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June 29th, 2010:

The Cake Mix Doctor: Baking Outside the Box

birthday cake cones

CupcakeCones2If you’ve been reading this blog you’ve probably noticed that I’m kind of a snob about scratch cooking. I don’t think that every kind of processed food out there is an abomination, but I think a lot of them are, and their chief failing is that they provide a lower-quality, less tasty result, often in cases when it just isn’t that hard to make the dish for yourself.

CakeIngreds3Ann Byrn, author of The Cake Mix Doctor, thinks that cake mixes can produce subpar cakes, but they also offer two great advantages: They save a significant amount of prep time, and they are engineered to be nearly impossible to ruin. Even the most maladept baker can successfully produce a cake from a boxed mix. And rather than turn up her nose, Byrn embraces the mixes and MixingCake2offers recipes that improve on their lackluster flavors with the addition of spices, extra eggs or oil, or other secret ingredients. I’ve long been a fan of her melted ice-cream cake, which enhances a white cake mix with a pint of your choice of premium ice cream (New York Super Fudge Chunk is fun).

For the party I decided to make birthday cake cones. I started CupcakeConesInPan3with a package of store-brand devil’s food cake mix, and beat in water, oil (a bit more than called for on the box), eggs, and half a teaspoon of cinnamon. So far, so basic. Now came the fun part: I spooned batter into wafer-style ice cream cones, the ones with the flat bottoms, whose bases I’d wrapped with aluminum foil to prevent leaking. The recipe says to fill the cones only halfway, but FillingConesI think I could have added a wee bit more. (I had some leftover batter, which I poured into standard cupcake liners.) Once I’d filled all the cones, I carefully maneuvered the pan into a 350-degree oven and let the cupcakes bake for 25 minutes. (I was expecting all the cones to fall over as I moved the pan, but they were stable. Whew!)

BakedCones6Now it was time to make the frosting. Byrn has an extensive chapter of frosting recipes; as she says, cake mixes are one thing, but frosting mixes and canned frosting are pretty bad across the board, and homemade frosting can be extremely easy to make. I sifted 3 cups of powdered sugar. This is probably the most finicky part of making frosting, if you use a sifter, as I did, but you could FrostingIngreds2also get satisfactory results by pouring powdered sugar into a bowl and giving it a whirl with the mixer blades, then measuring it out; the important thing is to break up any clumps so you have a fine, consistent powder and you’re not overpacking the measuring cup. I set the sugar aside and put one stick of butter (softened) into a mixing bowl with 2/3 cup of cocoa, and stirred ButterAndCocoa2them together on the lowest mixer setting until they were evenly blended. Then I added the sugar, 1/3 cup of milk, 2 teaspoons of vanilla, and a pinch of salt, and mixed them on the lowest speed until they were just blended, then turned the mixer up to high and beat the frosting another 2 minutes or so, until it was fluffy and light. Total prep time, including sifting the powdered sugar: about 7 minutes.

FrostingMixed2We frosted the cupcakes and decorated them with candy sprinkles, which is always loads of fun; I find I can usually make this my last piece of party prep and enlist the help of the earliest-arriving guest, or even make decorating a main party activity. People do love to slather on the frosting and get creative with the colored sugars and decorating pieces.

CupcakeCones4The cupcakes were really delicious, too. The added cinnamon wasn’t really easy to pick out as cinnamon, but it gave the chocolate a richer undertone. The frosting was rich and chocolatey as well, though I had a moment of puzzlement when I first tasted it — then I realized that I’ve gotten into such a rut of making cream-cheese-based frosting that I was assuming any homemade frosting should have that subtle tang. It was just dandy without it, though.

Verdict: Success. I’ll want to make these again, playing with flavors and frostings.

A Man, a Can, a Plan: A Laugh

chunky kernel spread

MixingDip4I picked up A Man, a Can, a Plan from the discount tables at the Strand Bookstore a couple of years ago. It has so much to make fun of: thick cardboard pages of the kind usually found in babies’ picture books; “recipes” that involve mixing together the contents of cans and passing the results off as cuisine; and a deeply silly self-justifying introduction that would be DipIngreds2offensively sexist if it could possibly have been meant as anything other than a joke:

“Men don’t cook.” People tell me this all the time. That’s a load of bull. … we have better things to do. Why slave over a hot stove when we could be cooking up plans for a golf outing ? Or warming up at the gym? Or making things CreamCheeseNRanchsizzle in the bedroom? … When your girl insists that you cook something for a change, you’ve got it in the can.

The book is published by Men’s Health, which clearly has very little faith in its readers’ ability to find their way around a kitchen without pictorial guidance. Or in their palates, for that matter; we DicingRedPepper2find canned ham and pop-tube crescent rolls, tuna and jarred spaghetti sauce, Spaghetti-Os and — well, anything, really — and a truly disheartening array of canned soups. It looks like sponsorship must be involved too, because some brand-name products are featured in vivid color photos, while no-name ingredients get a textual “also” but no pictures.

MixingDipIt didn’t take long to flip through the 50 recipes, but to actually settle on something I would make and ask other humans to eat took a while. I ruled out Spaghetti-Os, canned meat, and anything that would need to cook for more than 30 minutes on a 90-degree day. I also ruled out pineapple, canned fish, and beer as an ingredient. (I guessed that anything I was willing to drink would have too MixingDip3strong a flavor for the dish.) I was left with a few options, and settled on chunky kernel spread, which I keep wanting to call chunky kernel dip, because really it is a dip.

This is one of the easier recipes of an elementary lot. I allowed two packets of reduced-fat cream cheese to soften (the recipe called for fat-free, but you can’t really DipWithFritos2find fat-free anything in our local stores), then mixed in a packet of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix. The recipe directed me to then add an 11-ounce can of corn (drained), a 5-ounce can of sliced black olives (drained), a 4-ounce jar of chopped mild green chiles (also drained), and a small red bell pepper (diced). I could only find 12-ounce cans of corn, and chose not to worry about the PartySpreaddifference. I could also only find cans of whole black olives, so bought a can and sliced up enough to equal the canned amount. And I found only cans of chiles, not jars. I thought I had pulled a can of chopped chiles but discovered when I opened it that I had once again fallen prey to grocery shelf dyslexia and purchased whole chiles, so I chopped those up as well. I stirred everything together, covered the bowl with plastic wrap, and stuck it in the fridge for a little over an hour.

Closer to party time, I pulled out the dip and put it into a bowl, which I set in a serving dish and surrounded with Fritos (as per the recipe). I found the dip underwhelming when I sampled some off the spoon, but it turns out that Fritos were required for a reason: the high level of salt and the strong corn flavor tie together the flavors in the dip, and make it a pretty satisfying snack.

Verdict: Success. I can’t see myself making this again any time soon; it seems like it would go best with a sports-watching party, and I don’t really watch sports. Puppy Bowl, maybe? If I do make it again I’ll use hotter chiles and kalamata olives, and buy more Fritos.