Monday, June 28, 2010

Birthday Cake Saga

My little one’s birthday has come and gone. We had a wonderful small family get together for him. He spent most of time crying or being fussy because he was overwhelmed but that was not unexpected. My little man loves to cry. We’ve gotten used to it. Although, everything went off without a hitch, the one thing that took the most time and caused the most worry for me was his birthday cake. It was such a source of angst for me that the cake get’s a blog post all to itself.

I waffled and waffled and waffled on whether to make his cake or just buy one. I finally decided that I would make the cake. So, I set a budget of $15 and set about finding a good cake recipe. My insecurities eventually took over and I decided not to make the cake from scratch The cake might not be good and I am terrible at making frosting, I told myself. The last part is absolutely true. My homemade frosting usually is not thick enough to spread. So, I did a search online for “natural cake mix”. One of the first results was Naturally Nora’s cake mixes. I was so happy to find them that, with perhaps too little research, I bought a box of three cake and three icing mixes from Amazon. After days of waffling about which cake to make, I decided to make the chocolate cake with the white icing as his birthday cake.

I was still concerned about whether the cake would be good so I continued to research the Naturally Nora’s cake mixes. What I found was mostly a lot of blogger reviews about these mixes. They all seemed to carry the same theme…Oh, these mixes just showed up at my door one day and they’re so good! I won’t go into how disingenuous it is to not simply say outright that the mixes were provided with the expectation that you review them. While the consensus from the bloggers were that the mixes were delicious, the skeptic in me wondered why all these blogs sounded the same, almost like they had a script or something. And very few of them posted pictures of their results from the mix. Most of them opted to use a picture from the Naturally Nora’s site. It was disturbing.

There was one Amazon reviewer who said that the yellow cake mix did not rise much and a blogger who said that the chocolate cake was not very chocolatey. Several bloggers also mentioned that the yellow cake had more of a muffin texture than a cake texture. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for their honesty. They are good examples of how it is entirely possible to review something positively and still point out details that others should be aware of. After reading all these comments and then stumbling upon this link (the review for Naturally Nora’s mix is on slide 10), I really started to get concerned.

I decided that I need to do a test run of the cake mix so, since I essentially had two boxes of yellow cake mix (the lots-a-dots mix is yellow cake with colored dots in it), I baked one as a test. The only pan I had available at the moment was a Bundt pan. You can see from the picture that the Amazon reviewer was right, the yellow cake mix does not rise much.

 However, after tasting this cake, I can wholeheartedly say that I disagree with Good Housekeeping’s taste testers. It is a yummy cake. However, it does have more of a muffin texture. I think that adding a little lemon zest/juice or lemon extract and some poppy seeds to the yellow cake mix would make some damn good lemon poppy seed muffins. There is also a slight aftertaste, I assume from the baking powder/soda. Deeming the taste acceptable, my concern moved to how high a cake I would end up with it.

The box says to use two 9” pans for a layer cake. Since we were having the party at my mother-in-laws house, I decided to bake the cake the night before and assemble it the next day at her house. I made the lots-a-dots cake mix and as I poured the batter into the pan, I realized that I was not going to have two wonderfully fluffy cake layers. The cake batter was not even ¼ way up each pan. I baked the cake, hoping for the best. The results are pictured below.

 I realized then that I was not going to be able to use these and get a good looking decorated layer cake. I had long since changed my mind about the chocolate cake after reading that it wasn’t very chocolatey. But, after seeing how little the lots-a-dots cake rose, I was forced to improvise. So, since it was the last mix I had, I baked the chocolate cake and was happy to see that it rose much better than the lots-a-dots and yellow cake mix.

I packed the lots-a-dots and the chocolate layers up along with all the other party stuff and off to my mother-in-law’s house we went. I was up bright and early to start decorating the cake. After comparing the layers, I decided to use the two chocolate cake layers with a lots-a-dots layer sandwiched between them to get the right height. The package I bought from Amazon came with three boxes of icing mix. I proceeded to make the two boxes of white icing. The icing was easy to mix and the taste was really good but here again, I had an issue with the quantity.

The box says that it makes enough icing to frost a two-layer cake or 24 cupcakes. The cupcakes, sure but there is no way this is enough icing to frost a two-layer cake. There was barely two cups of finished icing from each package. Since I had been having so much trouble with the cakes, I wisely decided to pack ingredients for Wilton’s buttercream icing, just in case. I ended up having to make this as a third batch of icing to frost the outside of the cake and for once, my frosting came out right so I will definitely use this recipe again. The two Naturally Nora’s icing mixes were enough to spread between the layers with a little left over. This may be enough if you’re trying to frost two layers of the very low rising yellow or lots-a-dots cake mix but if you want to frost a regular 4 to 5 inch layer cake, it’s not going to cut it.

So after all this, decorating the cake actually turned out to be the easy part!

It’s not perfect. It was lopsided and I had a hard time getting the icing to look perfectly smooth but I think overall, it looks pretty good. Of course, my son ate none of it. He’s just not into cake. I guess I should be happy about that.

As for my $15 budget for the cake, that was shot to hell.
Cake and icing mixes: $22.15 and I only have one box of chocolate icing left so $18.45 spent trying to get the cake right. It would have been a lot cheaper just to take the risk and make my own.
Cake topper and royal icing decorations: $5.59

I also bought a set of 9” pans since I didn’t have any and a set of icing colors. I won’t factor these into the cost of the cake because they’re things that I will reuse and it took so little icing color to tint the frosting that the cost that can be attributed to the cake is negligible.

So to sum this up, I am honestly proud of myself for making my baby’s first birthday cake. However, I will just save myself a lot of hassle and make the cake myself from scratch. I did like the taste of the Naturally Nora’s cake mixes but I think that some of the claims on the packaging need to be reassessed. If I had not done a lot of prep with the cake, I would have been up a creek on my son’s birthday. If I use these mixes again, I will certainly know to use a small square pan or maybe try two 8” pans instead of 9” to improve the chances the cake will have some height. Or buy two of the same cake mix and bake each in one 9" pan. And I’m definitely going to try my lemon poppy seed muffin idea with the yellow cake mix.

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