Six or seven months ago, everyone was basking in banana bread. We were bathing in sourdough starter. School was canceled and work was canceled and leaving the house was canceled. It was apocalyptic — what a perfect time to bake!
Since then, we have adapted, sort of. There is still a pandemic, obviously, but you’re now also supposed to function at something approaching full capacity. It is oppressive. How many things I am supposed to do?, and I say that as someone who does very little. Do you know you’re supposed to eat dinner every single night? And regularly bathe, ideally, and perhaps involuntarily homeschool your children. Meanwhile, the days are getting shorter, and the weather is getting colder, and hanging over everything is the specter that it could all still get so much worse.
The moment for high-octane bread-baking has passed. There is an idea that all good things must be difficult things, but this is simply not true. Now is the season of boxed cake mix.
There are fancy boxed cake mixes, if you’re into that — here’s one that costs $25 and comes with gold leaf — but for the purposes of comfort and survival, you don’t need the stress of gold-leaf expectations. What you need is the stuff you find at the grocery store. You need a box that costs approximately 99 cents plus three eggs and will, with minimal effort, yield cake. This is not a “wedding cake” or a “birthday cake” or a Great British Bake Off “celebration cake.” This is a cake because the forecast is grim and it is Wednesday. You do not have to earn this cake through the hard labor of cake-baking; it already awaits you. You just have to reanimate it from the box, where it has lain dormant, like a genie.
Is it really so hard to mix ingredients yourself?, you may be thinking. The answer is “no.” A basic cake is remarkably easy. Mostly what you do is measure ingredients according to someone else’s specifications and then pour them into a bowl. Sometimes, you also have to cream some butter. You will have more control if you do it this way, and your cake will not contain any propylene glycol esters of fatty acids.
An underrated fact about box cake mix, though, is that it is even easier, and also often comes with Funfetti, which may be the only “fun” anyone is going to have for the foreseeable future. There is even less measuring, because Pillsbury has done that for you. You just dump the whole business into a bowl and crack some eggs, and the only thing requiring any mental attention at all is doling out ⅓ of a cup of oil. It is nice to use a hand mixer if you have one, but on the other hand, you can also not.
I think you should bake it in two round springform pans — layer cake is true cake, in my opinion — but the beauty is that this matters not at all. Make a sheet cake for all I care! You could use vegan egg replacement instead of eggs, or applesauce instead of oil, or almond milk instead of water, and the cake will be basically the same, because that is how it’s been engineered: so that, against all odds and in most circumstances, it will come out at least fine. It’s cake! And what more, at this point, do you want?
There is one major caveat, which is that boxed cake mix will not save as many dishes as you think. What it will do is save you thinking, and that is the true convenience. The payoff-to-investment here is huge: Cake mix demands so little, and in return, you get a cake.
I understand. You are probably worried about frosting. I agree. Homemade frosting is drastically better than the canned stuff, but it is really much easier with a stand mixer, which I do not have. Also, dishes. Here is what I had not, until recently, considered: canned frosting is still frosting. It is adequate. It is too sweet, but it is fun. Structurally and aesthetically, it is good enough. The trick is to avoid looking at the ingredients list; the point here is relief, not suffering. Most things are not good at all, and “good enough,” if we have learned anything this year, is an honor that should not be taken lightly.