Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake

The other night I was baking a cake. It was cold, it was miserable, I needed, no, not needed but wanted, comfort food even if it meant breaking the New Year's resolution. Extreme cold and MORE snow can do that to you.

So I was in the middle of adding the ingredients to the cake mix and went to measure the 1/2 c. of oil only to discover I had a scant 1/4 c. and no more. So I figured a little oil was better than none, and come to think of it, when did cake mixes start adding oil at all?

So began the QUEST through food land.

I was sure that cake mixes did not always require oil. Water, yes. Eggs, yes but oil? Was it economics? Did cake companies eliminate some other ingredient that achieved the same result to cut costs and then ask the consumer to provide its equivalent? Was some other ingredient heavy on the hydrogenated oil and eliminated for health reasons? (I mean really, this is a cake we're talking about) In the recent past, we were enticed into adding pudding mix to our cakes and substituting applesauce for the oil for a lower fat alternative.(again, cake) Was I losing my mind?

I finally found a partial answer from the amazing people at foodtimeline. I found an incredibly thorough treatise on the history of cakes that covered every cake ever made along with recipes. It is truly an amazing site. Katie and Anne, especially Anne, and all foodies, you need to check it out. I discovered that General Mills developed the first "Add water and Mix" cake mix, ginger cake, for their Betty Crocker campaign. They were also in development for their PartyCake line; yellow, spice, white cakes. In 1948 Pillsbury introduced the first chocolate cake mix and in 1951 Duncan Hines introduced their "Three Star Surprise" mix. Not sure what that meant! Any way, Ginger cake became Gingerbread and Cookie Mix. (And by the way, when did Gingerbread mix start adding eggs along with the water? Another quest.)

"Add water and mix" cakes were not selling as well as companies had hoped. They enlisted the help of psychologists who did research and discovered that eggs were the problem; powdered eggs to be exact. They believed that woman should add a few fresh eggs to give them "a sense of creative contribution." Research also found that when companies make things too simple they are rejected. Remember this was the 50's.

At the bottom of the site was a "Contact Us" link, which I did. And thus began my conversation with Lynne. I contacted her in the evening and received a response that night. I replied to her response and the following day got more clarification.

Apparently it was in 1972 that Duncan Hines ran an add in the New York Times touting their cake mixes that now included the phrase "add 1/2 c. vegetable oil." So there it was, part of the mystery solved. My sanity was restored.

I still don't know why. I'll save that for another cold and snowy day.

Thanks to the people at


Wendy Fleming said...

Oh my left us hanging. So did you make the cake minus the extra oil? How did it turn out??? And my friend, it looks like you are going to have plenty of snowy better stock up!

Jane said...

I did make the cake with only the 1/4 c. I had on hand. It was fine. Someone also told me I could have left out the eggs and the oil and the cake would have been good. I also learned that you can substitute the oil and eggs with 16oz. of soda, even diet soda!

Jeanie said...

Totally fascinating. I need to visit that one and pass on the link to others, too. As you might suspect, I have lots of foodie friends!