Apr 29, 2012

Box Cake Mixes are NOT talent.

I never understood the theory behind box cake mixes. Sure, they work great in a pinch when your 7 year old son tells you about the school party at 9pm the night before, and for the convenience of home baking by those strapped for time and/or the lack of desire to learn. But for a retail bakery to lower itself down to such a level where they not only use Box Mixes for their cakes and cupcakes, but somehow they have justified this as being OK, Acceptable, and what their customers 'prefer'. It's time for these cake mix bakeries to show some respect for their customers. Nobody 'prefers' chemicals and artificial flavors. NOBODY.

I am a baker, who has opted to always bake from scratch. I cringe when my sister grabs a box mix of those "fun-fetti' cakes and makes them for her daughter. Yes, I tease her lovingly about it - but when I say "don't you ever bring those into my house", I mean it!

I should take a moment and clarify that I am a 'professional baker'. My sister is a stay at home mom. Therefore I feel it is totally appropriate for her to use these mixes. My sister has a busy house with an infant, and very little free time. She also has no desire to learn the chemical art of baking (and yes, baking is science and art combined).

When feeling festive, my sister can pour out this box of chemicals and unnatural things that don't exist anywhere in our universe, add an egg or two and a little vegetable oil, and in about 20 minutes she has herself a multi-colored spongy, moist (yet it is an unexplainable moistness that is chemically induced) cupcakey thing. Throw on some canned frosting and she has an instant party in a box for about $3.00 or less. Again, totally acceptable for her situation.

NOT AT ALL acceptable for a bakery to serve this up and charge you for it. Not at all. If we, as consumers, wanted this - we could simply do it ourselves. Why? Because it requires no.. zero.. zilch.. nadda.. null.. talent at all. It is a mindless activity that requires no skill whatsoever. You simply empty the box, and an egg and some oil. Done.

Baking (from scratch), on the other hand requires a level of skill, training, and talent - as well as a bit of understanding of baking chemistry, and a true artistic ability. Baking is not the act of following a good recipe. This is a common misunderstanding. You find a good chocolate cake recipe, follow the instructions, and to your disappointment you have this cake with a huge sink hole in the middle. You, of course, blame the recipe - because you followed it exactly.

Here is where baking experience and talent truly comes in to play. A baker needs some knowledge to be able to compensate for changes, on the fly. Your current altitude can have an impact on how your cakes rise (or not). The humidity, the temperature, etc. Are you using a conventional or gas oven? Things don't bake the same in both. A scratch baker learns the ability to take all of these things into consideration when baking and make the necessary changes as needed. One recipe can work fine one day and fail the next, because there are too many variables. For an unskilled baker, this can be very frustrating - and a box mix begins looking more and more appealing.

That's just the hardship of baking when you are following an existing recipe, from scratch. But the true talent in baking comes from those who create their own recipes and flavors. Creating a cake flavor can be a rewarding experience, especially when using natural flavors, as it can be difficult to bring out natural flavors in a strength that can compete with artificial flavors (that we are all so accustomed to).

So, for example, let's say we want to create our own recipe for an Orange Cake. Oranges have a beautiful strong fragrance, but once baked.. the flavor is softened considerably. So an experienced baker has to test several variations - perhaps using an orange concentrate they cook down, or orange zest baked into the cake. Or perhaps they choose to use fresh orange juice in their cake. Well - hold on now. Adding an acid to a cake changes everything. One must counter that with their baking soda and baking powder measurements or the cake may not rise correctly. But what if you want to add both orange juice AND some buttermilk ( a sour), to give your cake a moist silky texture. When sours are added you must once again bring your baking chemistry to the game table. Otherwise, your cake will not bake properly.

True baking is a learned talent. It comes from school, work training, and experience. No, you don't need a culinary degree to be a scratch baker. You just need to be willing to learn. And let go of those cake mixes.

I for one, refuse to pay good money from a bakery that uses a cake mix - rather than bake from scratch. And yes, I can taste it instantly. I have no problem spitting it out. And God have mercy on their souls if they used shortening in their frosting instead of butter (that's another article coming soon). I simply will not subject myself to eating a boxed cake mix. If I am going to 'spend' my calories on something.. I want it to be good. Cheap does not equal good. Good equals Good. Good ingredients cost money. Live a little.

In conclusion, I simply restate that box cake mixes have their place in home kitchens. They are convenient and well.. I can't think of anything else nice to say so we'll stick with convenient. I still swear if my sister ever brings her fun-fetti cupcakes into my house, I will toss them out the window!

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