Yet I am just fascinated about computers and I'm the best at using them. I lose myself in hours on tasks that others would tear their hair out.

                                                                      Why can't you folks accept it is no difference with cooking.

                                                                      While I love looking at interesting recipes, when I do cook, I'm more likely to use Joy of Cooking or Betty Crocker or Pillsbury. Not exactly newspaper sources. My copy of Howard McGee is almost falling apart with me thumbing through trying to find out the WHY of what went wrong.

                                                                      There are those ugly incidents with Martha Stewart Living. There was this one mashed potato recipe I made FIVE times, with much attention with detail, that just NEVER worked. It had something to do with milk that always scalded and screwed up the potatoes.

                                                                      Just as there is a passion and interest in food that this board acknowledges not everyone shares, there is also a passion in interest in cooking that not everyone shares.

                                                                      I care enough about my family to go out and get a high paying job so that even though I can't cook, we can go out and eat at good restuarants. That's the sacrifice I make.

                                                                      Quite frankly, even the Recipe Doctor is more trouble than I really would take in cooking. For some people there is little Joy of Cooking.

                                                                      If you cooking folks want converts, just keep posting your delicous recipes rather than critical posts about why do people use mixes. I have told you why. Fool proof. Easy.

                                                                      However, when I read about all the wonderful things that people cook on the board, I get the urge to maybe try once more again.

                                                                      I do recreational cooking for the most part. I have all of Joe H's recipes in my list. That is the type of recipe that I would attack with gusto every now and then, spending great time gathering ingredients and making my best effort to make some of those excellent sounding dishes.

                                                                      But to do this daily, YIKES. But you cooking people do motivate me. I was microwaving a bowl of oatmeal today and thinking about the posts I read on this board about creamy wonderful oatmeal and I thought "I can do better than this". So lead by example rather than criticism.

                                                                      1. re: Stanley Stephan

                                                                        FYI, Martha's earlier cookbooks are reputed to be full of poorly tested recipes that can't be made to work.

                                                                        You may be significantly higher on the curve than you thought you were.

                                                                        1. re: Stanley Stephan

                                                                          Yes, trying to shame people into cooking from scratch is generally a counterproductive rationale, let alone anti-inspirational....

                                                                        2. re: ironmom

                                                                          Bravo! Well Said.

                                                                          I've never had a cake fail except when I was experimenting. ("let's see what happens if you cook an angel food cake in layer cake pans!" or "my friend loves Reeces Cups, what if I replace the butter in a choc. cake recipe with peanut butter?")

                                                                      2. Well I'm going to totally ruin whatever "street cred" I have here on Chowhound and say that I like cakes from a box. It's what I grew up on, and I like the way it delivers a consistently moist, flavorful (to my taste) product.

                                                                        I also like bakery cakes and most cakes from scratch, although I have yet to make a cake from scratch that have the same lovely texture as a box mix (although of course the lack of artificial taste is a plus.) Really, hand me any cake and I won't say no. I'm a cake slut, I guess.

                                                                        I have a friend who despises the box mixes and always insists on making a homemade cake every time a cake is required. The problem is, she doesn't make good cakes. They are always dry and a bit tasteless. And her frostings are dreadful. But she is always so proud of her cakes, so I eat them and smile and wish that next time I could get to bring the cake.

                                                                        1. I haven't read all of the responses to this, but it seems like there's a core of people who believe that it's dumb that people use cake mixes. Personally, I make virtually everything I eat from scratch, and in almost every domain, I think it's not a lot more effort to avoid the mixes and, of course, come up with a product that's infinitely better. The one exception, however, is cakes. The fact is, making a good cake is DAMN HARD. I'm an excellent cook, I've been to cooking school, yes I've been to pastry school (Cordon Bleu) - and even there the cakes we made, the cakes baked by the MOF (that's a big award in France) patisserie people were not very good (part of the problem: Genoise, which the french insist on eating, is basically inedible even if made perfectly). Making a good cake is harder than making puff pastry. Making a good cake is harder than making croissants. There is a lot that can go wrong. Most cakes, from scratch or otherwise, STINK. Baking is hard; knowing what to change in a recipe to make it come out the way you want takes years of experience.

