Friday, February 26, 2010

Take a cue from the Cake Mix Doctor

By Helen Klein

True confession: Until I set out to write this column, I had never in my life used a cake mix.

What made me try one? A new book chock-a-block with recipes whose goal, clearly, is to go beyond the simple cake mix, The Cake Mix Doctor Returns! (Workman Publishing, $15.95), by Ann Byrn.

I have to admit I was skeptical. I cut my kitchen teeth in an era of Julia Child worship, when my friends and I were on a first name basis with some of the most revered cookbook writers of all time, whether they knew it or not, whipping up Craig’s recipe for this, or Pierre’s recipe for that.

I made everything – and I mean everything! — from scratch, and looked askance at convenience foods. No short cuts for me, in my tiny Manhattan studio apartment kitchen.

Fast forward a couple of decades, to my comfortable kitchen in a roomy Brooklyn home, which I inhabit with one (occasionally ravenous) husband and two (frequently ravenous) children, now on the cusp of adulthood.

Short cuts, I quickly learned, were not necessarily so bad, especially if they allowed me to feed my family, hold down a job and carve out some free time for myself.

But, still, a cake mix? A CAKE MIX? I definitely needed some convincing.

So, I turned to Byrn to provide it. A quick perusal of her book made it clear that there was something for everyone in it – sticky frosted cakes, as well as more restrained pound cakes and spice cakes with streusel, and flavors that ranged from citrus to toffee, and pretty much everything in between.

But, was it any good? To find out, I purchased my very first cake mix at the supermarket during my Saturday shopping expedition, and, several days later, set out to bake Byrn’s Almond Pound Cake, on an evening when I was home (no assignments taking me across my beat), and also making dinner.

The cake quickly came together. It was clear, by comparing Byrn’s recipe with the box, that her recipe was richer and way more elaborate than the basic instructions on the carton: Six eggs instead of three, two sticks of butter instead of a third of a cup of oil, milk instead of water, extra flour and sugar, and dollops of almond and vanilla extract.

Once the cake was in the oven, the kitchen and, by extension, the entire house, quickly was infused with the haunting fragrance of almond. The cake puffed up beautiful, slid smoothly out of the Bundt pan in which I had baked it, and looked gorgeous.

But, how would it taste? We sat down to dinner (I had whipped up a main dish pasta – look for that recipe soon – and a pork chop for my husband, who’s not a big pasta fan, while the cake was baking), and waited patiently for the cake to cool, as commanded in the instructions.

Finally, it was time to taste. The cake, enthroned on a vintage Spode platter, sliced beautifully, an important first step.

The little group of experts gathered around my dining room table took small or not so small slices. My husband complimented the Italiany flavor of the cake, my son and daughter, the texture.

While I wondered, at first bite, if the almond flavor was too strong, my husband liked it a lot. By the next day, it had mellowed a bit, and my son – who had been a bit put off by the overriding almondy taste of the cake – eagerly sliced himself a piece when he got home from school.

As Byrn notes, “My mother always said a pound cake tastes better on day two or three.” We’ll see if she’s right about day three, if there’s any left.

I’m still not 100 percent convinced that mixes will ever replace basic unbleached flour, granulated sugar and various leavening agents as a basis for cake-baking in my kitchen. But, I am willing to give them a few more tries, and have already identified the recipes I want to have a go at: Lemon Streusel Cake or Aimee’s Chess Cake, anyone?

Almond Pound Cake
(From The Cake Mix Doctor Returns!, by Ann Byrn)

Serves: 12 to 16
Prep: 20 minutes
Bake: 52 to 58 minutes
Cool: 35 to 45 minutes


Vegetable oil spray, for misting the pan
Flour, for dusting the pan
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
6 large eggs
1½ teaspoons pure almond extract
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 package (18.5 ounces) plain butter recipe golden cake mix
1 cup milk (see note)


1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly mist a 10-inch tube pan or 12-cup Bundt with vegetable oil spray, then dust it with flour. Shake out the excess flour and set the pan aside.

2. Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium-low speed until blended and creamy, 1 minute. Stop the machine and scrape down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add 1 egg at a time, beating on low speed until each egg is blended into the batter. Stop the machine and add the almond and vanilla extracts and flour. Beat 30 seconds on medium-low speed. Stop the machine and scrape down the side of the bowl again. Add the cake mix and milk alternately in thirds, blending on low speed after each addition. Let the mixer run for another 30 seconds on medium speed to blend the batter well until it is smooth and thick. Pour the batter into the prepared tube pan, smoothing the top with the rubber spatula, and place the pan in the oven.

3. Bake the cake until it is just starting to pull away from the sides of the pan and the top springs back when lightly pressed with a finger, 52 to 58 minutes. Transfer the tube pan to a wire rack and let the cake cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Run a long, sharp knife around the edges of the cake and shake the pan gently. Invert the cake onto a wire rack, then invert it again onto another rack so the cake is right side up. Let the cake cool for 25 to 30 minutes longer, then slice and serve.

Keep it Fresh! Store this cake, in a cake saver or covered with plastic wrap, at room temperature for up to one week. Freeze the cake, wrapped in aluminum foil, for up to six months. Let the cake thaw overnight on the counter before serving.

Note: You may use any milk you have in your refrigerator in this recipe. If you use whole or evaporated milk you will have a richer cake.


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