Thursday, February 04, 2010

Fun facts: cake mix

Years ago I gave Sean a copy of The Secret House by David Bodanis, a wonderful science book about all the unseen and mostly microscopic things that go on around (and often on) you every day. This is where I learned that we're all perpetually surrounded by an invisible cloud of dust made of tiny particles of skin that have flaked off; that hairspray is basically liquid plastic that solidifies when exposed to air; how oxygen causes the pages of cheap paperbacks to yellow so quickly; and that as the temperature rises outside on a sunny day, the inside square footage of your house expands by a minute amount. See? All interesting stuff, though not everyone has viewed it as I do. I learned that Sean read some bits about microbes and bacteria out loud to his college roommate; when I asked Robert what he thought of the book, he replied, "What book? Oh, you mean that one about how tiny things are killing us?" Uh, no, but I got the picture. I think The Secret House is currently out of print, but if you're interested in this type of science you should look for it; try to get a copy with the color macro photographs so you can see ferocious-looking dust mites, ravaged beard hairs that have been shaven with an electric razor, and table salt crystals that look strangely like a space station in all their magnified glory.

I have been baking cakes all week as props for Sean's play. When I say "baking," I mean using a cake mix that I doctor up a bit with some orange extract and cream cheese. All this baking reminded me of the section in The Secret House in which Bodanis describes the history and science of cake mixes. Those of you with tender sensibilities might want to look away:

By this stage the proto-cake has 90 per cent of the ingredients the finished product you eat will have. There's pig fat, oil from crushed fish, lots of water, and lots of sugar. It's not a very palatable object, being a pasty grey in color, and oily as you might imagine a great hunk of old fats would feel, but with a bit more transformation all those irritating lacks can be taken care of. First some flour is added. As it's masked by all the fat, sugar, and water, there's no need for an especially high grade of flour to be used. Often it's the reject from bread-making factories. Even so it's expensive stuff, or at least when compared to plain water and aerated fat it's expensive, which is why only a small amount is used. All it has to do is provide a thin filler to go into some of the fat sheets that have wrapped around the air spaces, and an addition equal to four or five per cent of the total cake weight is usually enough for that. Sometimes the flour is dispensed with altogether and simple cellulose derivatives -- ground-up wood chips -- are used in its place . . .

Only a few faults are left now. The cake still looks pretty bad, and so is coated with coal tar colorants; it also tastes intensely objectionable -- soapy, oily and greasy despite all the sugar -- and is injected with some flavor to make it palatable, usually one of several hundred strong synthetic flavorings on hand . . .

There's a footnote on consumer psychology here. When the first home cake mixes using the GMS [glycerol monostearate, a diluting substance chemically similar to soap] magic were marketed in the US, they did not sell well. Consumers felt that an amorphous substance you just added water to and baked could not a true cake be. They were right, but that wasn't the issue. The manufacturers might have said that at least the powder was better than what you get in a factory cake, but that did not seem an attractive point, and anyway it was probably best to keep quiet about what went on in the factories. It looked like the product would have to be withdrawn, until an ingenious advertising man got the idea of saying that a fresh egg had to be added to make the mixture work. It didn't have to be added, the GMS chemistry worked fine without it, but it gave the housewife users a feeling of being in control, of creating a natural product, of doing good for their family; sales of cake mix went up.

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