Friday, March 19, 2010

Item #4: Make Cake for Dinner

Note: My kid brother turned 40 earlier this month. To celebrate, I drove the two hours to his place of business and he did my taxes for me. (You have got to love birthdays where you get the gift!) In my defense, I did take him out for some shopping and a movie. Although my brother isn't really a sweets person, I thought the occasion was special enough to warrant baking a birthday cake and taking it along for the ride. Unfortunately, I came to this conclusion late in the week, which didn't give me much time for creativity. So I went with a recipe I've been making since I was 2 years old.

When I was a teenager, my mother worked. In the summertime, my brother and I held down part-time jobs but very often did not wake up until long after my mother had gone for the day. We'd stumble into the kitchen, grab some orange juice and cereal, and sit down at the kitchen table to begin the slow process of waking up. After a few bites of Wheat Chex, I'd open my eyes a little wider and tackle "the list".

My Mom did not want to raise lazy children.
In order to be sure my brother and I would not spend our entire day watching TV or in some other teenage pursuits that would lead to a lifetime of sloth, she wrote out a "to do" list for each of us. The agreement was that the tasks had to be accomplished before she got home. Most of the time, the list read like this:
#1: Vacuum living room
#2: Empty trashcans
#3: Call dentist and make appointment for yourself

Sometimes, the list would include this:

#4: Make cake for dinner

Perhaps in your house, that instruction might be seen as a little vague. But there was never any question what cake Mom meant. It was Quick Mix Cake, baked in a bundt style pan. One of the simplest cakes ever created, it was the "go to" recipe when cake was the desired dessert, but the pantry was short on exotic ingredients.

Quick Mix Cake is ridiculously easy to make. I suggest it as a great way to introduce small children for baking. Most cake recipes divide ingredients into wet (like butter and milk) and dry (like flour and baking powder). Different mixing methods are used for wets and drys and the whole thing has to come together in the end. Not Quick Mix Cake. As the recipe below says, all you do is dump all the ingredients in a bowl and mix.

And mix.

And mix.

I'm sure whomever named Quick Mix Cake wrote for those self-published Midwestern Church Cookbooks. You know the kind you buy at the Ladies Luncheon for $10 and the proceeds go to feed children in some other country? And you can find all the recipes for every dish brought to the potluck last year? That one. The people that put these recipes together have a quirky sense of humor. The recipe titles are often cutesy or, in the case of this particular cake, ironic.

"Quick Mix Cake" is easy, but it is most definitely not "quick". In order to make everything work, the batter must be infused with air. And the only way to do that is to mix it with an electric mixer. For 20 minutes.

That last sentence is not a typo.

(For those unschooled in cake making let me pause here with some comparison data. A typical cake made with creaming method might involve 5 or maybe 10 minutes of mixing with an electric mixer. A cake mix, horrible though they are, only requires two minutes of mixing.)

My mother owned a hand mixer, which meant babysitting that bowl of batter for 20 minutes. 20 minutes is a long time to stand and do nothing more than hold a mixer for a woman as industrious as my mother. So she delegated that responsibility to her children. As far back as I could remember, my brother and I would each take 10 minute shifts, holding the mixer and occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl. Even when we were too short to reach the counter top, my Mom would put us on a chair or let us sit on the counter top and hold the mixer. The boredom can be hand-numbing, to say the least. But the reward of the cake made it all worthwhile. Getting to lick one of the beaters wasn't a bad reward, either.

Special note: many years later, I bought myself a Kitchenaid stand mixer (and no, I'm not getting any kickbacks for using the maker's name). Quick Mix Cake is much more enjoyable to make when the mixer is doing all the work without any assistance from you, let me tell you! But you still have to have patience and wait for the entire 20 minutes.

Quick Mix Cake is a workhorse cake recipe. You can make cupcakes with it, or layer cake, or pour it into one of those shaped pans that are popular to get as gifts but kind of annoying to work with. Cooking time will need to be adjusted for smaller pans. The cake comes out as a lighter version of butter or pound cake. You can color the batter, or pour sprinkles into it before baking for a confetti look. And you can ice it with anything: chocolate, powdered sugar glaze, cinnamon streusel, or even mashed fresh strawberries. Seriously - you can do anything to this cake as long as you spend those 20 minutes.

So go ahead - give it a try on some weekday when you've got an extra 20 minutes to stand in the kitchen. Or you've got kids with arms long enough to reach the counter top.

Quick Mix Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In mixing bowl, put:

2 sticks butter or margarine, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar

2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
4 eggs
1/2 cup milk
pinch salt

Beat on medium to medium/high speed for 20 minutes, scraping bowl often. Pour into ungreased bundt pan. Bake for 1 hour. Cool 10 minutes in the pan before inverting onto cooling rack.