2000s Archive

In the Mix

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With creativity the new imperative in baking, women built football fields on cake-mix chocolate cakes, using green sugar for turf, candy sticks for goalposts, and a piece of apple for a football. They put chocolate petals on gumdrops for flower cakes; they carved and stacked cake layers to look like hearts, Easter bonnets, Christmas trees, and clowns.

Sometimes creativity took a lot more time and attention than homemakers would have needed to bake a cake the traditional way, but creaming butter, adding sugar, and sifting flour were starting to look like awfully pedestrian activities. "No longer plagued by kitchen-maid chores that have been taken over by the food manufacturers, anyone can become an artist at the stove," wrote Poppy Cannon in a 1961 cookbook aimed at beginners. Basic skills began to seem redundant and, finally, intimidating.

These days, it doesn't take much time or talent to make a simple cake from fresh ingredients. But cake-mix cakes—tall and sweet and golden, perched on the kitchen counter like supermodels—have altered the whole equation. Sifting, measuring, and mixing aren't easy enough, half an hour in the kitchen is too long, and the honest flavors of butter and vanilla aren't exciting anymore. The work of our own hands has lost the symbolic power that made a slightly lopsided layer cake an acknowledged masterpiece in the art of hospitality, if not of patisserie. And though we've banished the guilt that used to go with shortcut baking, we've replaced it with something that may be far more insidious. As a friend's grandmother used to say, opening a box of cake mix, "Betty Crocker does a much better job than I do."

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