Pudding Mix is Having a Baking Moment - No. 184
Flashbacks from the Cake Mix Doctor, why eggs are so expensive, and my Chocolate Pistachio Cake recipe.
THANKS TO EVERYONE WHO stopped in the middle of your day to tell me to read Priya Krishna’s New York Times piece on the East Village chef adding pistachio instant pudding mix to his cake. It felt like old times to revisit this conversation about one of the most mundane but highly useful items on the shelf—a box of pudding mix.
The comments following her story were nothing new, but still, refreshing. Everyone was chiming in, even food scientists. Some loved the chef’s honesty. Others hated the fake ingredients and felt insulted paying $13 for a slice.
Dress it up as you wish, but pudding mix has been a dirty little secret in cake baking for a while. Maybe it doesn’t belong in ‘’French-inspired’’ fine dining? Regardless, it stirs up some controversy.
I thought I’d just ignore the whole thing and go back to my regularly scheduled programming, but then I Googled the chef, Joshua Pinsky of Claud restaurant in Manhattan. He had trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked at now-closed Momofuku Nishi, one of David Chang’s restaurants.
Now I was curious. Why would he open a box of instant pudding mix? I could think of two possible reasons:
His mom made a pistachio cake this way, or maybe his mom tried his scratch cake and told him it was ‘’a little dry,’’ in that way that moms do so as not to hurt our feelings.
It was the time he spent at Momofuku being around rule-breaker chef Chang who pushes the limits and feels comfortable tossing American cheese or 7UP into a dish.
Flavors we remember but with finesse
As it turns out, the chef was duplicating his mother’s pistachio cake that starts with a mix, but it was too sweet for his taste. Without the pudding mix in his scratch version, it didn’t read pistachio and didn’t have that come-and-get-me look you will pay $13 a slice for. So he kept the pudding mix.
How many of you have relied on pudding mix to make your cakes taller and stay fresh and moist a little longer? Do tell…
Instant pudding mix has been around since the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the ‘60s that cooks got creative with it, mostly adding it to pie fillings. And once the ‘70s rolled in, it was everywhere. It crept into cake mixes and Bake-Off winners. That ‘70s pistachio cake was once called the Watergate Cake. You baked it in a 9- by 13-pan and covered it with Cool Whip, aka, ‘’cover-up icing.’’ Cooks were clever back then, and no one took themselves too seriously.
By the time I wrote the Cake Mix Doctor and was on book tour in 2000, pudding mix had been added to Betty Crocker cake mix. If you opened a box of Duncan Hines, on the other hand, you would need to add your own pudding mix along with the eggs, oil, and liquid.
From Darn Good Chocolate, Bacardi Rum Cake, Sock it to Me, to the aforementioned Pistachio, these were Bundt cakes you could slice and take to office potlucks, holiday dos, and freeze for up to a year. Excellent keepers.
But let me tell you I was run through the mill for using box pudding mix and cake mix as the Cake Mix Doctor and completely unprepared for the media loving/loathing that ensued. Honestly, it was just cake to me. I was a naive youngish mother with three small children, and I came from the South where cake was just cake and even if someone started with a cake mix and pudding mix—no big deal. In Mississippi, for goodness sakes, where caramel cake is religion, many of those prized cakes begin with a mix, but the frosting is always from scratch.
You can get away with a cake mix, but you’ve got to make the frosting from scratch. That was my mother’s mantra, and then it became mine.
Once the Cake Mix Doctor was flying off the shelf, Alex Witchel of the NYT graciously invited me to bake a yellow cake with chocolate icing and a banana cake (like she remembered from Sara Lee) in her kitchen. And as much as she wanted to hate my cake, she just couldn’t. Her good friend, the late Nora Ephron, was a cake baker and had told her about baking with cake mixes.
I remember the January day I walked into her building carrying a hand mixer because she didn’t own one. I was nervous, and I don’t remember what I wore, but she did:
‘’She arrived at my apartment last week wearing a black Ellen Tracy pantsuit with a crisp yellow shirt, looking more like a bank manager than a baker. Her Southern drawl was as thick as the frosting promised to be.’’ - Alex Witchel, The New York Times.
And she continued:
‘’Well, let's get the ugly question out of the way first. Cake mixes are convenient, but they're filled with things like artificial flavors and gums. Can she really look the other way?’’
And then, Ellen Tracy pantsuit and all, I compared a cake mix to a car tire. Absolutely ridiculous. What am I, a Goodyear salesperson?
''The thing about mixes is that you can't mess them up. They've been road-tested like the steel-belted tires on a car.'' - Anne Byrn, The New York Times.
