For people who don’t use cake mix, its popularity can be baffling. Cake is a gift of love or celebration, however minor. The relatively little effort of combining the first five or so ingredients to produce something better-tasting and, importantly, more sincere in its act of giving than a flighty boxed mix cake seems infinitely worthwhile.
And yet, in America, since ‘Betty Crocker’ catapulted cake mix to mainstream use in the 1940s, it has been an essential part of many a loving home baker’s toolkit.
In Cake: a Global History, author Nicola Humble explains the inconsistency. Manufacturers convinced home cooks that baking the cake mix was merely the first technical step in the process of producing the cake – a piece of beautifully-decorated art – for loved ones.
Cakes in America have always been just as much about the frosting and the decoration as the quality of the baked matter, she says.
The message was that you prepare the cake mix with no concerns about mis-measuring, uneven rising or heavy texture. Cake mix guarantees a light, fluffy even-rising cake that you make your own through the much more creative process of decoration.
It’s a message that still resonates today.
A cooking phenomenon called the Cake Mix Doctor has produced an entire series of cookbooks on tarting up cake mix to producing stunning home baking. The Betty Crocker and other cake mix brand websites also feature recipes with their cake mixes as just the first building-block.
Online messageboards throw the topic back and forwards with those dedicated to baking from scratch for flavour and integrity facing off against advocates of cake mix.
The fictitious Betty Crocker helped earn the trust of Americans to buy in to the message that cake mix – and ready-made foods in general – were more convenient and more reliable.
Cake mix was invented in the 1920s by American firm Duff and Sons, but with a reputation for spoilage, it didn’t take off.
Betty Crocker was invented in the 1920s too, as a trusted home economist at major flour manufacturer General Mills. Housewives could write in with their baking dilemmas and one of the company’s employees would write back under the name ‘Betty Crocker’.
And once she reached national radio audiences through the ‘Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air’ (voiced by actors) she became one of the most trusted people in America: the “personification of patriotic home cooking”, according to Laura Shapiro’s book Something From the Oven.
So when Betty Crocker cake mix was introduced in 1947- after four years’ rigorous research, development and pilot testing – it was so influential it changed how Americans baked forever.
Such was its mass market penetration that by the 1950s Betty Crocker was primarily associated with packaged ready-made food.
In fact, as Shapiro points out, she made herself redundant. Her products became so effortless that the expert authority figure with her vast culinary knowledge was no longer required. Today Betty Crocker is merely a brand name.
As the trusted face of ready-made food Betty Crocker paved the way for further convenience foods in the 1960s and 70s. Many of which may be vile – but we now have a choice.
Cooking with Betty Crocker cake mix
I made this recipe for Key Lime Coconut Angel Cake from the Betty Crocker website in the US.
In New Zealand where we have the Australian Betty Crocker product range, we don’t have ‘white angel food cake mix’ (a recipe that uses only white ingredients – so no egg yolks – to produce a pure white cake), so instead I used the ‘vanilla cake mix’, which called for a whole egg, so it came out slightly more yellow. And seeing as I’d tainted the whiteness of the cake mix anyway, I toasted my shredded coconut because that tastes better.
Verdict: attractive and definitely edible, but the cake felt like a mere platform for the frosting. Lovely children’s party fare.