Mass-produced, ready-made mixes were saved by the rise of customized cakes
This afternoon, my second grader and her friend baked cookies more or less on their own. While two adults were within earshot for questions about fractions and handling the oven, the two girls did manage to sneak an extra egg into their recipe. Any worries were put to rest with a bit extra flour and the promise of more ‘cake-like’ cookies (plus the option to add frosting). In this way, the two junior chefs managed to reenact some of the history of modern cake-baking, even if they were supposedly making cookies.
Beginning with breads
Looking further back, the first cakes looked more like bread than what we usually serve on birthdays today. In fact, the first ‘cakes’ were likely just breads sweetened with honey, fruit and nuts as far back as ancient Egypt. By the 13th century, the word ‘cake‘ was coming into use, originating from the old Norse word for the kitchen, kaka, although at this point cakes were still closer to fruitcake or gingerbread. In the 17th century, standardized ovens and ingredients brought about a more recognizable cake, complete with a round shape and sugary icing.
A mix to move molasses
The 19th century saw the advent of premade mixes for custards, pancakes and gelatin, but baked cakes weren’t put together until the 1930s. A Pennsylvanian company called P. Duff and Sons managed to process their excess molasses with dehydrated flour and launch the world’s first cake mix. The canned mix debuted with powdered eggs, requiring only the addition of water before baking. While this made baking a cake a simple affair for even an under-stocked kitchen, P. Duff and Sons returned to the patent office the following year with a revised recipe. Ready-made bakers would now be privileged to add their own fresh eggs to the mix, which seemed to help sales and was all the same to P. Duff and Sons as long as plenty of molasses was still part of the recipe.
The original gingerbread and devil’s food cakes did fine, but they didn’t exactly put instant cake mix on the cultural map. After World War II, the flour market was experiencing a surplus, and so a number of companies jumped into the cake-mix market to help people make use of the flour no longer needed for soldiers. Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines offered mixes that needed eggs, with Pillsbury holding out for a while before switching their powered eggs out down the line. Either way, the presence of eggs didn’t make that big of a difference, and cake-mix sales stalled by the 1950s.
Decorations to build demand
The spark to get America excited about making cakes was the same thing that motivated my second grader earlier in the day: custom frosting. Instead of just being a point of convenience, cakes were marketed as edible canvases to decorate with frosting, candy and miniatures that would make your average gingerbread house jealous. The third major flavor of cake mix was introduced as “Party Cake,” which was something approximating White or Yellow cake, and really just served to be an even more generic bit of sugary starch to shape into a bit of culinary self-expression. Around this time, Americans also started stacking our cakes into frosting-lined layers, adding new options for personalization and boosting the mass of what could still be considered a “single” slice of cake.
These marketing pushes, combined with the convenience of a cake-in-a-box, has obviously paid off. Many people now consider a cake made from a mix to be “home made,” without much concern over if they had to add their own egg or not. The fact that we still like to decorate our cakes is then somewhat interesting, since it shows that we’re not put off by investing a bit of time in our desserts, we just want that effort to be clearly visible, even to the people who don’t try a slice.
My second grader asked: You said adding an extra egg would make our cookies more like cake, but they didn’t get very puffed up. What makes that happen with cakes?
The earliest cakes, like breads, needed yeast to help the dough rise. The yeast eats sugars in the dough, and the byproducts of that digestion (aka, yeast farts), help puff things up. In the 19th century, baking powder was replacing yeast in a number of mixes, and helps keep these cake-mixes quick and easy to work with, even if they’ve been on a shelf a long time.
Source: A History of the Cake Mix, the Invention That Redefined 'Baking' by Michael Y. Park, Bon Appetit