Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mix vs Scratch

After the borderline debacle of the carrot muffins, I decided to haul out a cake mix I'd gotten on clearance before Passover for the next treat I brought to work.  It got me thinking about why we use the mixes, until I broke down the pros and cons.  I really need to get a radio for work.  Two hours by myself is way too long to be alone with my thoughts.  While I was setting up bacon after only 3 hours of sleep, I started to make up a children's book called The Yummy Little Pig.

Anyway, some insight into why we use manufactured cake mixes:
  • Consistency.  You get the exact same result every time.  And it's generally a proven recipe that people like and therefore continue to buy.
  • No measuring.  It saves you very little time in real life, maybe three minutes, but the "Dry Team", as Alton Brown calls it, is pre-measured and mixed for you.
  • Convenience of ingredients.  People who bake a lot won't notice this, but those who only do it on special occasions may not have baking powder, or cocoa, or cake flour, or even vanilla extract.  For these folks, they don't have to buy several ingredients that they will never use again.  What the box has you add is generally ingredients they expect everyone to have at home: water, eggs, oil, and sometimes milk.
  • Price.  Again, not really an issue for those who bake a lot, but it saves money for someone who doesn't need a whole can of baking powder for one teaspoon.  The cheap ingredients are in the box, which the company can then sell inexpensively because they make it in bulk.

But there are also reasons to bake from scratch:
  • Changing the batch size.  You've seen me make 1/3 and 1/2 cake batches often, either as a way to try a new recipe or because I have a smaller group to feed.  I also did some massive math when I made Techie and Writer Smurf's wedding cake, which was several batches of an already large recipe.  Throwing a double or triple batch of a boxed cake mix into a 14" round x 3" cake pan would be a risky venture.  It may turn out fine, or it could implode under the unexpected weight.  For this mix, I did split it up into 12 cupcakes and one 6" round.  Being a deep pan, the 6" did not rise evenly and cracked a lot.  Frosting.
  • Unique recipes.  While there is a greater variety of cake mixes on the shelf than there was even a few years ago, sometimes you feel like making something that doesn't exist.  Yes, there are plenty of semi-homemade recipes that combine the convenience of a mix and the creativity of a from-scratch recipe.  Aside from commercial frosting mixes, I'm not always impressed.  If you're going to all that trouble, just spend a few extra minutes measuring out the dry ingredients.
  • Bragging rights.  Let's face it, being able to say you baked a cake from scratch nowadays makes you look awesome.  Frankly, baking it from a mix instead of picking one up at the market is pretty impressive.  And we all know that anything home-made doesn't have nearly as many calories as something from a box.  (That was a joke; not having nutrition information listed should never imply that your own food is healthier.)

Regardless of which way you go in your own kitchen, everyone will love you for presenting them with cake.  There's just something special about cake day.

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