                                                                          I can finally make a few decent cakes after a number of years of experimenting with various recipes. But it by no means has been an automatic process, and my guess is that the average person trying the average recipe would be very disappointed with the results.

                                                                          I personally think cake mixes taste reasonably good - certainly better than the average home baked cake, which almost inevitably has a fatal problem. Cakes mixes are universally medicore; but at least they are edible.

                                                                          Here's a survey: how many of the people here who extol the ease of baking cakes at home had a mother or someone else in the family who really knew what they were doing and taught the appropriate technique? Versus: How many people have become really good cake bakers just from reading the Joy of Cooking? My guess is that there are very few in the latter category. The instructions do not tell all.

                                                                          15 Replies
                                                                          1. re: Dylan

                                                                            Although I think you're dead wrong about it being almost impossible to make a good scratch cake, you may have something regarding the need for a Mom who can make one.

                                                                            The biggest thing that worries me about not having children is that my super-secret cake baking knowledge will die out with me !

                                                                            1. re: danna
                                                                              AGM/Cape Cod

                                                                              I too have no children and wonder who will get my recipes when I die. I do alot of canning as well as baking so I have those recipes too. My only hope is that after years of distributing the largess of my need to cook and bake one of my nieces or nephews will either marry someone who has an interest or have a child who is interested. To me they are a form of family history the same as stories about how most of our families came to be in this country.

                                                                              1. re: AGM/Cape Cod

                                                                                I am writing a cookbook of all my favorite foods. I'll probably just give it to my daughter, but if I have more time, I might publish it on the web.

                                                                                1. re: AGM/Cape Cod

                                                                                  If you and your loved ones enjoy your cooking and all your recipes now, then that is part of your having a good life now. Having no children, nieces, or nephews, I've thought a lot about this. Perhaps some things are just for a season. To me it's in the same category as, who will get my mother's Haviland china when I die? Or my cookbooks, many of which I inherited from an aunt who didn't have children either. If we enjoy using those things now, well, that is what our foremothers and forefathers hoped we would do. I cook with love and joy for my husband, extended family, and friends, all of whom appreciate and enjoy it. And I think we have to be thankful for the pleasure, love, and happy memories that are generated. None of us knows with absolute certainty what will happen to our possessions, or what we think of as our legacies, after we are gone. So we have to be glad for the gift of enjoying these things and experiences now.

                                                                                  Wow, sorry. It must be getting pretty late for me to go on like that. I'm going to bed.

                                                                                  1. re: Zorra

                                                                                    I figure that some library might be happy to get my cookbook collection which is 200 plus volumes. I am not sure that they will be interested in my collection of cooking magazines which goes back over 25 years.
                                                                                    I guess we all think that our children, if we have them, will share in our joy in cooking, baking and eating. My husband and I joke that if we had children they would have preferred store bought to my food-'do we have to have a homemade cake again?'.
                                                                                    The other consideration is that baking from scratch will be come a lost art. This may happen not because there aren't people who bake as much as manufacturers see no percentage to provide the specialized ingredients and groceries won't want to waste the shelve space on items which don't sell as well as prepared ready to eat items. For me that is a scary thought.

                                                                              2. re: Dylan
                                                                                AGM/Cape Cod

                                                                                I am a cake baker whose mother never baked a cake in my lifetime. For birthdays it was always bakery cakes. She did bake pies for Thanksgiving but using a mix for the crust. I am a self-taught baker. One of the problems for creative cooks is that baking is an exact science which is very different from cooking.

                                                                                1. re: Dylan

                                                                                  Methinks maybe you don't like cake.

                                                                                  I even like genoise (at least when I make it), although as it is intended to be a structural component for fancy cakes, it is a little bland, and needs some other components. I wouldn't want to eat it plain after a day in the refrigerator (which can make butter cakes stale really quickly) unless it had been well-soaked with liqueur.

