I’ve been thinking about this half home-made thing all week, actually, and as it happens, while I tend to be averse to things out of packets and jars these days, it must be said that when I first moved out of home my repertoire was narrow. Which is another way of saying I could make bolognese sauce and bake a potato, but that was about it. And I exploded the potato.
When it came to baking I was even worse off. I can’t remember the first successful cake I made, but I vividly remember my first attempt at baking a chocolate cake with a friend. My friend was supposedly wise in the ways of baking cakes, so my mother went down to the local shops and left us to it. This turned out to be a mistake, because while my friend may have been wise in the ways of baking, she was less wise in the ways of estimating how big a tin the mixture should go in, and as the cake baked, it slowly erupted from the tin and went all over the oven. We were appalled and had no clue how to fix this problem, so we switched off the oven, left the cake in there, and went to the shops to find my (strangely unimpressed) mother and ask her what we should do about it…
All of which goes to introduce the number one, absolutely all-time best cake of my student days – Tim Tam Cake. This was invented by a different friend of mine, and basically involved a packet cake mix and a packet of Tim Tam biscuits. I went one better and turned it into Peach Melba Tim Tam Cake, with raspberries and tinned peaches. We all thought this was the best thing ever invented – it was completely failproof, even using dodgy rental accommodation ovens, and if you left the washing up for a week or two it wouldn’t even go mouldy. (I’ll let you contemplate that one with the horror it deserves.)
Quite seriously, though, taking packet cake mixes and improving them is actually a pretty good way of learning to experiment with recipes and flavours, and it certainly belongs in this theme. So here are a whole lot of things you can do with a packet cake mix (or any basic cake you like that makes 2 x 20cm round cakes – I recommend this one, swapping 1/2 cup of cocoa for half of the plain flour) to make it your own. Just, if you are making cake from a packet, make sure it’s a decent quality packet. I can’t help suspecting that whatever it is that keeps a cake mix fresh and mould-free for several weeks is probably not something you really want to put in your mouth, even if it is disguised with chocolate…
Tim Tam Cake, and all its friends
Make up the cake mix according to the packet instructions. Roughly chop a packet of Tim Tams, and mix them in. (It is traditional to eat one of the Tim Tams as quality control.) Bake according to the instructions. Voilà, you have made Tim Tam Cake!
If you want to go a bit more elaborate, add half a cup of raspberries to the batter before baking. When the cake is cool, whip some cream and spread it over one cake. Layer some sliced tinned peaches and raspberries over this, and put the second cake on top. Tim Tam Peach Melba Cake!
If you are a poor, benighted foreigner who has no Tim Tams, fear not! You can always make Mars Bar Cake! I bet you can even guess how!! But if you want to go a step beyond Mars Bars chopped into cake, you could sandwich cakes together with caramel from a tin and you should definitely add a chocolate icing or sauce topping. If you can’t get caramel from a tin, just buy a tin of condensed milk, immerse it (still sealed) in water in a saucepan, and bring it to the boil. Simmer gently for 2-3 hours, making sure the water stays topped up, let cool, open the tin and voila – you have caramel!
Jaffa Cake is fairly exciting because it is almost healthy (at least when compared to Tim Tam cake). Zest an orange into the batter, and use the juice of the orange to replace some of the liquid. If you have Cointreau or any other orangey liqueur, add a splash of that, too (if you open the pantry and discover, to your surprise and delight, that you have a whole bottle of unexpected Cointreau, do not use a cup of it in the cake batter, because it’s very possible that your partner will not be very happy when he or she discovers that the Cointreau they bought for drinking purposes all found its way into a cake). Sandwich the two chocolate cakes together with cream whipped with a little sugar and another splash of orange liqueur (or more grated orange zest, if you are less of a lush than me), top with chocolate icing, and decorate with Jaffa lollies so that everyone knows what they are getting into.
You can follow a similar principle with Peppermint Crisps and crème de menthe filling.
Or how about a Giant Lamington Cake? You can use chocolate or vanilla cake for this. Add half a cup of frozen raspberries and half a cup of shredded coconut to the batter, sandwich cakes together with raspberry jam, ice the cake (top *and* sides) with chocolate icing and cover the whole thing with desecrated coconut.
General Rules For Adulterating Cakes, Especially Packet Cakes
Never ‘just add water’. Water is boring. Anyone can use water in a packet cake, but you are better than that. I firmly believe that the presence of water in a cake recipe – particularly a packet mix recipe – is invitation to exercise your ingenuity. Replace it with orange juice or apricot nectar, any sweet liqueur (not necessarily to replace all the water), strong coffee or tea, even milk or coconut milk or soy milk. Or buttermilk! Or even sour cream or yoghurt for half of it. Use your imagination!
You can add half a cup of any random dry mix-in ingredient to a cake without worrying about it falling apart. I’d probably add a cup, or even more, because I don’t know when to stop. This is why I still regularly have cakes falling apart on me, though I do get away with this more often than not. Butter cakes (and most chocolate cakes from packets fall into this category) can cope with a surprising amount of extra stuff put into them, and there is only one way to find out what the limit is… Things you might like to add to a cake include nuts, dried fruit, glacé fruit, chocolate chips or chunks, shredded coconut… you name it.
Wet ingredients are a bit tricker to add, but you can probably get away with adding half a cup of grated carrot, zucchini or beetroot, half a cup of frozen berries, or half a cup of almond meal (or other ground nuts) to most packet cakes. Fresh fruit, by the way, counts as a wet ingredient. It may not be wet going into the oven, but it will definitely add moisture to the mix. If you want to go adding more of these things, you may need to juggle the ingredients a bit. Your biggest risk is that your cake batter will be wetter than it should be, which means it may take longer to cook and it may rise up and then sink. But you can disguise this with icing, and nobody will complain if it tastes good…
Spices are your friend! Did you know that chocolate is rather fond of cinnamon, ginger and chilli as companions? Go easy on the chilli, but a teaspoon or two of the cinnamon and chilli won’t hurt at all.
What I said about water above can also apply to milk in packet cakes. Just bear in mind that milk adds a bit of stick-togetherishness to a cake, as well as moisture (from the fat), so make sure whatever you replace it with has some of those qualities. If you are avoiding dairy, do check that there is no powdered milk or butter in the packet ingredients. As for eggs, in your average chocolate packet cake mix, you can swap two eggs out quite well for 120 mls of apple sauce and 2 teaspoons of baking powder. Mashed banana also replaces eggs rather well, and I’ve used milk, too, though it doesn’t have quite the stickiness of eggs.
So there you have it. I’m not really a packet cake girl any more, but they definitely have their uses for the beginning cook – or even just for the cook who is dead tired and wants something reliable. And I have to say – I *have* tried the Donna Hay mixes, and they are pretty good, largely because they contain virtually the same ingredients I’d be using in a cake anyway. But if you are not too sure of your culinary prowess, but still want to experiment, packet cakes can be a very good place to start – if you know that the batter itself is going to work, you are much more free to experiment with the flavours. And that is what cooking is all about.