How Cakes Work


The Road to Easier Cake-baking
Christina Hall looks over the instructions on the back of the cake mix box, as her daughter Rosita Navarro, 7, stirs the batter for the young girl's birthday cake at their home in Alexandria, Virginia. Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Christina Hall looks over the instructions on the back of the cake mix box, as her daughter Rosita Navarro, 7, stirs the batter for the young girl's birthday cake at their home in Alexandria, Virginia. Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images

In addition to the oven, other inventions have helped make cakes a household staple. The Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s, which created mass production, as well as railroad travel, helped to make ingredients, like sugar, more affordable and available to the everyday family [source: What's Cooking America].

In the 1840s, baking soda was developed, followed by baking powder in the 1860s, both of which replaced yeast as the rising agents of choice and helped improve cake texture [source: Davidson]. In fact, the cake as we know it today (with white flour and baking powder) developed during the mid-19th century [source: Food Timeline].

Pre-packed cake mixes came on the scene in the 1930s and were the next major step toward making cakes common household treats. A company called P. Duff and Sons was determined to incorporate its surplus of molasses into something new and profitable. Owner John Duff landed on a combination of wheat flour, molasses, shortening and spices that turned out a pleasing gingerbread mix. All the customer had to do was add water. Duff's big achievement was figuring how to get all the ingredients into a dry form.

Cake mix use didn't really explode until after World War II, when flour companies decided to segue into production of convenience foods. But cake mix sales flattened out in the 1950s, until a psychologist determined that women wanted to feel more a part of the cake-creating process and advised cake mix companies to emphasize cake decorating and elaborate cakes made from mixes. (An urban myth says that this psychologist came up with the idea of cake mix companies advising housewives to add eggs to the batter as a way to make women feel more included in the cake-making process. In reality, most cake mix companies had always told consumers to add their own eggs as it improved the cake's flavor) [source: Park]. Even today, many people turn to pre-packaged mixes to produce delicious, simple cakes, rather than sweating it out from scratch.

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