                                                                                  My mother used to make cakes, but back then, a cake was just a cake. Often they were not frosted, just served with powdered sugar, ice cream, or whipped cream.

                                                                                  For a nicer cake, we would have frosting on top. Only on a special occasion did we end up with a layer cake, and never a separate filling.

                                                                                  Between the ages of 8 and 12, we learned to follow recipes precisely. We never deviated. And the recipe came out the same every time, and if not, we knew there was a reason.

                                                                                  And we only followed recipes that worked. If it failed the first time, it was the last time for that recipe.

                                                                                  This was the sixties. Real food for real people. Every meal ended in a dessert, and all desserts were simple. No cookbook expected busy housewives to have time to make tortes or other elegant pastries, but good, simple cakes were expected to be within everybody's reach. Cookbooks of the time assumed that a woman would marry directly out of high school, and that her mother would not have trained her to cook. I'm surprised you feel Joy of Cooking is not useful as a learning tool, there are chapters in there that explain how to handle and measure all the ingredients, and use all the equipment required.

                                                                                  It's just really hard to imagine that you can't make a good gingerbread with whipped cream, and you think baking a cake layer is really hard. What techniques in that 15 minutes of work are difficult? You must be working to a different paradigm than we are.

                                                                                  When I went to cooking school, I learned how to understand recipes, so I could expand and modify them. I no longer needed to follow the recipe blindly.

                                                                                  Actually, I've always found making croissants to be much harder than cakes. They require a huge outlay of structured time. Plus, croissants you can buy are as good as homemade, whereas boughten cakes are low quality and stale, unless you pay big bucks.

                                                                                  I do see a rebellion in you, a resentment, a pride in being unable to produce cakes. I think if your mother had tried to teach you, you would have rebelled then as well.

                                                                                  My daughter was a willful child, and would never sit and listen and watch while I cooked. After a series of spectacular failures of her own, she has come around to following recipes for consistent results.

                                                                                  I gave her my old Joy of Cooking (the one I had two copies of) and she uses it all the time, even to make cakes.

                                                                                  1. re: Dylan

                                                                                    I dont make too many cakes but started making scratch cakes as a girl, from the instructions in the Betty Crocker Cook Book (now reissued in replica editions), which came out around 1950 - probably the apex of development of this popular style, just before mixes came in. (There is a quick cooking note in the very back which talks about a new product, Bisquick) The instructions are precise and the techniques quite easy. There is NO comparison between these flavors and textures and the flavors from a mix cake, though I like some of the mix cakes ok. some of the recipes "discovered" by the cooks magazine testers are also very good (I like their German Chocolate cake), as well as, I believe a quick method developed by Rose Berenbaum in recent years.

                                                                                    The paradigm for the box mixes is an American cake recipe which has a moist, delicate crumb. These cakes generally DO NOT have the egg whites separately beaten and folded in. Unfortunately, the paradigm for most pastry chefs/food professionals is a European cake or genoise, which creates a much dryer coarser-texture product and tend to be less sweet as well. Cakes in NYC generally follow European models (Italian and Jewish bakers as well as French predominate) rather than classic "American"; additionally for economy's sake as well as religious/dietary reasons and a lack of taste for it in certain groups dairy butter is omitted from many NY cakes and frostings. So many of us never experience the delicious "scratch" cakes that used to be a majorAmerican pleasure.

                                                                                    I would go for some of the recipe sources cited about rather than Joy if you are looking to make traditional american layer cakes.

                                                                                    As for theMIx doctor, why bother? I admit that her banana cake recipe looked good. But by the time you go out and get special banana extracts and other ingredients, and doctor the mixes, you could have easily put together a scratch cake. and she is just as exacting as the old bakers in her frosting instructions.

                                                                                    Here endeth the sermon.

