Cake Mix: Redefining Baking in America

Growing up in the mid-twentieth century, I observed first-hand a number of food innovations and convenience products that directly affected how the American housewife prepared the family meal. Arguably, the one product that brought about the biggest change was the invention of boxed cake mixes.

I can remember when every pie and cake my mom baked was made from scratch. Then came the fifties and, like other American households, convenience items became commonplace in our home, as well. It seems my mom fell in love with Betty and Duncan, eventually even turning to canned frostings. From those days forward, only after much begging would she make one of her popular scratch cakes, and I’m honestly not sure she didn’t do a little cheating even then.

Boxed cake mixes in America actually got their start in the early 1930s when P. Duff and Sons, a Pittsburg molasses canning company, found itself with a surplus of molasses. Its founder John D. Duff, who had successfully found a way to dehydrate his excess syrup, began searching for a way to utilize his molasses powder. Employing techniques used by the Pearl Milling Company to launch Aunt Jemima’s “just add water” pancake mix, Duff developed a gingerbread cake mix.

Later that year, Duff applied for a U.S. patent for his new invention. In his application, Duff explained that for housewives to go to the expense and inconvenience of maintaining the ingredients needed to bake cake for their family was no longer necessary when they could purchase a can of Duff and Sons gingerbread cake mix for 21 cents a 14-ounce can. Yes, cake mixes were first marketed in cans.

“When I got to France I realized I didn’t know very much about food at all. I’d had those cakes from cake mixes or the ones that have a lot of baking powder in them. A really food French cake doesn’t have anything like that in it – it’s all egg power.” – Julia Child

By the end of 1933 Duff’s baking mix, now available in other flavors including devil’s food and spice, was granted its first patent–no. 1,931,892. However, in an effort to improve its mixes the company had already began tweaking its formula. John became aware that the taste of his cake mix was a bit off due to the use of powdered eggs, so his new formula required housewives to add fresh eggs. Not only did this change resolve the off-taste issue but actually improved the rise and texture of the finished product. On June 13, 1933, Duff filed for his second patent, writing in his application, “The housewife and the purchasing public in general seem to prefer fresh eggs and hence the use of dried or powdered egg is somewhat of a handicap from a psychological standpoint.” On October 8, 1935, patent no. 2,016,320 was granted.

Probably the most well known myth about cake mix development is that Ernest Dichter, psychologist and the man who coined the phrase “focus group,” was working with General Mills on how to improve cake mix sales. As the story goes, Dichter determined that housewives wanted more involvement in the baking process, so from then on Betty Crocker cake mixes required adding fresh eggs. While Dichter did work with General Mills, he did so in the 1950s, some fifteen years after Duff was granted his patent for eggless cake mix. A later survey determined that although homemakers said they preferred to add their own eggs, they really liked the convenience of those mixes that include eggs.

By the end of World War II and the late 1940s there were more than 200 brands of cake mix, including labels like Swans Down, Dromedary, X-Pert, Helen’s, Joy, Occident, and PY-O-My. Of course, the largest share of the market was held by the big flour companies who had spent the war years getting ready to jump into the cake mix game once our troops were home. Taking a lesson from J. Duff and Sons, flour mills decided they had to do more than just sell flour–convenience was now the name of the game.

“My idea of baking is buying a ready-made cake mix and throwing in an egg.” – Cilla Black

It is interesting that while as previously mentioned American housewives really liked cake mix that included eggs, only Pillsbury stayed with the add water only mix, while GM’s Betty Crocker and Consolidated Mills’ Duncan Hines (later sold to Procter & Gamble) went the add-your-own-fresh-eggs route.

Between 1956 and 1960 cake mix sales began to flatten (increasing only 5% during that time) and many companies shut their doors. The remaining cake mix companies began searching for what went wrong and what was needed to kick-start sales. Enter marketing psychologist Ernest Dichter, who proclaimed the problem to be frosting, not eggs. Since baking the cake was so simple, the housewife wanted to make the baked goods their own through cake decorating and other creativeness. Soon photographs on cake mix boxes and in magazines began to showcase elaborate cake constructions and over the top icing techniques. It is interesting that a product developed to save time has since become a culinary time-filler.

Today, boxed cake mixes are a staple in every supermarket, household pantry, and yes, many commercial bakeries in the United States, as well as most developed countries in the world. And with American home bakers using more than 60 million cake mixes a year, the homemade scratch cake is quite an endangered species.

Make It: Homemade Cake Mix

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My Favorite Breakfast Food – Pancakes.

A lady recently asked me, “Chef, what’s your favorite food?” My reply was, “Breakfast foods. Bacon, eggs, omelets, biscuits and gravy–you name it.”

Then, after a brief pause, “And pancakes. I love pancakes!”

I’m not sure when my affinity for pancakes began. You’d think it would have been as a young child, but I don’t remember my mom making pancakes very often. Truth is, I can’t remember her ever making pancakes, although I’m certain she did. I believe my love for this iconic American flatbread came as a teenager going out with family and friends to the local pancake house, a place I still patronize when I’m in the mood for pancakes.

Pancakes date back to at least the fifth century B.C. where for breakfast the ancient Greeks commonly consumed tagenias (meaning “frying pan”). Tagenias were prepared from wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and curdled milk, somewhat like modern pancakes. Ancient Romans also enjoyed pancakes, calling their fried creations alia dulcia (Latin for “other sweets”). A Roman cookbook of that era, Apicius, contains perhaps the first recipe for a pancake. Made from egg, flour, and milk, it was served with a drizzle of honey.

By the fifteenth century, all of Europe were enthralled with pancakes, although they were more crepe-like than today’s version due to the absence of modern leavening. The good Huswifes Handmaids for the Kitchen, a London cookbook printed in 1594, contained what is thought to be the first pancake recipe written in English.

