Sunday, March 25, 2007
How do I begin this post?
Of the many things I believe about baking, I most believe in baking from scratch. It's pretty straightforward, it's therapeutic, and it's fun. At times, however, I find myself in situations where I must use extreme measures. This was one of those times.
My daughter's Girl Scout troop was preparing for a big fund-raiser, a Princess Tea Party. They had planned an event for little girls and parents; tea foods (finger sandwiches, fruit and veggies, juice, dessert) would be served. Games would be played. Photos with a prince would be taken. A fairy godmother would make an appearance. The final headcount for the event was at around 240 at three separate seatings on Saturday afternoon. Dessert would be cupcakes with pink icing. Knowing how much I enjoy baking, Claire's troop leader asked if I could make the cupcakes. Not one to shrink from a challenge, I told her I'd do it.
There are lessons I've learned. One was back when Claire was in first grade and I made from-scratch cupcakes for her to take to school on her birthday to share with her classmates. I carried them in that afternoon, then watched as most of the kids licked off the frosting and tossed the cakes. No, not happy. But I learned that it was probably not worth my while to try to sophisticate the palates of young children.
As it happened, I had gotten The Cake Mix Doctor as a gift from a colleague. I wasn't sure if the gift of Anne Byrn's cookbook was a joke or a lark, but I'd offered my thanks, then tucked the book away. I have to admit that I got a kick out of flipping through the pages of the book. I guess I was entertained by the idea that someone would go to the trouble of creating recipes to mask the flavors of standardized cake mixes. At any rate, remembering the first-grade classroom trashcan full of homemade cakes, I pulled out the MD when I was making something for Claire to take to school for her birthday in second grade. I satisfied myself by tweaking a mix so that it didn't taste so much like a mix and ended up with something that, frankly, most of the kids seemed to enjoy eating. Go figure.
In time, I added the full collection of Anne Byrn's books to my collection and use them from time to time, especially in emergency situations, like, say, if I suddenly need to make 250 or so cupcakes for an event.
For the Princess Tea Party, I lucked out with a $1-a-box sale on Duncan Hines cake mix, the Cake Doctor's preferred brand for tweaking; I picked up a variety of flavors. Second, I lucked out because I'd stocked up on butter during a recent sale. (One MD tweak that I tweak further is using melted butter in lieu of cooking oil. I think butter adds better flavor.)
I had a headcount of around 250. Walk-ins were expected, so I revised my count up. The event could manage a grand total of 300 guests, so I set 300 as my basic goal. I also figured that between Girl Scouts, parent volunteers, a few princes, and a fairy godmother, more cupcakes might be eaten. So after I had a batch that got me over 300 cupcakes, I made one more. The grand total was 347.
As it turned out, my liberal assessment of the situation was spot on. Some leftovers came home, but it was only about 25 cupcakes.
Flavors? I wanted to switch things up a bit, so I tossed some chocolate chips in a banana cake mix. I put some peanut-butter swirled chips in a chocolate cake batter. Strawberry batter got a cup of white-chocolate chips for strawberries and cream. (Great idea, unfortunate execution. I'm not sure what happened with the chips, but I'm guessing I got a bag that had been sitting on the store shelf too long; the chips tasted awful.) There was a yellow cake, a vanilla cake, red velvet, devil's food, butterscotch spice, and a couple more. I ended up with ten batches of cupcakes. The pink icing was from scratch, a favorite recipe from The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook. (Ten boxes of mix, about 10 lb. of butter for the cakes and the frosting, almost four dozen eggs, nearly a gallon of milk, and a good solid day of baking.)
Although I can't necessarily take a huge amount of credit for tweaking cake mixes, I was strangely gratified to hear that a number of parents asked the Girl Scout troop leader what bakery she'd ordered the cupcakes from. I hope they were responding to the pretty pink icing I piped onto the tops of the cupcakes.