How Many Boxes Do I Need to Buy to Make a Sheet Cake? or Backwards Baking

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkwJ-g0iJ6w&hl=en_US&fs=1?color1=0x5d1719&color2=0xcd311b]I took that title, verbatim, from my dear friend Susan.  I’m going to help her bake her kids’ birthday cake (it’s a joint celebration) tomorrow, and she wanted to know what she needed.  Hence the question.

I, of course, was horrified.  “How many boxes of what?!” I asked.  Just in case she meant something different that what I thought she meant.  She answered, and my worst fears were confirmed. “Of cake mix.”

“Surely, you jest, ” I said unto her. To which she responded, possibly not verbatim, “We’re not making it from Actual Ingredients, are we?!”

I assured her that we will, indeed, be using Actual Ingredients.  She was intimidated, but I promised to hold her hand and make it not be Scary.

As amused as I was by her trepidation, I also remember how I used to feel when I was just starting out.  I started every recipe with a sense of foreboding:  I wonder what will go wrong, first?  And when something began to go Awry, I would get all sweaty and have an icky feeling in my tummy.  That’s because I learned to cook and bake backwards.  I started by trying to duplicate recipes.  And not just any recipes, mind you.  Not me.  I wanted to make the most complicated dessert possible–one with ganache and glaze and raspberries and What Not.  And I did make it.  It took me Nine Hours.  Honest.  And I had no idea what I was doing–I was simply following along, step by step, with the directions in the The Best of Gourmet, 1993 Edition.

I just finished rereading the recipe I followed (Chocolate Raspberry Cake) for the first time in probably fifteen years.  And I find that the recipe is not really scary at all.  Back in ’93, I just blindly followed along, being very cautious–like I was driving through a downpour and couldn’t see up ahead.  Now, when I read the recipe, it’s a bright sunny day.  Bunnies are cavorting under a tree in a meadow, and wee spotted fawns frolic past.  I can see clearly now: the rain is gone, and I put the top down and Drive.

Perhaps I wax a bit too poetic, but I hope you get the idea.  Now when I look at the rules for my Nine Hour Cake, I see a relatively light (2-egg) chocolate cake leavened by the reaction of baking soda and sour cream.  There’s a ganache with a ratio of 5:3 cream to chocolate, making it soft enough to whip, and a glaze of 2:1 chocolate to butter, allowing for it to be soft enough to slice easily at room temperature.  I see a modified Creaming Method, making emulsions and Stacking Items on Top of Each Other.  Not hard stuff.  Not now, anyway.  But again, I learned to bake backwards.

What I should have done, had I known, was learn everything I could about how to put ingredients together.  About the science of baking.  About the way ingredients function and interact.  I should have learned to make ingredients do what I wanted them to–what temperature to have them, when to melt butter and when to leave it solid, when to use baking powder and when to use soda.  I should have learned all of that first, but I didn’t.  And that made learning to bake Very Difficult.  Instead of learning how to bake, I learned to make one particular cake at a time, and it took me forever–and lots of research and reading–to come to understand that the cakes I was making were all very close cousins from the Creaming Method family.

I think most folks learn to bake backwards.  They want to make grandma’s cherry pie, or Aunt Emma’s pound cake, or the family’s heirloom fruitcake recipe.  But most of us have blinders on when we bake.  We’re too narrowly focused on the particular recipe to realize that the pie crust for grandma’s cherry pie can be used to make almost any pie.  That a fruit filling is basically a fruit filling, cherry or otherwise.  We don’t realize that the proportions in a modern pound cake are pretty much universal, and we rarely check the ratio of batter to fruit in a fruit cake and use that ratio as a template for all sorts of Cakes With A Bunch Of Stuff In Them.

And it’s kind of our fault, actually.  I blame The American Need for Instant Gratification.  How many people–not crazy food-type people, but regular people–buy a cook book and read it as they would a text book?  Not many.  We want the good stuff, not the boring stuff.  Look at this:  I found a review about one of my favorite cookbooks, BakeWise, over at Amazon.  Here is a chunk of his review:

After getting this book, I plunged right in, making her recipe for “Blueberry and Cream Muffins.” The recipe promised moist, delicious muffins. They were really delicious, but the texture was oily and gummy. I tried the recipe a second time, carefully measuring every item, checking my oven temperature with a thermometer, and made a second batch. The second batch was slightly better, but was still greasy and gummy. I was surprised; how could the queen of food science provide recipes that don’t work? I sat down and started reading the book from the beginning. At last, I realized what was wrong.

This book reads more like a set of magazine articles, or a good blog, than a cookbook. You can’t just pick a recipe out of the middle of this book and expect it to work. The recipes in this book are examples of different techniques (like the muffin recipe), not well-tested, authoritative recipes (like in The New Best Recipe: All-New Edition). Shirley gives you the formulas that make recipes successful (ratios of flour, eggs, fat, sugars, and liquids), then often pushes the boundaries of this formulas to show what happens. A good example of this are the pound cake recipes. On page 15 “So that you can see that changes that I made, I have included the original recipe for The Great American Pound Cake; but do not bake it.” The problem with this warning is that you’d never see it if you just flipped to the recipe for “The Great American Pound Cake,” and would end up with a sunken, soggy cake. If you buy this book, make sure to read the whole thing before you bake anything.–Joseph Adler’s Review of BakeWise at Amazon.com

You see, Mr. Adler skipped the Important (boring) Stuff and tried to get right to the goodies with, at least in this case, no real understanding of the mechanics of Goody Making.

