Question: When is a cake mix more than a cake mix?
Answer: When there is a little creativity involved in the baking.
If you check the concoctions dreamed up for us by three pastry professionals, you'll see what we mean.
In the spirit of culinary adventure, we asked these three pastry chefs to work with a cake mix and a can of frosting: Shandra Beutner, who owns the pastry/coffee shop, Carriage Trade, on Elmwood Avenue; Jenny Laney, pastry chef at the Buffalo Club; and Donna Majewski, who bakes desserts for upscale restaurants.
They rolled up their sleeves and dived right in.
The challenge was simple. Each chef could take either a yellow or white cake mix of her own choosing -- the yellow and white varieties happen to be the best-selling cake mix flavors in the country -- plus that frosting and come up with something special, adding only basic ingredients any cook might have on hand.
In other words, no pulled sugar, no gum paste flowers, no Royal Icing. Just the kind of groceries most people would stock.
Results were impressive indeed.
Especially when you realize that these chefs never use mixes professionally. They use only fresh ingredients as they turn out their legendary wedding cakes, lemon tortes and cinnamon buns. "That's because," as Donna Majewski puts it, "fresh ingredients taste best."
But that doesn't mean that they think cake mixes don't have a place in a home kitchen.
Shandra Beutner, for instance, points out that "some cake mixes are not bad, and the cakes they produce are always dependable."
And Jenny Laney (who paid 99 cents for a box of cake mix and 99 cents for a can of frosting on sale) says that a cake produced from a mix is almost always cheaper than one made from scratch, not to mention much more convenient.
What they do object to, however, are the preservatives and artificial ingredients used in the mix formulation -- they swear they can taste them. And there's also the fact that the cakes are much too sweet.
Some people describe this phenomemon as "cake mix taste."
Also, there's another problem: canned icing has an unpleasant texture and it's even sweeter than the cake.
There are ways to cure cake mix (and icing) taste, however. Here are some of the strategies the three pastry chefs used. (Find their recipes below.)
Shandra Beutner used a Betty Crocker white cake mix and added fresh lemon zest to the ingredients to add fresh flavor. "I wanted to add a little extra something," she explained. (Lemon zest is the yellow part of the peel.) She baked the cake in a three 8-inch pans according to the package instructions and let it cool, and then the magic began.
Beutner, who studied at Niagara County Community College and worked at Warren's and Zuzon before buying Carriage Trade eight years ago, felt that even more ingredients would have to be added to the icing. She took some of the canned Betty Crocker Fluffy White Frosting Mix she had purchased and folded melted and cooled white chocolate into it.
Then she spread some of that mixture on top of one layer, then spread lemon curd on top of that. (Lemon curd is a creamy mixture of juice, sugar, but ter and egg yolks that can be either made at home or purchased in jars.) Beutner dotted the curd with fresh raspberries and repeated the same thing with the second layer.
Then the entire cake was frosted with the remaining icing, to which she added a little vanilla. And -- presentation is all -- she pressed white coconut into the sides of the cake and dotted the top with a few raspberries, dabs of lemon curd and a green buttercream icing leaf.
Jenny Laney is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has worked at country clubs all over this area, as well as the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead, Georgia. She also worked closely with pastry chef extraordinaire Joel Chenet, who left his shop at the Main Transit Market and moved on to Alaska a couple of years ago.
"It's fall and I love apples," says Laney. So she set out to make Apple Upside-Down Cake from her Betty Crocker Yellow Cake Mix. (This can also be made with pears.)
First, she lined two 9-inch round cake pans with waxed paper and sprinkled two tablespoons of brown sugar on each. Then she peeled and sliced four Ginger Gold apples very thinly. She laid the apples attractively in a concentric circle on the brown sugar in each pan. The Ginger Golds were just slightly tart and held their shape nicely but, actually, any apple would do.
Next, she prepared the cake batter according to package directions, adding cinnamon, cloves and a cup of non-instant Quaker Oats.
"That was to make the cake more hearty," she explained.
She poured the batter over the apples in both pans and put them in the oven. "I noticed that the baking took about five minutes longer that the package said," said Laney. "I think that's because the apples added moisture." A cake is tested for doneness by inserting a toothpick or straw into it. If the cake is done, the straw should come out clean. There should be no cake batter on it (although in this case, a bit of the apple mixture may appear.)
