My mother was the daughter of an old-fashioned “everything from scratch” cook. There wasn’t a lot of choice for my grandmother’s generation – make it yourself or eat someone else’s cooking. Della even made her own pickles and butter.
My mother married the son of a professional cook. Her mother-in-law cooked for schools, nursing homes and restaurants before opening her own café. Bea made yeast bread and homemade hominy.
Given these basic facts it is understandable that my father rolled his eyes and grunted if Mom used spaghetti sauce from a jar or yeast rolls from a package. I recall many dinner table discussions of “real cooking”.
Thankfully there was one packaged food that was accepted and approved of by all the cooks and hungry diners in our family, even my father. Cake mix in a box was a staple on our grocery list. Oh, yes, my grandmothers still made most cakes from scratch and Mom had some cake recipes that she continued to use for several years. But Betty Crocker and Pillsbury made a couple of cake mixes that were just so quick and easy, and produced a cake so light and fluffy, that they couldn’t be duplicated. And the savings in time and effort, especially for women with children, more than made up for any “chemical taste”, one of the chief complaints of the earliest mixes. That problem was easily solved by a little extra gooey frosting!
When my mom was a young girl the family’s Sunday dessert was as likely to be pie, custard, or pudding as cake. However, for our generation cake became the standard, mostly due to the use of cake mixes. Cake had always been more versatile than pie. A cake could be any shape or size, flat or tall, big or small. It could be decorated with frosting in any color. Designs and pretty pictures could be created on its surface. The use of a mix made the cake all the more popular because its quick fool-proof results made it possible for cooks to concentrate on those other elements- design and creativity. Birthday cakes and holiday cakes became works of art.
These thoughts about cake came to mind because a couple of days ago I discovered one of Della’s cake recipes in an old newspaper. This is from 1975:
Fresh Apple Cake
1 ½ cups of Wesson oil
2 cups white sugar
3 cups finely chopped fresh apples
3 cups flour
2 eggs, well beaten
½ teaspoon soda
Spices if you like or vanilla
Nuts if desired
Mix oil, sugar and well-beaten eggs. Add other ingredients. Bake 50 minutes at 350 degrees.
And of course, my penchant for history prompts me to also share this cake recipe from 1890. No, I don’t know what a “quick oven” is, but another recipe on the same page of this cookbook says “bake in a hot but not quick oven”.
Beat one pound of butter to a cream with a tablespoonful of rose-water; then add one pound of fine white sugar; ten eggs, beaten very light; and a pound and a quarter of sifted flour. Beat the cake well together; then add half a pound of shelled almonds, blanched and beaten to a paste. Butter tin round basins, line them with white paper; put in the mixture an inch and a half deep. Bake one hour in a quick oven.
I have not baked a cake in about fifteen years, but if I take a notion to do so it will definitely be one from a box.