Saturday, April 10, 2010

Getting Back to the Basics

We, as women, have come full-circle as cooks. In the early 19th century, there was no such thing as running to the grocery store for a tube of refrigerated crescent rolls or a cake mix and frosting in a can; everything was made from scratch. Then somewhere mid-century, after World War II, home-cooks began appreciating the ease and convenience of using packaged mixes. Companies thrived on their business, and their test kitchens invented new recipes--published on the back of the boxes--to keep their items rolling off the shelves.

It seems like hard work these days to find a recipe that does not involve a boxed mix (or any other pre-made item) of some sort, whether it be pudding, stuffing, muffins, or cakes. I admit, some of my favorite recipes use mixes of some sort (or refrigerated crescent rolls or biscuits). But here's where the full-circle part comes in: I want to get back to the basics in my kitchen, as do many other cooks these days. Whether it is for financial reasons, or health reasons, or a mixture of both, I want to convert recipes back to their pre-1950's-from-scratch-versions.

Unfortunately, converting a box-mix recipe back to a scratch-recipe is not always as easy as it sounds.
For example, recently I made a mandarin orange cake. The recipe called for a yellow cake mix. I made my own yellow cake. But, the recipe also called for a can of undrained mandarin oranges. The extra liquid stumped me: should I decrease the liquid in my from-scratch recipe to compensate? The box mix recipe was starting to look tempting, since I new if I followed its proportions, everything would turn out fine. In the end, I decreased the liquid slightly, added the mandarin orange juice, and it turned out ok. Not great, but good enough.

Yet, conversions can be fairly straightforward. If your recipe calls for a box of brownie mix, just make your own brownie batter (yes, from scratch). If you find a recipe calling for a white cake mix (or whatever kind), make a white cake from scratch (the only difference between white and yellow is white uses only egg whites and yellow uses whole eggs). If the recipe uses a tube of biscuits, make your own biscuit dough and proceed from there. If you need a pudding mix, you can google how to make it from scratch. I learned that butterscotch pudding is: 1 c. dark brown sugar, 1/4 c. cornstarch, and 1 tsp. salt; I use this mix in my overnight caramel rolls recipe (which does call for Rhodes rolls; I'm working on modifying it!). There is a way to convert any item back to its made-fresh-in-your-kitchen state (if you want to).

In this going-back-to-scratch endeavor, old-fashioned cookbooks are your friend. I just found my 40th anniversary edition Betty Crocker cookbook. In it, I found a recipe for caramel rolls that did not involve a package of frozen dough; it was entirely from scratch. I think a copy of Joy of Cookingwould also work. I recently heard a recommendation for an early 1970's Pillsbury cookbook. The Complete America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbookis helpful (or The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, Heavy-Duty Revised Edition). In addition to cookbooks, you could also turn to your local county extension service, or an older cook for help getting back to the basics.

If you have any other conversion tips to help us get back to scratch, I'd love for you to share them in the comments section!

(By the way, if you like the ease of using mixes, I'm not trying to force you away from it. But for me, personally, I already have most everything in my pantry to make stuff from scratch, and it is
more satisfying for me to do it that way (plus, I save money).)
Some interesting historical information about the early reaction to boxed mixes:

"What Pillsbury/Betty Crocker hoped to achieve after World War II initally backfired because home cooks felt compelled/obligated to return to the way things were. Like mom used to cook. They say good salesmen don't take "no" for an answer. America's largest food concerns obviously hired these men. Despite the fact that early mixes often produced less than satisfactory results and invoke a complicated set of psycho-social baggage, they prevailed. Eventually mixes were accepted. Today? Most people who make cakes for people they love regularly employ mixes (universally perceived as home-made, as in "made in the home") instead of buying a premade "cake in the box." The real "scratch cake" is very nearly lost.