                                                                                    1. re: Dylan

                                                                                      Thanks for saying this. I agree with you 100%. I am a pretty experienced baker and a good cake is very difficult to make. In fact I found it funny in this thread that some people thought it was OK to use store bought pie crust, which is the easiest thing in the world to make, especially if you have a food processor, but not a store bought cake mix.

                                                                                      1. re: Dylan

                                                                                        My mother did not cook, well, occasionally she tried, but she never produced anything edible. Yet I bake a lot of cakes, the vast majority of which are supurb! I do not think that it is difficult at all; it simply requires an attention to detail. Simple cakes will turn out much better than cake-mix cakes, but you have to know how to use a measuring cup properly (or own, and use, a scale). More difficult cakes do require time, and the only reason a few of my cakes have failed is that I attempted to make more complex cakes in the time that it took to make a simple cake.

                                                                                        1. re: Dylan

                                                                                          I have been making cakes fairly often now for about four years. Before that I made them occasionally. Always from scratch. I didn't learn from my mother; I learned from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible. I do not consider cake baking to be the least bit difficult for someone willing to measure ingredients carefully (and that is not always necessary; my first attempt with one recipe included way too much sour cream and turned out wonderfully) and follow the directions. I'm somewhat obsessive-compulsive so this is easy for me. It might be more of a problem for the obsessively "creative."

                                                                                          1. re: Dylan

                                                                                            I can't resist answering the question, "Has anyone ever learned to bake from reading The Joy of Cooking?". Fifty-five years ago, as an American teenager living in Argentina I was desperate for familiar American pastry. My mother's interest in domesticity was sporadic and the maid didn't have a clue so I took up baking. The summer I was fifteen I shut myself up in the kitchen every afternoon while the household was having siesta, and my companion and teacher was The Joy of Cooking. Now, let me tell you about that kitchen: a stone sink, no counters, a four-foot-high refrigerator with a six-by-eight-inch freezer, a small work table, and a small four-burner gas stove with an oven that had no controls except ON and OFF. Baking ingredients available in Buenos Aires at that time were no better. Ordinary sugar was grayish in color and had bits of rope in it, brown sugar was rare, and powdered sugar was available downtown at Harrods only occasionally when the moon was blue. We did not have unsweetened baking chocolate. Nuts had to be shelled before you could use them. Yeast was sold in bulk at the bakery---you had to measure it with a spoon and estimate the amount. We had no cooking thermometers or electric mixer. No wax paper, no Saran wrap, no foil. Not much of anything, actually. Definitely no cake mix.

                                                                                            Leaning heavily on Irma Rombauer, I taught myself to bake. I made pineapple-upside-down cake and yeast coffee cakes and angelfood cake and cream puffs and seven-minute-frosting. I made lemon meringue pie and hamburger buns and Lady Baltimore Cake and thousands of chocolate layer cakes with fudge icing. Downtown in pastry shops run by post-World War II immigrants from Austria and Hungary I discovered European cakes then went home, consulted with Mrs. Rombauer, and produced Sachertorte and Schaumtorte and Linzertorte and cheesecake and Schnecken.

                                                                                            Knowing how to bake has stood me in good stead all my life and I am very sorry to see people doing so little of it nowadays. I am grateful to Mrs. Rombauer for helping me learn this wonderful skill and also for a bit of encourgement she offers somewhere just before a possibly daunting recipe: "Let's make something good out of this."

                                                                                            1. re: N Tocus

                                                                                              Thanks for such an interesting post! You're my hero.

                                                                                              1. re: N Tocus

                                                                                                What a wonderful post!. I, too, learned to bake from the "Joy of Cooking". I was just married, 18 years old, didn't know how to cook anything except scrambled eggs and creamed tuna on toast using Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, and was given Irma Rombauer's book as a wedding present. It saved my life and taught me how to cook. The baking part was a treat for me since my mother never baked anything and I loved dessert. There was certainly no money to buy things from a bakery, and those recipes were so clearly written that even I was not intimidated by them. Thanks for the trip back in time almost 49 years!

