Thursday, September 30, 2010

Baking From Scratch

Everyone is trying to eat healthier these days, especially those of us who blog about food. But everyone likes a treat once in a while, and although I am sure there are some brave souls who can be ruthless with themselves and not give in to the urge, most of us really like a piece of cake. But I’m still surprised by the number of people who use cake mixes.

Nothing against Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines, I’ve been on first name terms with them for years. I’ve been known to use Betty Crocker icing from time to time, and I honestly cannot duplicate the artificial and yet somehow wonderful taste of Jello Instant Pistachio pudding – a very occasional treat in our house. However if you are really trying to be healthy and save money, packaged mixes – particularly for cakes - are just not the way to go.

First of all they are full of preservatives, sodium, sugars and fat – and not the good kinds either. Then there is the spectre of ‘modified cornstarch’, colours, preservatives and lots of ingredients beginning with ‘E’ and ending in numbers. And in terms of economy, even when these babies are on sale, they are still charging way more than it would cost you to buy the ingredients you need to make a cake. After all, you still have to add shortening or oil, water and eggs.

When you think about it, aside from oil, butter or shortening, eggs and water or milk, what else is there in a cake? If you are thinking about a basic sponge or white cake, there’s just flour, leavening and flavouring. Want chocolate cake?  You just need to add some cocoa to that. And none of those ingredients take much longer than it takes to open a package to measure out. Even making something like carrot cake only means leaving enough time to grate a couple carrots and measure out some nuts. I mean, the cakes these mixes make taste good and all, but I’m pretty darn sure that carrot cake mixes don’t contain much real carrot. And as for those blueberries in the blueberry muffin mixes – don’t even get me started on those. 

So why do we use them? Well, most of us grew up in the era when packaged mixes were still a novelty, and I can vividly remember folks saying things like, “You don’t want to make a scratch cake, you want a mix. They are so much easier and they taste delicious.” And then there was the advertising. Our moms were bombarded with television ads aimed at “the modern woman” and ads for packaged mixes aimed at us kids – much like cereal and toy advertisements – made us pester our parents to buy them. Even today, we are still being told that cake mixes are easier, and much of a generation has grown up convinced that baking a cake from scratch is really, really hard. 

But the truth is, it isn’t. Seriously, it isn’t one bit harder than baking a cake from a mix. The only difference is you add flour and baking powder to the eggs, water and shortening, instead of an indeterminately coloured powder from a box. That’s it. Plus the bonus is, you can choose what kind of flour and shortening you use. So if you want to use hand milled, unbleached or organic flour you can. In many cases, you can even use almond flour to eliminate the gluten. You can control the amount of salt you add, and to a point, even the amount of sugar. (Although most cake recipes are almost like alchemy and you shouldn’t mess with the proportions, leaving out a couple of tablespoons of sugar – or even up to a quarter cup – will affect nothing but the sweetness of the cake.) When you bake from scratch, you are totally in control of what is going in your family’s mouths.

As I said, I very occasionally find myself pulling the red lid off a package of Betty Crocker frosting when I’m in a hurry – but I haven’t used a cake mix in years, and my family are much happier and healthier for it. Making a cake from scratch is one of the easiest things you can do to give your family a real treat without totally blowing it in the health department.

Need some inspiration? Click here for the recipe for my Real-ly Delicious Cake, a light and delicious white cake that tastes wonderful. Fancy something a bit more special? Try this Marble Cake. And if you want to make a Devil’s Food Cake that is better than any mix on the market, just follow the recipe below. It’s easy, honestly. And when you taste it, you’ll know why I‘m unlikely to ever buy a cake mix again!

The 21st Century Housewife’s Devil’s Food Cake

½ cup butter, softened (organic if possible)
1¾ cups sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla
3 large eggs, preferably free range and/or organic
2¼ cups good all-purpose (plain) flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
pinch of salt
1 cups milk (Again, organic if possible. You can use also raw milk or buttermilk here - it will give a slightly tangier and less sweet flavour to the cake, but it works well.)

Preheat the oven to 350 (170 or 160 if you have a fan oven).

Cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. (I do use an electric mixer for this – you need strong arms otherwise!!) Add the sugar and vanilla and cream together. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt together into a separate bowl. Add this mixture alternately with the milk (in about four additions) beating well after each addition. 

Divide the mixture evenly between two 8 inch round greased and floured (or lined) cake tins and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until a piece of raw spaghetti inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. 

Frost as desired and enjoy. You can make a really easy frosting from 6 tablespoons of softened butter creamed with 3 cups of confectioner’s sugar. Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla or almond flavouring and enough milk to make a spreadable frosting (usually between 1 and 3 tablespoons) – but any frosting of your choice works really well.

The cake will keep up to three days. You can also freeze the layers (without frosting) for about a month.  Thaw completely before frosting. 

If you liked this and the other linked recipes, there’s lots more scratch cake recipes on this site, both in the blog and in the Recipe of the Week section.

Linking up (from my main blog) with:-

Simple Lives Thursday at GNOWFLINS

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