Every time I go to the grocery store, I’m reminded that cooking is becoming more “just add water”, and less “a little of this, a little of that and a lot of love.”
Don’t get me wrong. Convenience is a wonderful thing, especially after a long day at work. But is it worth an annihilation of flavor and quality?
When it comes to shady shortcuts, the list is longer than your line-up of reasons why cooking is too difficult: Easy Mac, Ready Rice, Hamburger Helper, and Cooking Creme… Warm Delights, Suddenly Salad, Rice a Roni, Cool Whip, Cheesy Skillets, Shake ‘n Bake…
I’ve used most everything I just named. Yummy? Yes. Good for you? Not really. The best way to make that dish or dessert? Definitely not.
I’ve never been much for labels, and I’m not talking generic vs. name brand. Check the side of the package. Go beyond the calorie and carb counts. That paragraph, which often resembles a word search or Hieroglyphics, can really scare you.
I’ve seen Panko bread crumbs that contain high fructose corn syrup. Shake ‘n Bake is made with sugar, monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolyzed corn protein (?), and caramel color. Duncan Hines Classic Yellow Cake Mix has Yellow 5 Lake and Red 40 Lake (pigments containing dyes and salts), and partially hydrogenated soybean oil.
The last one stuck with me. Why does it take so many ingredients to make what can really be done with a few household ingredients.
And I’d be lying if I told you I’ve never wanted to pretend that I was on Cupcake Wars and challenged with creating a batter that wasn’t born in a box.
I searched high and low, as my grandmother would say, for cake recipes that appeared to be easy and flavorful.
The first one came from Hershey’s.
So many pro bakers seen on TV end up with this batter that’s thick and scoopable. It almost resembles old fashioned ice cream.
This Hershey’s mix was runny. The recipe warned me about it. This is blamed on the addition of boiling water which basically activates the cocoa powder. According to what I’ve read, after the cacao bean is ground to powder, the individual bits of seed still have pieces of membrane attached to them. Boiling water frees the tiny bits from this membrane, allowing to blast into the batter.
Here’s a pointer: if a recipe calls for room temperature ingredients. You should let the ingredient, in this case butter, sit out for hours! It makes a big difference when you try to combine the butter with sugar. It creams together perfectly.
The cupcake was moist, crumbly and had a thorough chocolate flavor. I did use almond extract in place of the vanilla extract. I’m a sucker for almond flavor, especially with chocolate.
My biggest complaint was that the cupcakes stuck to the cups. I used papers liners with a foil 2nd layer. The paper was glued to the cake and tore it. This never happened to me with a boxed cake mix. I guess it’s possible I left the cakes in the oven for a bit too long.
I used Paula Deen’s easy caramel icing recipe. This didn’t turn out as great as I’d hoped. It’s perfect for a quick caramel-inspired icing, but it lacked the depth of true caramel. I sprinkled some Fleur de Sel on top for a salted caramel treat.
I found a recipe that got rave reviews, and promised, “…a divine taste that puts other coconut cupcakes to shame.” The secret here, is the use of coconut milk instead of milk, the use of butter instead of oil, and the addition of shredded sweetened coconut.
The coconut batch promised to be light, though reviews called them dense. I agree with both. The final result was practically the illegitimate child of a promiscuous pound cake and an average Joe cake. The texture was light, sturdy and somewhat crumbly.
The recipe called for a coconut cream cheese frosting.
I opted for a coconut whipped cream.
I put a can of coconut milk in the fridge for about a day, took it out and scooped out the solids this formed on took and combined that with a spoonful of powdered sugar and some almond extract. Whip it up and bam… A creamy coconutty, dairy-free whipped cream!
To cover the remaining cupcakes, I made a chocolate ganache (milk chocolate & dark chocolate candy bars broken up, melted and mixed with heavy cream).
My partner in cuisine crime said these were the best cupcakes he’s ever had.
than their boxed brothers.
But, I had all the ingredients on hand. I did go buy new baking powder and soda because mine were old, and wouldn’t have done their jobs.
My point is that I knew what was going into my batter. There were no word jumbles, funky dyes or concoctions that not even Einstein could decipher.
To make it easier on myself, I may pick a day and fill some jumbo resealable bags with the dry ingredients for the cupcakes. This way, I’d have my own “boxed mix” sitting in the pantry… A convenient, quality shortcut.
Next time you reach for a Krafty, Betty Crock of convenience… Stop and think it through. Could you do this from scratch? The answer will be yes. So say, “Scratch that” to the easy way out.
Tip: if you make a ganache and don’t use it all, don’t toss it under a shower of hot water in the sink. Stick it in the fridge and let it set. Then, use a melon-baller or a small spoon, scoop out a bit of chocolate, roll it into a ball, and then roll that in crushed nuts, coconut shreds, sprinkles, or powdered sugar. Refrigerate on wax paper for about an hour, and you’ll have homemade truffles!