Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Not the Cake Doctor

Cake mix would produce good results even if it was formulated with dried egg in the batter, but manufacturers have found that women feel more creative if they add eggs, not just water. Or so long-ago rumors said. This was part of the commonly-held, probably correct lore that told us that Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, and their competitors had determined the formulation of cake mix by a process of laboratory science combined with market research.

I do know that the cake-mix producers did market research, because my mother and I participated in it. I think I was in around fifth or sixth grade at the time. Our neighbor Mrs. Rosen had a job organizing survey participants on a variety of topics. She recruited my mother, who allowed me to help her bake the cakes from the plain white numbered boxes with separate instruction sheets. We followed the instructions, ate the cakes -- with my sister, brother, and father of course, and filled out the questionnaires. I don't remember whether we preferred adding eggs to not adding eggs. I think we did prefer a yellow cake to a white cake. I felt very important to be involved, using my mother's fairly new Mixmaster to beat the batter.

For layer cakes, I still tend to use cake mixes. If I want plain cake layers, I think cake mixes give a fine result. I admit, however, that I'm a bit challenged when it comes to stacking up and frosting the layers. And I don't get fancy about it -- I admire The Cake Doctor only from afar. Her methods require too much skill.

Yesterday I was baking a layer cake for Lenny's birthday. A few seconds after I put the layers together, the top layer slid off the bottom layer.


The room-temperature Trader Joe's lemon curd I used between them was too runny to hold them together. (I love TJ's lemon curd -- the jar lists only good ingredients, unlike some of the lemon curd jars in ordinary grocery stores.)

You can see from the photo that I subsequently put the cake back together with poultry skewers -- clean ones, naturally -- and chilled it, hoping that the lemon curd would stiffen up enough to keep the top layer in its place. I took out each skewer in turn while I applied the cake frosting. (Unlike cake mix and TJ's lemon curd, I think only home made frosting will do. Every time I bake a cake, I scan the splattered pages of my Joy of Cooking til I find the one I want. This time, lemon.)

It worked! When it was time to serve the cake, I pulled the skewers out and the cake stayed put while I sliced it. It was delicious.

Just after I put the cake in the refrigerator with its skewers in place, Ruby called, and I described what I was doing. So she told me a story of how she was once assembling a cake, when the phone rang -- in the old days, she said, when all phones were wired so she was tethered in place across the room from the cake. As she talked, she saw her layers slide from the newly assembled cake onto the floor, but couldn't get there in time to save them. I was lucky -- my layer had only slid onto the edge of the large cake plate and I rescued it quickly.

Also I remembered a few years ago, when I baked a birthday cake for my friend Ellen. That time, the problem wasn't that I failed on the construction but that I missed the right proportions for the frosting. The result looked so childishly frosted that Ellen started to laugh when she looked at it, explaining that her mother also could never get the frosting nicely onto the cake.

This time, I got the frosting right. But I definitely feel challenged when it comes to baking layer cakes.


Eileen said...

i have some of that Trader Joe lemon curd in my refrigerator right now. ... god's own food

Jeanie said...

I love this story. And thanks for the label insight on TJs curd -- I haven't bought it, because one of the things on the label is the calories... hmmm. BUT, I love it, and it's good to know that as lemon curd goes, it's good for you. Good idea as the middle layer.

All your food memoirs are fascinating. I need to read these when I really have time to delve into them and compare!