One Key to a Good Cake Mix

By Van Hooser, Liz | The Florida Times Union, September 10, 2009 | Go to article overview

One Key to a Good Cake Mix


Van Hooser, Liz, The Florida Times Union


Byline: LIZ VAN HOOSER

One of the most interesting books I read while studying journalism a decade ago was Vance Packard's "Hidden Persuaders."

It's a seminal book first published in 1957 on the psychological aspects of marketing and advertising, which presents a rather cynical view of how advertisers attempt to manipulate us into buying stuff.

I found development of boxed cake mixes one of the most interesting topics in the book. The mixes only required the cook to add water to make a cake rise and bake to golden brown perfection. But marketers found housewives (this was the '50s, remember) didn't like the just-add-water mixes. It made them feel inadequate, like they hadn't contributed enough to the cake. They found mixes where you added your own eggs or milk sold better.

Fifty years later, most housewives have gone to work, but you'll still find most mixes have you add something fresh, such as eggs or milk or oil.

It's a silly distinction, but I have to admit I've fallen into this line of thinking. I recently tried a brownie mix that only called for water, and I felt like I hadn't "made" them at all, putting in barely more effort than buying some already baked ones.

Perhaps no one understands this guilt complex better than Anne Byrn, also known as "The Cake Mix Doctor." As her publicist says, Byrn was the first respected food writer to tell America, "It's OK to use a cake mix!"

Byrn promises cakes that taste like award winners that use mixes as their base. She has a new cookbook, "The Cake Mix Doctor Returns!" coming out Oct. 6.

With her recipes, you can transform that plain Jane cake mix into Elegant Almond Amaretto Cake, Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Cupcakes or Chocolate Raspberry Cake.

It's a tempting come-on, even for someone like me who falls into the "scratch is better" camp.

Although I'd like to be the kind of person who never uses a box mix, the truth is, I'm not very good at making cakes. I'm a cook, not a baker, and the precision required in baking has often caused me trouble.

I hate sifting my dry ingredients, and I tend to be a little loosey-goosey with my measurements. Pound cake, in particular, has often gone awry. I've spent a lot of time and butter trying to reach sponge cake divinity, but it's never turned out. Not once.

I've had cake that looked done but was raw in the middle when I tried to slice it. I've had pound cake that didn't rise and was super dense. I've had pound cake that crumbled into a pile of pebbles upon serving.

So, when I received an advance copy of some of the recipes from "The Cake Mix Doctor Returns," I decided to test her recipe for Key Lime Pound Cake. (See Page E-6)

Among other ingredients, her pound cake calls for a cake mix, a box of instant vanilla pudding, butter and Key lime juice.

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