"The very marketable premise behind cake mixes was, and still is, the ability to have a fresh, "home-made" cake with very little time and effort. Though Betty Crocker--like her competitors--promised that cake mixes offered freshness, ease, and flavor in a box, the market was slow to mature. Puzzled, marketers reiterated the message that homemakers need only drop this scientific marvel into a bowl, add water, mix, and bake. But that was still a little too good to be true for Mrs. Comsumer America. Certainly, cake mixes sold, but--compared with the early performance of Bisquick or Aunt Jemima pancake mix--not up to industry expecations. The "quick mix"...industry, eager to correct the shortfall, conducted research even as the development of new mixes continued. General Mills considered the market research of the business psychologists Dr. Burleigh Gardner and Dr. Ernest Dichter to explain the mediocre sales of cake mixes. The problem, according to the psychologists, was eggs. Dichter, in particular, believed that powdered eggs, often used in cake mixes, should be left out, so women could add a few fresh eggs into the batter, giving them a sense of creative contribution. He believed...that baking a cake was an act of love on the woman's part; a cake mix that only needed water cheapened that love. Whether the psychologists were right, or whether cakes made with fresh eggs simply taste better than cakes made with dried eggs, General Mills decided to play up the fact that Betty Crocker's cake mixes did not contain...dried eggs of any kind...Before long, cake mix started to gain some acceptance and notoriety; even Mamie Eisenhower instructed her cooking staff to use this novel invention at the White House."

---Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food, Susan Marks [Simon & Schuster:New York] 2005 (p. 168, 170), quoted from


  1. You should check out Fannie Farmer's Original Cookbook from 1896. A few years ago my brother gave me a copy for Christmas (a reprint not an original, darn). Some of the recipes are crazy weird but others are pretty good.

  2. I think I can help you with the recipe for Rhodes Frozen Dinner Rolls, here's a recipe I do:

  3. I received a Betty Crocker cookbook at my wedding shower, and it was my go-to book for years. (The lemon-chiffon cake made my reputation as a good baker!) I have always been a from-scratch cook. Now I am really really enjoying Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" - I can't recall a single recipe that uses a pre-made product, and there are lots of international recipes to try.

  4. I enjoyed this post!
    In my kitchen I am trying to go "back to the basics." This was fueled first by financial reasons, but I have found that I love the added benefits of better taste AND knowing/being in control over what is in the food my family eats.
    Now we eat much less processed food. Less "high fructose corn syrup." It's been a good change.

  5. I have found "More with Less", a cookbook put out by the Mennonites, to be very good for from scratch recipes. I also have used "The Wycliffe International Cookbook", this was made for missionaries living in developing countries who did not have access to any boxed items. They have a great master mix recipe that you can mix up, then store and just pull out what you need to make muffins, coffee cake, cookies and add varying ingredients for each item. They both also have great conversion and substitution pages.
    An example is that there is a pancake from scratch recipe and then below it are 7 different variations on that recipe. The next page has how to make pancake using the master mix base.
    It also has recipes from around the world. I highly recommend this book.

  6. This year I've enjoyed discovering how truly easy it is to make cooked pudding from scratch. As for cakes, however, I've never succeeded in making yellow cake from scratch that tastes as good as boxed mix versions.

    In terms of serving my family, I think that I have to pick and choose how to balance all the competing priorities. Sometimes I turn to a packaged mix when time is short. In my ideal scenario, I would have someone helping me with housework, and then I'd have more time available to perfect and prepare more foods from scratch. But right now I hardly do any baking at all because other tasks, like cooking, laundry and dishes, take priority.

    It used to be more common for women to employ house help. Now I think there's a lot of pressure for women to try to "do it all" independently. Gardening, cooking from scratch, serving at church, hobbies, reading, maintaining supportive friendships, spending time alone with one's spouse, etc.--all these simply can't be done consistently well by one person (at least when caring for tiny children is involved). That's my admittedly biased opinion.

    In countries where most foods are made from scratch and there are fewer conveniences, many middle-class families employ someone to help with the domestic workload. That was my experience at least. =)

  7. I'm trying to do this more too.....I LOVE to bake and most recipes are from scratch....I would rather send my kids to school with a homeade cookie than a packaged one for a treat. Having said that, Duncan Hines makes a cake that I have yet to beat!!

  8. Hi Bethany, I will have to check out the Fannie Farmer cookbook sometime. I have heard of it but never used it.

    Lori, thanks for helping me out with the freezer rolls recipe! I appreciate it :)
    I will definitely make those soon!

    Rebecca, I, too, have the More With Less cookbook. I was so excited to find it at the library's used book sale for a few dollars! Now I just need to use it more :)

    Aiming4Simple--you're right,it's a matter of time and preference! I do use mixes, too (one of our favorite chicken casseroles uses Stove-Top stuffing). But I'd also like to know how to make it on my own, if I don't want to have to go to the store and buy the package of whatever it is, if I already have the items at home just needing to be put together! :)

    Happy cooking/baking!