Lastly, Laney drizzled the inverted cakes with warm Duncan Hines Caramel frosting straight from the can. She used only a little of it because the icing is so sweet.
Donna Majewski, who runs her own business called Room for Dessert, also bakes for Just Pasta and the brand-new restaurant, Nektar, on Elmwood Avenue. She has also been the pastry chef for the Rue Franklin West.
Majewski baked a Duncan Hines white cake in a tube pan and cut it three layers when it was cool. Why three layers?
"That way, the cake looked more important," she said. "And also that's a good way to distribute the flavor of the icing throughout."
Then she made a caramel with white sugar, butter and heavy cream. This can be a tricky procedure, so Majewski says you might use melted caramel candy, as well.
Then, in tune with the season, Majewski sauteed peeled apples in butter and brown sugar until they were soft. She's an apple lover, too.
The pastry chef took Pillsbury Vanilla Frosting from the can and added a little more cinnamon and a bit of cream to it.
"I figured that would help it taste better and take away a little of the sweetness," she explained. "Also when you beat the icing it softens it and makes it look better."
Now she was ready to assemble the cake by layering caramel, apples and frosting. "You can decorate the cake any way you like," she said. "Use some leftover caramel on it -- if it's gotten too hard, soften it in the microwave.
"Use some fresh sliced apples. Or, you can simply sprinkle the cake with powdered sugar. "Whatever you do, it will look great."
Here are the recipes for the pastry chefs' cakes:
RASPBERRY LEMON CAKE
1 Betty Crocker white cake mix
2 cans Betty Crocker Fluffy White Frosting Mix
1/2 cup fresh lemon zest
3 ounces white chocolate, melted and cooled
1 jar lemon curd
1 pint fresh raspberries
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup canned coconut
Green buttercream frosting, optional
Bake the cake in three 8-inch layer pans according to package instructions, adding the lemon zest to the batter. Let cakes cool.
Place about 3/4 -cup of the frosting in a bowl. Fold in the melted and cooled white chocolate. Spread half of this mixture on one layer; spread lemon curd atop frosting. Cover with fresh raspberries. Repeat with second layer.
Add vanilla to the remaining frosting. Place top layer of cake and frost tops and sides of the cake. Press coconut into the frosting on the sides of the cake. Dot the top of the cake with dabs of lemon curd and fresh raspberries. If desired, pipe some green buttercream in the center of the cake to make a decorative leaf. Makes one cake.
APPLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 Betty Crocker yellow cake mix
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 cup Quaker Oats (not quick oats)
1 can Duncan Hines Caramel Frosting Mix
Grease two 9-inch layer cake pans; place waxed paper on the bottom of each pan and grease again. Peel and core two apples. Slice them thinly.
Place the apples in the pan in a concentric circle. Use two apples for each pan. Sprinkle the apples with brown sugar, allowing 2 tablespoons brown sugar per pan.
Add the cinnamon, cloves and oats to the dry cake mix. Prepare the cake mix according to package instructions, adding water, oil and eggs as the package directs. Pour the batter over the apples, dividing the batter equally.
Bake in preheated oven for about 30 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven.
Drizzle the warm cakes with the frosting. Makes 2 cakes.
1 Duncan Hines white cake mix
2 apples, peeled, cored and sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
Caramel sauce, recipe below OR
1 package caramel candies
1 can Pillsbury Vanilla Frosting
Additional cinnamon and a little milk
Prepare cake in tube pan as package directs. Let cook thoroughly.
Core apples, peel and slice thinly. Cook in 2 tablespoons of butter, 1 tablespoon cinnamon, 1/2 -cup brown sugar until the apples are soft. Set aside.
If you are going to use the Caramel Sauce, proceed this way: Heat one cup granulated sugar until it turns golden. Add half a stick of butter very slowly and carefully. (It's easy to get burned.) Add about a quarter cup of cream and stir until mixture comes together and makes a sauce. Set aside.
If using the caramel candies instead, melt them. Set aside.
Place the Vanilla Frosting in a bowl. Add a dash of cinnamon and beat in a little milk.
Now assemble the cooled cake. Slice it into three layers. Glaze the first layer with caramel sauce and top with sauteed apples; pipe or pile the frosting overall.
Repeat with second layer.
Place the top layer, decorating as you wish. You may use a little extra frosting, apples or caramel. You may simply sprinkle the cake with powdered sugar. Makes one cake.