Over the years, my mother has taken a lot of criticism from me, both in my writing and private conversations, over her cooking—or lack thereof. She wasn’t much for family meals cooked from scratch. “But I always loved baking,” she reminded me recently.
And it’s true. Not only does she like to bake, she’s very good at it. Baking, of course, is mostly about attention to detail, weighing and measuring with precision, and being willing to faithfully follow instructions. My mom, a teacher, really excels in these departments.
As a kid, I never wondered where the treats or their recipes came from. I just knew I loved her repertoire of cookies and cakes, especially her chocolate cake. A sweet, densely cocoa-y two layer number whose soft crumb and dark-chocolate edge paired perfectly with someone’s birthday and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was my very favorite and I requested it often. For years, it had no identity beyond my mother’s chocolate cake.
Then one day, early in my adulthood, I learned the truth. My mother’s chocolate cake was nothing special: The recipe came from the back of a box. Specifically, it was Hershey’s® “Perfectly Chocolate”™ Chocolate Cake originated on the back of the box of Hershey’s Cocoa. Immediately this cake fell from its place of honor in my mind. Making a recipe printed on the box struck me as lazy. It was like finding out your favorite handbag was a knockoff from a vendor in Chinatown, not the Hermes store at the mall.
Food companies printing recipes on their products is a practice that goes back to the mid-19th century, according to Lynne Oliver, editor at FoodTimeline.com. “It’s a brilliant and effective marketing strategy,” says Oliver. In my experience, that seems true. Like my mother before, there’s always a box of Hershey’s cocoa in my pantry.
For years, I searched for another chocolate cake to call my own. I made recipes from Epicurious.com and Cook’s Illustrated magazine and classic cookbooks, too. Some were quite wonderful, like one made with a stout beer. Some were unmitigated failures, like a vegan recipe that claimed to be better than the real thing. I tried Bundt, and flourless, and tunnel of fudge. Many of these are good. None of them are my mom’s. By which I mean, Hershey’s.
I realize now that these recipes that appear on food packaging are generally not as bad as I once thought. In fact, big food corporations like Hershey’s or Campbell’s have a team of seasoned recipe developers creating these dishes with a specific goal.
“Through the years, the mission has remained constant—to inspire creative ways for repurposing standard products,” says Oliver. “It means the product will disappear from store shelves faster and you will purchase it more often.” It’s good for the bottom line for these recipes to be foolproof.
Oliver, knowing more than the average home cook about these recipes and where they come from, says she would rather try a recipe from the back of the box that has been professionally tested and perfected than some random person posting on the Internet. I’m not sure most home cooks would agree. I asked my mom—not what you would call an avid home cook but still an enthusiastic baker—when was the last time she tried a recipe printed on one of her pantry items.
“It’s been a long time,” she said. “Now if I want to make something new, I Google it and print up a recipe from online.” I don’t think she’s alone. Whether I’m making something for fun and to try something new or because I’m starting a recipe development project, my first act of research is an Internet search.
Unless what I want is the chocolate cake of my childhood, in which case there is only one place to turn: The Hershey’s Cocoa container, which is always faithfully awaiting me behind my pantry door. These days, I find myself tweaking the tried and true formula. I like to add a bit of earthy, bitter instant espresso powder to underline and accentuate the flavor of the chocolate. And I’ve moved on from the Hershey’s Lickety Split frosting recipe, which now strikes me as unpalatably sweet and gritty. Instead, I like a cream-cheese based frosting enriched with buttermilk powder for a tang that contrasts with the candy-sweet cake.
My husband, a dessert maniac and serious chocolate lover, says he prefers other recipes, batters made rich with high-end, high-cocoa-percent chocolates. It’s true those may have a more complex flavor. They are certainly costlier and more complicated to make. But for me they lack the key ingredient in many back of the box recipes, according to Oliver: Nostalgia. No Valrhona-gilded dessert can be the place my 10th birthday candles were planted and lit and blew out. For that reason, when I need to make a special dessert, I will reach for the Hershey’s box and follow the carefully calibrated formula for a chocolate cake that really is perfect.
Ultimate Chocolate Cake
- 2 cups sugar
- 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup Hershey’s cocoa powder
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda
- 1¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup whole milk
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon espresso powder
- 1 cup boiling water
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round baking pans and dust them with cocoa powder.
In a large mixing bowl, stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes. Stir in espresso powder and boiling water (batter will be thin).Pour batter into prepared pans.
Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely.
Frost with Cream Cheese & Buttermilk Frosting (recipe below).
Makes 12 servings
Adapted from Hershey’s® “Perfectly Chocolate”™ Chocolate Cake
Cream Cheese & Buttermilk Frosting
- 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, soften
- ⅓ cup (8 ounces) confectioners sugar
- ¼ cup buttermilk powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 8 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces and softened
- 2 tablespoons buttermilk
Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter, sugar, buttermilk powder, vanilla, and salt on low speed until smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.
Increase the speed to medium and add the cream cheese one piece at a time, mixing until smooth after each addition.