Growing up my mother’s favorite cake, the one she considered special enough to make for birthdays, was Duncan Hines Butter Recipe Golden cake mix prepared as directed on the package, with Duncan Hines Fudge Frosting. It’s a classic combination and one I love today, although I prefer King Arthur’s recipe for Yellow Cake and a fudge frosting recipe I got from Epicurious years ago. Mine probably costs around ten dollars to make once you factor in the cost of the chocolate and it takes about 3 hours start to finish if you factor in the time for the cake to cool. My mother used to stock up on cake mix when it went on sale for 99 cents and use a coupon on the frosting. She probably spent a grand total of $3 on the ingredients and about 2 hours making the whole thing. Which cake do you think we ate more often?
As I learned to cook and experimented myself in the kitchen as a teenager, I learned to be picky about my desserts, especially cake. I love cake. I love the classics, yellow cake with chocolate frosting or chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream (Epicurious has a killer recipe for a devil’s food cake with brown sugar buttercream, tastier than it sounds!). As anyone who likes to bake can tell you, a really good yellow cake is hard to find. I like it to be a pleasing shade of sunflower yellow, which can only come from egg yolks, not butter, with a texture halfway between the Duncan Hines mix of my youth and a Southern poundcake so dense it breaks cleanly if you bend it. The best cake I ever made was with eggs I picked out of a chicken coop that morning. The yolks were a gorgeous shade of sunset orange and my cake melted in your mouth (if I do say so myself!). In my experience, good chocolate fudge frosting simply cannot be had using cocoa powder. It needs good quality chocolate (don’t we all?) for not only depth of flavor but also for a fudgy texture. Despite my best effort, my mother and sister maintain their fondness for squishy cake mix cakes and my sister actually prefers the taste of frosting made with shortening and powdered sugar, I think because it tastes like nothing but sugar and she likes that. While I call mine a sweet tooth because I have trouble ever turning down dessert, my sister truly likes the taste of pure sugar: she’ll take a hunk of sugar cookie dough over a cookie any day and picks up those gummy strawberries from the drugstore whenever embarking on a road trip. So at least in my family, I am alone in my preference for $9 chocolate bars and $6 a pound European butter and often get heartily ribbed by my family for my “pretentiousness.”
At Sugarland, our cold cakes provide an endless source of confusion. People expect Duncan Hines, the Wonder Bread of the cake world, at once squishy and fluffy and tasting predominately of sugar. The comments we get the most often on our cakes all hinges on the fact that they are made with butter, as such must be refrigerated according to health codes, and as such, yes, turn hard in the refrigerator. As I can attest, however, after carrying many a cupcake home lovingly cradled in our single cupcake containers, they return to their luscious freshly baked glory after a good twenty minutes in the land of the living. That’s all it takes to revel in the ridiculous smoothness of Italian buttercream against the moist richness of the cake itself. But I digress. I told you, I love cake.
People either love the texture and taste of the cake, telling us that, “it tastes like my grandmother used to make,” or, “I haven’t eaten a cake like this in years!”, or they hate it, calling it rock-like or something similar referring to the texture.
I invite you, the next time you have the privilege of eating a cake made from scratch and made with love, pay attention to what you’re eating. Keep tasting it 5, 10, 15 second after you put it in your mouth. Pause after swallowing and let the taste linger. Now don’t do this with a cake mix cake or you’ll notice the chemical aftertaste and greasy mouthfeel of the frosting made with shortening. Those cakes are meant to be scarfed so you don’t notice how bad you feel until after you’ve eaten the whole thing. Next time you enjoy a really good cake, however, remember it and get back to me. I’d like to hear about it.
So tell me, Sugarfans, what about you? What do you think of when you think of cake?