To make Pancakes.
TAke new thicke Creame a pinte, foure or fiue yolks of Egs, a good handfull of flower, and two or three spoonfuls of ale, strain them altogether into a faire platter, and season it with a good handfull of Sugar, a spooneful of Synamon, and a litle Ginger: then take a frying pan, and put in a litle peece of Butter, as big as your thombe, and when it is molten browne, cast it out of your pan, and with a ladle put to the further side of your pan some of your stuffe, and hold your pan aslope, so that your stuffe may run abroad ouer all the pan, as thin as may be: then set it to the fyre, and let the fyre be verie soft, and when the one side is baked, then turne the other, and bake them as dry as ye can without burning.

By the eighteeth century pancake recipes began appearing in virtually every reputable European cookbook, including Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife and The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse. Both of these popular British cookbooks were among the “must-haves” brought to America by early colonial homemakers. So popular were these works that the first cookbook printed in the New World was a reprint of The Compleat Housewife in Williamsburg, Virginia. The first totally American cookbook, American Cookery written by Amelia Simmons and published in 1796, included two different pancake recipes.

Johny Cake, or Hoe Cake
Scald 1 pint of milk and put to 3 pints of Indian meal, and half pint
of flower–bake before the fire. Or scald with milk two thirds of the
Indian meal, or wet two thirds with boiling water, add salt, molasses
and shortening, work up with cold water pretty stiff, and bake as
above.

Indian Slapjack
One quart of milk, 1 pint of indian meal, 4 eggs 4 spoons of flour,
little salt, beat together, baked on gridles, or fry in a dry pan, or
baked in a pan which has been rub’d with suet, lard or butter.

The earliest evidence of the term Johnny cake (sometimes spelled Johny) was in South Carolina in 1739, where it was said to have been the name given by American Negros to cakes made of Indian corn (maise). The term Hoe Cake is thought to have been first used in 1745 by American writers Joel Barlow and Washington Irving in describing corn cakes cooked on the blade of a hoe over an open fire.

Dutch Baby Pancakes Make a Comeback

Sometimes referred to as a Bismarck, Dutch puff, or the David Eyre pancake, the first thing one should know about Dutch Babies is they are not Dutch. Actually this puffy cross between a pancake and a sweet popover is said to have been derived from a German pancake known as a Pfannkuchen. Made from eggs, flour, sugar, and milk, the Dutch Baby is baked in a scalding hot iron skillet and usually enjoyed with apples and a healthy amount of powdered sugar. The dish was introduced in the early 1900s at the family-run Manca’s Café in Seattle, Washington.

As the story goes the Dutch Baby was developed and introduced by Victor Manca in the early 1900s at his family-run Manca’s Café in Seattle, Washington. The secret recipe soon became one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. One of Victor’s daughters could not as a young child pronounce “Deutsch” (German for “German”), calling it Dutch instead, and the name Dutch Babies was born.

Soon Sunset Magazine heard the story and featured the restaurant and pancake creator in their magazine, introducing Manca’s Café and Dutch Babies to the entire country. It wasn’t long before restaurants all across America were trying to duplicate Victor’s pancake.

Manca’s Café was originally located on the corner of Second and Cherry streets in Seattle, where it stood until 1942 when it was relocated to 108 Columbia Street. The restaurant closed on March 25, 2018, and, according to legend, so with it went Manca’s secret recipe.

Of late, these plate sized puffy pancakes have been featured on Food Network, The Chew, Martha Stewart, and other cooking shows, as well as in several magazines. It looks like the Dutch Baby is making a comeback.

Actually Native Americans were cooking cornmeal cakes long before the arrival of the Europeans. The Algonquian tribes of the Atlantic seaboard are credited with teaching the colonists how to make Johnny cakes, a mainstay of the Southeastern tribes.

Over the years, these American flatbreads, made of corn meal, wheat flour, or a combination thereof, have been known by a variety of terms–Johnny cakes, journey cakes, hoe cakes, corn dodgers, griddle cakes, batter cakes or batty-cakes, flannel cakes, hot-cakes, and flapjacks to name just a few. It would be the late nineteenth century before the word “pancake” became the norm.

With few exceptions, pancakes in the U.S. are generally served in “stacks”–two are known as a short stack; three or more are called a stack–served with lots of butter and maple (or another flavor) syrup. American pancakes sometimes come with additional ingredients such as bananas, blueberries, apples, chocolate chips, or nuts mixed into the batter. Or sometimes they come topped with strawberries, peaches, whipped cream, even ice cream.

Today, some form of pancake is enjoyed throughout the world, although not always as a breakfast staple as is done here. In other countries pancakes may be sweet or savory, thin or thick, leavened or unleavened. They may be eaten as a snack or as the main meal itself or they may be used as an ingredient to a dish or simply as an accompaniment. But one thing is for sure, pancakes are so popular, countries have created holidays around them.

Pancake Day, also known as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”), is the last day of pre-Lenten feasting, a tradition that dates back to the 16th century. Since butter, eggs, and fats are generally prohibited during Lenten fasting, these ingredients were used to make pancakes and other rich dishes on which to gorge before Lent began. This food holiday falls in either February or March and immediately precedes Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent).

There is also a second National Pancake Day that has been observed September 26 every year since 2005. Not to be confused with Shrove Tuesday, this food holiday began as Lumberjack Day and in my mind it is just an excuse to eat stacks and stacks of pancakes. As for myself, I really don’t need an excuse to enjoy pancakes. But in an effort to be fair, unbiased, and a team player, let me go on record right now and pledge my total support and participation to both of these great food days.

Make ‘Em: Buttermilk Griddle Cakes, Double Chocolate Pancakes, Dutch Baby Pancake