Until I went to culinary school, I’m nearly positive I didn’t realize “from scratch” cakes were not only in the repertoire of the general public but also that most people had consumed one in their lifetime. Having been raised on box cake mixes and making mostly only intricate and complicated cakes in my limited exposure to baking and pastry in culinary school, I continued to make the prepackaged stuff well into my 20s. A few years ago,I remember reading in a Michael Pollan book a question asking about when Americans decided they couldn’t mix a few dry ingredients together and instead would opt for a premixed box full of chemicals. This really rang true to me, and I remember thinking, “hmm…yes. What exactly is ‘convenient’ about a box mix?” Thus, for the first Scratch vs. Shortcut installation, I thought I’d test run, in honor of Valentine’s Day, a Red Velvet Cupcake with Cream Cheese Frosting showdown.
For purposes of this comparison, I used a Duncan Hines© brand Red Velvet cake mix and cream cheese frosting. For the scratch cupcake version, I wanted to find a recipe that replaced the most controversial ingredient, in this case, red food coloring. I did so by adapting a recipe that called for beets in place of dye. This did add an extra step to the baking process but maintained the integrity of this series (to compare straight-forward, homemade cooking to that of “convenience” products).
Since every kitchen is organized differently, ingredients were gathered before we began “timing” the cooking process. A comparison of the 5 main ingredients in the cupcake and frosting products included the following:
Scratch cupcakes (Total ingredients: 12) : sugar, flour, butter, beets (nutritional value!) and cream cheese.
Scratch frosting (Total ingredients: 6) : sugar, cream cheese, butter, cream, extracts (vanilla/almond)
Shortcut Frosting (Total ingredients: 16): sugar, vegetable shortening(contains 5 separate ingredients), water, corn syrup, 2 food dyes
As for preparing the batter, the shortcut batter (pictured above in the cupcake tins that look like they’re filled with red paint) took approximately fifteen minutes to mix and fill. The Red Velvet homemade cupcakes took approximately 23 minutes including pureeing the beets (but not the non-active hour of cooking them). Both cupcakes required similar equipment with the addition of a food processor/blender for homemade version. The store-brought frosting clearly requires no prep time, while the scratch required a mere 5 minutes of prep time.
Taste testers slightly preferred the scratch cupcake version, calling them “tangy”, “dense”, “fruity”, and “moist”. The shortcut version elicited “passable”, “overly sweet”, and “shockingly fake color.” In the battle of icings, the scratch version was the clear cut winner being deemed “very cream cheesy”and “delicious icing!,” while the shortcut was “very sugary” and “grainy texture.”
Finally, when it comes to cost, the “shortcut” and stretching ingredients of vegetable oil, food dyes and the like contributed to the low cost of box mixes (approximately $4 for 18 cupcakes with frosting). Scratch versions with premium ingredients like butter, cream cheese and beets added up quickly in cost, particularly when it came to frosting.
Which factor influences you most in deciding which cupcake to give to your sweetie? Tell us in the comments below!
Red Velvet Cupcakes
Makes about 18 cupcakes
2 large or 3 medium beets
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 TB vinegar
2 sticks (16 tbsp) butter, unsalted, just slightly softened
1 8oz. package cream cheese
2 1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
4 TB cocoa powder (try to find non-dutch processed)
Cream cheese frosting (recipe below)
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Cut beets into cube-sized pieces and place in a small roasting pan with 1/2 inch of water. (You can peel them after they roast.) Cover and roast about 60-90 minutes until tender. Cool. Then, peel. Puree to baby food consistency in a blender with lemon juice (add just enough to achieve desired consistency). Then, stir in vinegar.
2.Line cupcake pan with liners. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
3. In a mixer with paddle attachment, cream together butter and cream cheese. Add sugar and continue to beat with paddle attachment. Add in eggs, one at a time, beating after each egg is added. Mix in vanilla.
4. In a separate bowl, whisk together dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa powder. Add flour mixture to wet slowly incorporating. Fold 1 1/2 cups of the beet puree into the cake batter. Divide amongst cupcake liners evenly.
5. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 20-35 minutes or until cupcake tops spring back when touched or toothpick comes out clean.
2 8oz packages of cream cheese, at room temp
2 sticks (16 TB) unsalted butter, at room temp
1 pound (1 small box) confectioner’s sugar (about 4 cups)
2-3 TB heavy cream, add as needed
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
1. Add all ingredients into a paddle mixer and beat until smooth and fluffy. Frost cupcakes when cooled.