But the boring stuff is what makes the good stuff good.  Just ask The Little Red Hen.  Fannie Farmer wanted us to learn to cook and bake.  She really did.  Check out her introduction to cake baking:

THE mixing and baking of cake requires more care and judgment than any other branch of cookery; notwithstanding, it seems the one most frequently attempted by the inexperienced.

Two kinds of cake mixtures are considered: —

I. Without butter. Example : Sponge Cakes.

II. With butter. Examples: Cup and Pound Cakes.

In cake making (1) the best ingredients are essential; (2) great care must be taken in measuring and combining ingredients; (3) pans must be properly prepared; (4) oven heat must be regulated, and cake watched during baking.

Best tub butter, fine granulated sugar, fresh eggs, and pastry flour are essentials for good cake. Coarse granulated sugar, bought by so many, if used in cake making, gives a coarse texture and hard crust. Pastry flour contains more starch and less gluten than bread flour, therefore makes a lighter, more tender cake. If bread flour must be used, allow two tablespoons less for each cup than the recipe calls for. Flour differs greatly in thickening properties; for this reason it is always well when using from a new bag to try a small cake, as the amount of flour given may not make the perfect loaf. In winter, cake may be made of less flour than in summer.

Before attempting to mix cake, study How to Measure (p. 25) and How to Combine Ingredients (p. 26).–The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, 1916 edition, p 497 (via Google Books)

And then guess what she does?  She teaches us how to do the creaming method and the egg foam method!  Not with a specific list of ingredients, but as a general template.  Go, Fannie.  Check it:

To Mix Sponge Cake. Separate yolks from whites of eggs. Beat yolks until thick and lemon-colored, using an egg-beater; add sugar gradually, and continue beating; then add flavoring. Beat whites until stiff and dry, — when they will fly from the beater, — and add to the first mixture. Mix and sift flour with salt, and cut and fold in at the last. If mixture is beaten after the addition of flour, much of the work already done of enclosing a large amount of air will be undone by breaking air bubbles. These rules apply to a mixture where baking powder is not employed.

To Mix Butter Cakes. An earthen bowl should always be used for mixing cake, and a wooden cake-spoon with slits lightens the labor. Measure dry ingredients, and mix and sift baking powder and spices, if used, with flour. Count out number of eggs required, breaking each separately that there may be no loss should a stale egg chance to be found in the number, separating yolks from whites if rule so specifies. Measure butter, then liquid. Having everything in readiness, the mixing may be quickly accomplished. If butter is very hard, by allowing it to stand a short time in a warm room it is measured and creamed much easier. If time cannot be allowed for this to be done, warm bowl by pouring in some hot water, letting stand one minute, then emptying and wiping dry. Avoid overheating bowl, as butter will become oily rather than creamy. Put butter in bowl, and cream by working with a wooden spoon until soft and of a creamy consistency ; then add sugar gradually, and continue beating. Add yolks of eggs or whole eggs beaten until light, liquid, and flour mixed and sifted with baking powder; or liquid and flour may be added alternately.–The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, 1916 edition, p 498 (via Google Books)

I tell you, Fannie should’ve been on television.  She really wanted us to learn how, not just what, to cook.  Somewhere between Fannie and Food Network, the hows fell by the wayside, and it was all about the whats.  People cheered–literally cheeredwhen Emeril put pepper in a recipe.  Folks listened raptly–and followed directions–when Paula told them it was a good idea to start with a cake mix to make some kind of crazy ooey gooey cake.  Because nothing says love like Propylene Glycol Monoesters of Fatty Acids.  And do NOT get me started on Sandra.

Friends, if television had been around in 1916, we might all know how to cook thanks to Fannie Live! but, sadly, it was not to be.  As a result, we’re all learning to cook and bake backwards, and Fannie is spinning in her grave.  Frontwards.

As lots of you know, it has been my goal to teach anyone who is interested how and why to do things, not just what to do.  And I’ll be doing that, up close and personal with friend Susan.  Will she come away from the experience more relaxed about baking?  Maybe.  I guess it depends on her attitude coming in–if she’s excited and open to learning, then I think it’ll be a great experience.  If she looks like she’s about to be ordered t0 walk the plank when she gets here, maybe not.  And if she does look at me as Captain Hook, well, I blame Sandra.

And the one book I couldn’t have lived with out?  The one that helped me learn all the hows and whys?  Shirley Corriher’s 1997 CookWise: The Hows & Whys of Successful Cooking She’s done some revisions since then, but this is the one that I have.  Read it (and BakeWise) like you would read text books, and you’ll start to see the bunnies under the trees instead of the rain on your windshield.  For me, and hopefully for you, it’ll be the start of Forward Baking.  That, and PMAT Live!

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve read CookWise front to back and am still utterly intimidated by it. But I completely agree that most of us, myself included, learn to cook and bake bass ackwards.

    I’m still giggling at the question of how many boxes of mix you’d need to make a sheet cake.

  2. Dee says

    Okay, ashamed to say I use three mixes for a 12″x 18″ pan (2″ deep), which I call a half sheet. I make others from scratch if they are smaller layer cakes. Haven’t tried scratch cakes for large wedding cake tiers and that is the next thing to master. I doctor up the mixes, too.

  3. says

    I got to see a Fanny Farmer cookbook for the very first time this past Tuesday. It. Was. Marvelous. I want one!

    I too use mixes for wedding cakes – always french vanilla unless they (“they” being the people giving me money, not the cakes themselves) request something else. I find box mixes reliable and controllable. My from-scratch cakes can vary in quality and texture and volume. Which probably means that I should A. Weigh my ingredients instead of measuring them (at least, that’s what my favorite “tv” pastry chef preaches), and B. Practice more.

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