Monday, May 18, 2009

The Strawberry Simulacrum; or, The Persistence of Memory

People who aren't from Southern California don't believe we have seasons here. Every day is ablaze with sunshine and reality t.v. stars traipsing up and down Robertson Boulevard in shoulder-baring tops under the blameless, clear sky. Okay, yes, many days in Los Angeles are like that, but we do have subtle seasonal variations--especially now that global warming has given Earth the big middle finger in response to our wholesome ecological practices.

Still, I can't help the burst of excitement when spring arrives, followed by summer. The bounty of warm weather produce, especially fruit, is something I look forward to almost as soon as the last plum is eaten. It's a baker's wonderland, and I can't wait to make cobblers, crisps, pies and cakes, bejeweled with the harvests of summer.

Strawberries are just now beginning to appear, and truly, few things are as wonderful as a perfectly ripe, red strawberry napped in plain yogurt and drizzled with honey. They don't make for particularly good baking, but when presented with a basket of succulent strawberries, one's mind is immediately awhirl with possibility.

Naturally, when these beautiful gems appear in the market, heralding the onset of longer days and warmer nights, I decided to bake a Strawberry Cake, following a recipe that called for a box of white cake mix, frozen strawberries and as a packet of strawberry Jell-O. No fresh strawberries were harmed in the making of this cake. However, my ethos as a baker was.

I'll come right out and say it: I staunchly refuse to use boxed cake mixes. I don't care what Sandra Lee or the Cake Mix Doctor tell you, boxed cake mixes cannot and do not substitute for a cake baked from scratch. They simply don't taste right. Consider how much research and development go into the manufacturing of a box cake mix, the endless hours spent in a laboratory trying, through various chemical processes, to produce a simulacrum of what cake supposedly tastes like. I know it's trite to advise any prospective purchaser of a pre-made food item to read the ingredients listed on the box, but, seriously, do it. There's nothing listed there I want to ingest. And do you want to feed your friends and family polysyllabic chemicals?

Admittedly, early on in my baking career, I used boxed mixes. I even attempted, at the age of 11 or so, to have a cake-baking business, called, cleverly enough, Bear Love Cakes. (I had a thing for teddy bears at the time. And also wearing purple every day. But that's another story for another time.) Even up to college, I used boxed mixes. When I was very young, I had attempted to bake a white cake from scratch using a recipe from my mother's Women's Day cookbooks she received as a newlywed. The end result was something resembling failed sourdough bread. Scarred, I used mixes for a long time.

Then I discovered that to bake a cake from scratch isn't such a daunting prospect. I bought butter, flour, sugar, eggs. I learned that a few minutes of patience, versus dumping a box of powdered additives into a bowl, produced results so far superior to what I'd previously believed to be cake, I may as well call those earlier, mix-based items "schmake," because they were definitely not cake.

At least a decade has gone by since I used a boxed mix. But for over a year, I'd been eying one recipe for a Strawberry Cake. The recipe came from Patty Pinner's Sweets: Soul Food Desserts & Memories. The book itself is lovely: a combination of old-fashioned dessert cookbook combined with memoir, that features anecdotes and photos from Pinner's large, loving family. It's not a cookbook about haute cuisine desserts from Michelin-starred pastry chefs. These are tasty sweets to serve people you truly care about.

On the cover of Pinner's book is a photo of an incredibly pink three-layer cake. It's hypnotic. Who can resist the idea of a giant, sweet cake that looks as if it stepped out of a stoner's midnight fantasy? I certainly couldn't.

I decided to bake the cake. Which meant that, if I followed the recipe, I would need to use a box of white cake mix and a package of Jell-O. It felt strange to stand in my kitchen and tear open paper and plastic packages, dump everything into a bowl, and consider it baking. The act felt incomplete, as if I was opening my mouth to sing and prerecorded music came out. But I persisted, determined to follow the recipe.

The pink batter, as I spooned it into the waiting pans, disturbed me. And when the cakes baked, they filled the apartment with the smell of pre-adolescence. The baked layers, cooling, resembled giant patties of raw hamburger.

When it came to the icing of the cake, I did deviate from the recipe by choosing to not add food coloring. I mashed some thawed, frozen strawberries and let them tint the icing. Forgive me, Ms. Pinner. I just couldn't comply.

So, how did it taste?

Both wrong, and right. The cake was quite moist--but I would expect no less from something produced by a massive corporation that somehow convinced people all over the world that baking from scratch was not only time consuming, but nonessential. The flavor resembled strawberry as one would remember having eaten a strawberry many years ago: distorted, yet some how evocative. Without question, the cake was one of the sweetest things I have eaten in my entire life, and I used to devour Lik-M-Aid . Since baking the cake, I searched online and found variations for Strawberry Cakes that used cream cheese frosting. If I ever baked this again, I would assuredly do that, instead, or else face the prospect of a diabetic coma.

Friend, reader, I urge you, just once, to try making a cake from scratch. It needn't be an elaborate layer cake. A simple sheet cake is something truly anyone can accomplish. Also, for the love of Isabella Beeton, don't use a tub of pre-made frosting. And then, when the fruits of summer do appear, celebrate them in all their natural glory.


  1. Your derision of the pink-as-a-baby's-bottom cake disturbs. Having been the recipient of the luscious, (yes, tooth tickling sweet beyond expression), yet plumb and pretty darling, even with her bulging belly as if she herself had overindulged in a few distant relatives, was a sensory sensation.

  2. I don't like strawberries but after reading this, I may reconsider!

  3. I agree - cake mixes kill cakes. If you ever find a from-scratch strawberry cake recipe, I would love to know about it. My angel food cake with strawberries on top doesn't hold my interest for the entire summer.

  4. Baking from scratch is something my Grandmother taught me at a young age, but I have succumbed to the cake mixes a time or two. Even though, you're right, the boxed stuff never tastes right.
    Also, I too have been addicted to Lik-M-Aid. Oh man, I still love that stuff.