The Cake Mix Doctor was officially fresh meat for the wolves. Even the kind-spirited Francis Lam had to get in a few cake mix questions when he interviewed me on Splendid Table a year ago on the release of my book, A New Take on Cake. But it didn’t feel like cross-examination from Francis, just curiosity.
Would I be more accepted if I first wrote the Cake Mix Doctor today? Perhaps. But I think it’s deeper than that and has more to do with who tells us the pudding mix is a good idea, the New York chef or the Nashville mom of three?
From the Doctor to Dolly
Dolly Parton is the last person to judge anyone on how they bake a cake. She’s just announced two new brownie mixes, a cornbread, and a biscuit mix in her collaboration with Duncan Hines, and her success with these mixes is phenomenal. It’s the Dolly effect, yes, but I do recall pastry chef Christina Tosi of Milk Bar sought out artificial vanillin to add a retro fake-vanilla taste to her recipes.
In truth, I wasn’t raised on cake mix. I don’t yearn for the flavor of yellow cake mix any more than I do pistachio instant pudding mix. But I do yearn for chocolate. My mother baked scratch chocolate cakes with buttermilk and poured a warm chocolate icing over them while they were still in the pan. She really preferred to bake pies over cakes. So when she got to talking with friends around the bridge table, she picked up their ideas for cake mix cakes and that’s how all this kitchen alchemy and the Cake Mix Doctor was born.
If anything, I’m the opposite of Christina Tosi. I’ve always wanted cake mix cakes to taste from-scratch.
One more thing: Because pudding mixes are full of starch and sugar, they make a cake more tender and moist. You don’t have to be a food scientist to figure that out.
Dry cake is taboo in the South, and I’ll bet in a lot of places. We want cake freshly baked, and if we’re paying $13 a slice for it in the East Village, it had better be amazing. And if that means using a pudding mix, so be it.
This Thursday for Paid Subscribers
Grown-up Spaghettios! As we continue down memory lane, here is the most comforting recipe I know. Guest columnist and my daughter Kathleen shares how to make a beautiful from-scratch version of the canned stuff using whatever pasta is in your pantry. It’s nostalgic, it’s fabulous, and it’s fast!
Wait! There’s more. Why are eggs so crazy-expensive?
I reached out to my friend Lisa Steele at Fresh Eggs Daily about the high price of eggs. And it’s complicated. From the avian (or bird) flu, to rising feed costs, cage-free regulations, the higher fuel costs for shipping, a seasonal reduction in hens laying eggs, holiday demand for eggs, to the popularity of vegetarian, meatless, and keto cooking, there are nearly a dozen reasons why eggs cost more right now. Eggs work at every meal. Designer eggs are driving the higher price, and so is inflation.
Q. Lisa, tell me about rising feed costs. Is this inflation, supply, or what?
A. A large percentage of the world's wheat (and sunflower seeds) is grown in Ukraine. The fighting there has disrupted that supply chain, leading to reduced availability of one of the main ingredients in many livestock feeds. In addition, higher gas prices have lead to higher costs to transport heavy grains within this country as well.
Q. What do you mean by cage-free regulations?
A. Several states have passed laws or are in the process of passing laws that commercial laying hens can no longer be confined to tiny cages. Instead, they have to be allowed more room and be allowed to roam freely within a warehouse or barn area. This is causing the commercial hen houses to have to expand and renovate their facilities to comply with the new regulations meant to improve the quality of living for the factory hens. This increased cost is naturally going to be passed on to consumers.
Q. Are you saying with higher fuel costs that eggs are no longer supplied close to home so the longer eggs travel to stores the more expensive they become?
A. Correct. If you check the code on your egg carton, you might find that the eggs in your grocery store have traveled hundreds of miles to get to you. Many, many smaller egg production operations have closed down over the last few decades, so even "local" eggs likely aren't all that local, maybe not even being produced in your state.
Q. I thought seasonal reduction in laying was just in the old days or because hens don’t like to lay when it’s cold outside. Aren’t the hen houses heated?
A. It's actually the reduced daylight hours that cause a reduction in laying. You are correct that the commercial hen houses are lit (and likely heated), but since many backyard chicken keepers don't light their coops for various reasons—fire hazard, no electricity, etc.—they have to resort to buying store bought eggs in the winter which adds to the demand for eggs.
Q. What are designer eggs?
A. They are eggs fortified with Omega-3 fatty acids and come with an added cost to the producer, so those eggs cost more. Organic eggs cost more because the cost of organic feed is greater, and there are other stipulations for farms selling organic eggs, including more space for the chickens. Blue eggs generally will cost more because blue egg laying breeds are not as consistent layers as the leghorn, for example, that lays the white eggs. The blue egg breeds are larger, too, and need to eat more feed in order to produce their eggs.
