Let Them Eat Cake...From Scratch

>> Friday, April 23, 2010

Second Son had a birthday recently, and this is the cake I made for him:

Frugal bloggers often repeat the message that you can save money on groceries by cooking from scratch. From my own experience, I can tell you that's true...sometimes. But sometimes, from-scratch food is more expensive. For example, I can get a box of macaroni and cheese for something like $0.35 at Aldi, and recently I even bought Annie's organic mac and cheese for $0.50 a box at Kroger. There's no way I could come close to making organic mac and cheese from scratch for $0.50. Does boxed mac and cheese taste as good as homemade? Absolutely not...but it works in a pinch.

I think that's the big take-home message: If you're short on time or don't need gourmet flavor every night, stick with a box or jar or can. If you want to make really good tasting food for less than it costs to buy already prepared really good tasting food, cook from scratch.

That's totally the lesson I've learned about birthday cakes. A boxed cake mix and a tub of frosting costs about $3.50, or less if you buy them on sale. But I really don't like cake mix. I mean really, really don't. For most of my life, I skipped the cake on my birthday and went with pie. And then we lived in the DC suburbs and discovered this amazing bakery called Cake Love. Holy schmoly! That's some good (expensive) cake!

So when comparing the cost of making a cake from scratch, I'm less concerned with the cost of a box mix that I don't enjoy and more concerned with the cost of a really good cake from a bakery.

The first step is finding a good basic recipe. Here's the one I use:

Basic Yellow Cake
from McCall's Cooking School

2 1/2 c. sifted all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. butter
2 c. sugar
4 eggs
1 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla
  • Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour two round 9 inch cake pans or one 9X13 rectangular pan.
  • Sift flour with baking powder and salt.
  • In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Continue beating 2 minutes.
  • At low speed, beat in flour mixture alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour.
  • Add vanilla. Beat just until smooth.
  • Pour the batter into prepared pans. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until surface springs back when gently pressed with finger.
  • Cook in pans on wire racks 10 minutes.
  • Remove from pans. Cook completely before frosting.
With a basic frosting recipe, this cake costs about $8 when made with all organic ingredients. With conventional ingredients, it would only cost a little more than making a cake with a boxed mix and a tub of frosting but would taste much better.

To make my son's cake, I followed these steps:

Orange-Pineapple Praline Cake

1 c. orange juice
grated orange peel
1 20 oz. can crushed pineapple
1 c. coconut
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. coarsely chopped pecans
1/4 c. melted butter
2 c. heavy cream
maraschino cherries
  • Using basic yellow cake recipe, replace milk with 1 c. orange juice. Stir grated orange peel into the batter.
  • Turn 1/4 of the cake batter into each pan. Using a spoon, spread each with 1/2 c. crushed pineapple.
  • Spoon remaining batter evenly over the pineapple.
  • Place cake pans on center rack in oven and back for about 30 minutes or until surface springs back when gently touched with fingertip.
  • Mix coconut, brown sugar, pecans, and melted butter.
  • At the end of the baking time, remove layers from the oven. Spoon praline mixture onto the surface of one layer; return it to the oven and bake for 10 more minutes.
  • Let second layer cool slightly in pan and then transfer it to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • Remove praline layer from the oven; cool slightly. Move to wire rack to cool completely.
  • Beat cream at high speed until stiff peaks hold when beaters are lifted. Place plain cake layer on a platter; spread with half the cream and remaining pineapple.
  • Add the praline-topped layer; frost sides with remaining cream, piping rosettes on top. Garnish with maraschino cherries.
The total cost of the cake I made for my son was around $14, about the same as a cake from my local grocery store bakery, but mine is made from organic ingredients. A Cake Love cake of the same size costs about $50. How does it compare in taste? I'd give Cake Love a 10, mine an 8...and a cake mix a 2. That's worth it to me.

What do you prefer? Cake mix or cake from scratch?

Note that all costs are estimates based on prices in my area and that I use organic ingredients whenever possible. Your costs may vary.


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cpcable April 23, 2010 at 11:53 AM  

I much prefer from scratch! Plus, I think they're fun to bake, so even if it is slightly more expensive, the joy of the process is worth it to me.

Looks delicious!

Leigh April 23, 2010 at 3:47 PM  

That is a beautiful cake! Happy Birthday, Second Son!
I've gone a little cake-baking crazy at time. On my birthday this year, we made four--chocolate, coconut, caramel, and a bundt fig/pecan spice.

Yours looks so tasty. And it's totally worth using the fresh ingredients on a baked good. Mac and cheese, Annie's is pretty good. (To make a bigger meal, I usually steam broccoli and mix it in.)

Robbie April 23, 2010 at 10:08 PM  

I agree- that cake looks fabulous! And I prefer homemade. It takes just as much time and it's much better!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper April 24, 2010 at 8:08 AM  

@Leigh - And you still got down to below your prepregnancy weight? Impressive!

KaKi April 24, 2010 at 9:46 AM  

My favorite cake of all time actually starts with a cake mix, but it has add-ins. But overall, I don't mind a box cake mix, but icing MUST be homemade. Never tasted a canned icing that was any good!!!

Lina April 24, 2010 at 8:34 PM  

That is a great looking cake! I've never had that combo before, is that a family favorite? I'm definitely for making cakes from scratch, especially for a birthday. Its an event and fun (I think) for the recipient to see it being made. He'll brag when he's older about how his mom always made his birthday cakes from scratch.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper April 24, 2010 at 9:02 PM  

@KaKi - So true about the icing.

@Lina - I bought a cookbook called McCalls Cooking School at the library book sale several months ago, only to discover that it's the first of a three part series. Luckily I ended up with the dessert section! Everything we've tried from it (including both recipes here) has been amazing. I wish I could find the other parts in the series.

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