I grew up in India, where cake features among the top five favourite desserts of the people, and yet, only a fraction of the population actually owns an oven. As a child, I was lucky to be welcomed home to the smell of cakes. Back from school, I would sneakily peep into the see-through oven door of our old cooking range oven as mum’s cakes domed beautifully in the centre, impatient for the timer to ting.
The practical baker she has always been, mum knew that when she was pressed for time and would be having guests over, ‘from scratch’ wasn’t going to be possible. On those days, she’d need to improvise. Cake mixes brought that ease into mine and many many other homes all those years ago. The comfort of pre-measured ingredients coming together and right out of a packet meant less bowls to clean after, and a very good success rate.
When I found myself learning to bake many years later, I would spot the Betty Crocker cake and brownie mixes on shelves and wonder if I’d give it a go just like my mum used to. It had disappeared from our home kitchen for a few years until one fated day a few years ago when I was studying in London.
On one of my whirlwind visits to a grocery store I fetishised, I brought home a box of Betty Crocker Devil’s Food Cake mix. A few weeks later when a batch of brownies meant for a dorm party burnt to a crisp (high heat and fan mistake—Betty would disapprove), I hastily put two sandwich tins of the Devil’s Food Cake Mix into the oven and had dessert ready-to-go in 30 minutes flat.
What stayed with me long after the crumbs were polished off that night was the memory of tasting a good, moist chocolate cake, thanks to Betty. I even remember thinking later if I could do these as cupcakes for a crowd. I found that if made as cupcakes, one box would make around 8-12 servings. Two boxes, and it would be a party. I was hooked. The ease with which I could fashion a whole birthday cake was both astounding and addictive. Betty Crocker cakes will always have good height, a moist crumb and rich mouthfeel without any synthetic taste. You could almost hear the vintage Betty Crocker ad go, “I promise you a perfect cake every time you bake” — the same voice of a friend who guided a generation of women in the kitchen and doled out advice to thousands in America.
For me, the allure of Betty Crocker goes beyond just a cake or a brownie mix. It’s a bond of trust that has developed between us home bakers and Betty all around the world. ‘How long do I preheat my oven for?’, ‘How do I crumb coat a cake?’, ‘How do I cleanly slice it?’— Betty still has all the answers, and I keep going back to her website for those ridiculously simple tips, genius hacks and wonderful, thoroughly tested recipes because Betty always has a trick up her sleeve to jazz up even the most uninspiring dinner party.
Today, I’ll pick up a cake mix when I need to whip up a can’t-fail, won’t-fail cake base that’s nothing short of incredible. What’s wonderful about this is that even if I’m not completely baking from scratch, I’m still making each recipe my own. In the following recipe, I’ve used Betty Crocker’s Choco Fudge Cake Mix to make the base of a super simple Poached Pear Mousse Cake. By taking the guesswork out of the cake, you can focus on the mousse filling and the chocolate top. I used EVOO in the cake mix instead of vegetable oil because I wanted the olive oil to impart its fruity, bitter flavour, which would pair so beautifully with the creamy sweet mousse on top.
P.S. Use the trimmings of the Choco Fudge Cake Mix and any extra whipping cream you may have to make impressive and easy trifle cups. Brush strong coffee on each layer of chocolate cake before topping it with custard, crushed Oreo cookies and whipped cream. Alternate the layers and let it sit in the refrigerator for about an hour before serving.
Chocolate and Poached Pear Mousse Cake
Yield 2 Six-inch springform cake tins of dessert
What’s the secret to a great mousse cake? A luscious layer of mousse sandwiched between decadent chocolate fudge cake and more chocolate. This recipe is relatively low on effort because the base is a Betty Crocker Choco Fudge Cake.
Betty Crocker Choco Fudge Cake Mix 1 box (this will yield two sandwich tins cakes)
Extra virgin olive oil 100ml
Eggs 3, medium-sized
Caster Sugar 4-5 tbsp
Water 4-5 tbsp
The Poached Pears
Pears 4-5 or 1/2 kilo, peeled, split lengthwise and cored
Cinnamon 1 stick
Star anise 1 1/2 piece
Black pepper 2-3 peppercorns
Cardamom 1 pod
Dairy cream 100g
Egg Yolks 2
Caster sugar 50g
Gelatine powder 2 tbsp
Vanilla essence 1/2 tsp
Whipping cream 300g (I used Rich’s whip topping)
The Chocolate Ganache Topping
Dark chocolate 200g, finely chopped
Cream from a tetra pack 185ml
Corn syrup or honey 2 tbsp
Start by poaching the pears. In a heavy based saucepan bring the water, sugar and whole spices to a boil. Once it's boiling, turn the heat down to a low simmer and leave for ten minutes to allow the flavours to blend.
Add the pears to the liquid and either weigh the pears down using a heavy plate or use a cartouche, which is a fancy name for a cut piece of paper to cover the pears and stop them from floating to the top and out of the poaching liquid. Check with a knife after 15 minutes to see if it yields easily. Once the pears are soft, take them out of the poaching liquid and let them cool a bit.
While the poached pears cool, start on the cake. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius, grease and line your sandwich tins. Use the instructions on the back of the Betty Crocker Choco Fudge Cake Mix to whisk together the dry ingredients with eggs, water and the extra virgin olive oil. Evenly distribute the batter into the two pans and transfer to the oven. Let it bake for 20-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Cool the sandwich tins for 10 minutes before turning out the cakes and letting them cool completely. Once the cakes are cool, you'll have to torte them, which in cake terms is to neatly slice the tops off to create a flat surface, which helps make neat layer cakes.
Trim the edges of the cake as per the springform tin you're using. I used two 6-inch springform tins to layer and ate most of the trimmings left afterwards.
Purée the now-cold poached pear pieces using a stick or immersion blender.
Next, bring the milk and cream to a boil for the pear mousse. Take the pan off the heat. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together and add it to the milk and cream, whisking as you add it in. Return this mixture back to a low heat and let it cook till the custard thickens to coat the back of a spoon. Set this aside to cool.
For 2 tbsp of gelatine, take 6 tbsp lukewarm water in a glass bowl. Sprinkle the gelatine on top of the glass bowl and leave it alone for 10-15 minutes or till it blooms. Microwave for 10 seconds, stir to mix. Your liquid should look clear. If the gelatine still hasn't dissolved, microwave for another 10 seconds.
Add the gelatine and poached pear purée to the custard. Whip up the 300g of very cold whipping cream to soft peaks and incorporate this mixture delicately.
To start assembling the mousse cake, mix together the soak ingredients. Then place the trimmed chocolate cake inside the springform tins, add a tablespoon or two of the soak on top of each cake and pour over the mousse mixture evenly between the two tins. Tap the pans lightly against your work surface to get rid of any air bubbles.
Place this in the freezer for an hour or more. You could just as easy make it up till this stage the night before. When there's an hour to two hours before you will be serving the mousse, get ready with the chocolate glaze.
Over a double boiler, heat all the glaze ingredients together till melted and smooth. Cool slightly and keep, ready to pour over the mousse when an hour is up and the mousse has set in the freezer. You can re-warm the glaze a bit if it firms up. Place in the refrigerator for the chocolate to set for an hour during which it should thaw as well.
Note that if your mousse has spent a lot of time in the freezer or overnight, it'll take longer to thaw in the refrigerator.
To unmould the mousse cake, run a blowtorch or a lighter along the sides of the pan to help ease it out of the tin once you've opened it. Slice and serve.