Fascinating! Plus, here is more on Omega-3. While eggs contain a little heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids naturally, hens are being fed flaxseed to produce eggs with even more. Yet Scientific American says you get more beneficial Omega-3 from 4 ounces of salmon than two of those designer eggs.
Lisa predicts egg prices will drop after Easter as backyard hens begin laying eggs and supply catches up with demand. And if not?
My best trick to baking eggless: Use 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce for each large egg in the recipe.
Have a great week! Happy baking!
- xo, Anne
Chocolate Pistachio Cake
My version of the pistachio cake. Before pistachio martinis and before pistachio oil was drizzled over avocado toast, someone figured out you could make a pistachio cake using a package of instant pudding mix. So the vivid green pistachio cake of the 1970s was born and also known by its alias, the Watergate Cake. I adore pistachio anything, and when you place it alongside chocolate, it’s downright irresistible. So for this recipe, I revisited that nostalgic pistachio cake and I paired it with chocolate, bringing in fresh pistachio flavor from chopped pistachios that toast in the bottom of the Bundt pan while the cake bakes as well as the dash of pistachio syrup you add to the batter. This cake is dazzling, dressy, a bit over the top, and just the perfect something to bake when you want accolades to come your way.
Makes 12 servings
Prep: 30 to 35 minutes
Bake: 42 to 47 minutes
Vegetable cooking spray or shortening, for greasing the pan
All-purpose flour, for dusting the pan
1/2 cup finely chopped pistachios (see Cook Notes)
1 package (15.25 to 16.25 ounces) white or butter-recipe cake mix
4 tablespoons (half a 3.4-ounce package) pistachio instant pudding mix (see Cook Notes)
3 large eggs
1 cup water
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon pistachio syrup (see Cook Notes), if desired
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup chocolate syrup
1/3 cup (2 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350º F.
Grease and flour a 12-cup Bundt pan. Scatter the pistachios in the bottom of the pan and set aside.
Place the cake mix and pudding mix in a large mixing bowl, and stir to combine. Add the eggs, water, oil, pistachio syrup, if using, and the vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed until blended, 30 seconds. Stop the machine, and scrape down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 1 minute longer until the batter is smooth and fluffy.
Place about a third of the batter (about 1 1/2 cups) in a small bowl. Fold in the chocolate syrup. Set aside. Place the chocolate chips in a small glass bowl and place in the microwave on high power to melt, about 20 to 30 seconds. Stir until all the chocolate is melted. Cool a few minutes, then fold the melted chocolate into the chocolate batter. Pour this batter into the pan on top of the pistachios. Gently spoon the remaining pistachio batter on top, making sure the chocolate batter is completely covered. Carefully place the pan in the oven.
Bake the cake until the top springs back when lightly pressed with a finger, and the sides just pull away from the pan, 42 to 47 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes.
Run a long sharp knife around the edges of the cake, shake the pan gently, and invert the cake onto a wire rack or cake plate. Let the cake cool at least 20 minutes longer. Slice and serve.
You can buy unshelled pistachios or pistachios already shelled. If the pistachios are salted, that is fine.
When paired with a cake mix, pudding mix adds structure. Cake mixes were reformulated 10 years ago, and when they downsized, their texture changed.
When retesting most all the favorite Cake Mix Doctor recipes for A New Take on Cake, Martha Bowden, who has tested recipes with me for decades, and I realized that a half package of pudding mix was plenty. We saved the rest for the next cake.
Pistachio syrup is used to make cocktails, and Monin is the brand I used for this recipe.
Several ago I was asked to bring 2 bundt cakes to a church dinner. My friend was also bringing 2 and he made them from scratch. I made mine with cake and pudding mixes and at the end of the evening mine were all gone and his weren't.
It's never been snobbery for me, I promise. It's been that I came originally from a working-class city in Scotland (Dundee) where home baking was much less common than buying from bakeries, and those bakeries were modeled on the finest French patisseries, and yet affordable. I give you Fisher and Donaldson as an example. English bakeries and home baking turned out to be terrible in the 70s (wartime and postwar food rationing likely hadn't helped). American baked goods, bought or homemade, always tasted weird to me: Vanillin didn't help, or all the additives. So my question is what can I substitute for pudding mix? The secret has to be cornstarch, I'm guessing.
Btw, I already pay more for eggs, getting pastured (genuinely free-range) eggs from a local farmer. They're not pretentious or designer, just real eggs, with bright orange yolks. It's just a very different perspective to be from outside the US.
And yes, when some male chef uses pudding mix, he gets praise, while a mother trying to get meals on the table does not, and that's spectacularly wrong. It's called discrimination. I'd rather bake your chocolate pistachio cake, honestly, than get ripped off by "chefs".