                                                                                              2. re: Dylan

                                                                                                Dylan, you bring up several very good points, and I'm glad someone thought about this more deeply than I did!

                                                                                                I've never liked genoise myself all that much, even when coated with syrup and Swiss meringue buttercream, and always thought it was just a personal deficiency of mine. I cannot understand why the French insist on making cake that basically tastes like sweet air. I can only assume is that the focus of their cakes is the decoration/filling/icing (which are so divine, of course), and they want their cakes to be the lightest vehicle imaginable -- just basically a flavor platform? I'm not sure.

                                                                                                I've made decent genoises from the Cake Bible by Rose Levy Berebaum, but I'm sure they were far from perfect. However, the traditional American "butter" cake I've always found very easy to make, and to make very well! I'm wondering if you were just referring to the nearly fatless French-style cakes, which are indeed hard to make, rather than fatty American butter cakes? I can only assume that part of the reason butter cakes were devised was to make an easier recipe to bake that mere mortals could have reasonable success with. Or perhaps the traditional American focus on fat in everything? :) I'm not sure -- but I do know that American-style butter cakes are pretty darn easy to get right, time after time, with only a minimal amount of expertise.

                                                                                                When I ordered my wedding cake from Citizen Cake here in San Francisco, I insisted on a white American butter cake, rather than the genoise that Ms Faulkner and her staff usually make. The people who helped me seemed surprised that I would ask for something like the lowly, common American butter cake, especially with the sophisticated flavors of the fillings and icing and decorations that I had chosen (creme fraiche Bavarian cream mousse filling, champagne buttercream, sugared violets), but it was a smashing success. At the reception, a couple of my chowish SF friends actually asked me "this tastes better than the other Citizen Cake wedding cakes I've had -- what's the difference". True, it was a indeed a rich cake, but I also found it more accesible and appealing for most of the people we were serving.

                                                                                                Do you, Dylan, have success with butter-type cakes, or do you dislike them?

                                                                                                I realize this is a digression -- but I've never tasted a mix of any type that approached a decent homemade butter cake. I can't get past the chemical flavor and the weird moist texture myself -- but perhaps others don't find those so offensive.

                                                                                                Also -- to answer your question -- my mother never made cakes of any more ambitious type than a chocolate cake made in an oblong pan with coconut broiled onto it. She taught me nothing of cake baking -- and by the time I was baking my grandmother had pretty much retired from the kitchen. I've never had the advantage that you've had of having any formal cooking training. Everything I learned I learned from Julia, Anne Willan (I can even make savarin now), and Rose Levy Berebaum.

                                                                                              3. h
                                                                                                Head Gazelle

                                                                                                All day I have waited for someone else to jump on this, but I guess I'm the only one here afflicted with Robert Benchley syndrome.

                                                                                                What caught my eye was this closing statement:
                                                                                                "If you have an extra slice of cake, just take a walk," she said calmly.

                                                                                                Ms. Byrn must have a metabolism much more revved up than mine. Either that, or she exercises like a movie star, i.e. for hours on end. I did a bit of Googling; averaging out the results, a 120 lb. person would have to walk about 1.5 hours in order to burn off the calories from a piece of banana cake with frosting. That would be in addition to their regular exercise regimen, which is now supposed to be 60 minutes a day.

                                                                                                As I haven't yet figured out how to incorporate that additional time into my schedule, I think I'll pass on that extra slice. What an odd (self-serving?) comment.

                                                                                                1 Reply
                                                                                                1. re: Head Gazelle

                                                                                                  How does this apply solely to cakes from a box? From scratch cakes with frosting are just as fattening and caloric as those from a box.

                                                                                                2. Before comdemning it............has anyone tried it?

                                                                                                  1. I ABSOLUTELY agree with you. I'm 35 nd have been cooking since I was 16. I see so many 'conenient' foods advertised. It drives me crazy that the generation coming up thinks that this is the norm and that it's not damaging their health.