Have you taken a close look at a box of cake mix lately?
I’ll confess that I hadn’t. You know how it is: You get used to something and you don’t think to check it.
Then a reader called to tell me a recipe that called for an 18.25-ounce box of cake mix was wrong. She’d gone to the store and checked: All the cake mixes were 15.2 or 16.5 ounces.
No, no, no, I insisted. The standard cake mix is 18.25 ounces. Has been for years. I don’t need to check it.
Sorry, but I did need to check. A quick message to Anne Byrn of Nashville, who has made a career out of her “Cake Mix Doctor” books, turned up the news. Quietly, with no announcement, the cake mix companies have made their packages smaller.
It started a year ago with Betty Crocker, followed by Duncan Hines. Pillsbury joined them last month.
The problem, of course, is the cost of food. Rather than increase the price, the companies made the product smaller and kept the cost the same.
Now, I know that has been happening for several years. All over the supermarket there are “1 pound” bacon packages that are now 12 ounces and “half-gallon” ice cream cartons that are now 48 ounces instead of 64.
Cake mixes are different, though, because of how we use them. Sure, the cake mix companies all claim they’ve “reformulated” so their mixes still work in a 13-by-9-inch pan.
That may be so. But what if you use the mix as the base for a recipe, as many of us do? The reader who called said she noticed the problem when she tried to make a poppy seed cake a couple of months ago and it flopped. The batter clearly had too much liquid and it never set properly.
Byrn has been hearing plenty from outraged bakers on her Facebook page and blog.
“Oh my gosh, yes,” she said. “It just adds insult to injury. We’re tired of it.”
What really made it sneaky – besides the lack of press releases or notices on the boxes – is how hard it was to see it happening. Because stores restock slowly, smaller packages were mixed in with larger ones for a while. And some stores with house brands have kept their mixes at the old size.
Byrn has figured out a few tricks that will help. Add 5 or 6 tablespoons of flour, she says. Or expect that your cake may not need to bake as long if it doesn’t have as much batter.
On hobby baking sites, people have come up with formulas for “cake extenders” (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 to 2 teaspoons flavoring, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 egg and 1/2 cup water or milk). Some bakers are buying multiple boxes and mixing them.
Byrn actually has her own mixes for sale at www.cakemixdoctor.com. She started making them a few years ago when she couldn’t find mixes that didn’t have artificial color or flavors, although she promises the sizes of hers won’t change.
Some mix-based recipes may still work with the new sizes, Byrn says. We’ll just have to figure out what needs to be adjusted.
“What I have heard is the Bundts don’t rise as high. And any of the cake mixes that have pudding, they’re going to be gummy.”
Still, there’s a bright side. Maybe some of us will be motivated to go back to scratch baking and strike a blow against product shrinkage.
“To the kitchen barricades”? That’s a slogan I could get behind.