Why is cake considered a special occasion kind of thing? Who made that call? Celebration cakes should indeed be special; dolled up fancy things to commemorate a big event. But why can’t we eat cake of some kind every day? Cake makes you happy. It’s CAKE! It’s a great little snack, just perfect with coffee or a cup of tea. What happened to the morning or afternoon tradition of a little cake and coffee? I say it’s high time to bring that back. Let’s reinstate the snack cake!
A pretty big part of my childhood revolved around afterschool snacks and during that time, Betty Crocker had a product on the shelves called Stir ‘n Frost. Do you remember those or am I alone on this? The box contained three items: a cardboard cake pan, a packet of dry mix and a package of frosting. All you had to do was combine the dry ingredient packet with some water right in the provided pan then bake. When it cooled, if you could wait that long, the frosting packet was squeezed on top. You didn’t even have to spread it with a knife; if you cut the package just so, you could use it to smear the frosting evenly across the cake surface. I, of course, became quite good at this task.
I loved these cakes though it took a bit of time and internet sleuthing to remember what the damn things were called. I think we just called them “Snack Cakes”. The Stir ‘n Frost came in four flavors: chocolate cake/chocolate frosting, yellow cake/chocolate frosting, spice cake/vanilla frosting and lemon cake/lemon frosting. My mother worked nights and would often bake one during the day and I would do the frosting part when I got home from school. Sometimes she’d make another product – the Betty Crocker Snackin’ Cake – but I didn’t like that one as much, even if some varieties had chocolate chips mixed in. They didn’t have frosting. To a kid, frosting is king. A cake is really just a delivery vehicle for frosting. No frosting, no dice.
So I got to thinking the other night, what happened to the snack cake? I haven’t thought about these in years a quick scan of the store shelves revealed that the Stir ‘n Frost is long gone. I was a little sad; although I don’t used boxed cake mix, it would have made me happy to see them. I was surprised; in this crazy time crunched over scheduled world I would think they’d sell well. Apparently, the processed cake world has moved on to single serve microwaveable cake things. I, for one, don’t like this at all. Even though the Stir ‘n Frost came out of a box, it seemed like a little effort went into it and I was always happy to see one sitting on the counter. Microwaveable cake just seems lazy. Yes, I judge.
The idea stuck: let’s do this better. A homemade snack cake should be easy first and foremost, so I scanned through my recipe file for a simple chocolate cake I remember making long, long ago. Turns out my recipe is a pretty standard formula found all over the place and for good reason – it tastes good, is easy to put together and stays nice and moist for a few days. I didn’t have a stack of little cardboard pans laying around, much to my chagrin, so I used a standard 9”x9” cake pan. Perfect though not as fun.
The frosting of those long ago snack cakes had a slightly fake quality that I remember well, even now, years later. I should remember; I worked my way through many a packet and maybe, just maybe, they didn’t all make it onto the cake. This time I made a simple chocolate icing from common ingredients– butter, cocoa, vanilla, powdered sugar with just a little corn syrup to replicate that slightly chewy texture. You can stir it together vigorously in a bowl or use the mixer; it’ll be smoother and glossier if you do the later. Your call. I also used a really dark Dutch-process cocoa powder – Hershey’s Extra Special Dark is readily available – for that super dark chocolate look. It was all just as good – no, it was actually way better – than I remember. The only difference was I had to make it myself. MOM!
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: GREAT, REALLY REALLY GREAT. This has the nostalgia thing going for it, tenfold. The only thing that would make this better is if I could figure out how to jam the frosting into a little foil packet. I suppose a ziploc would work but it just won’t look the same. Whip this up for your family tonight – it comes together in minutes. It will be such a nice surprise. And I can’t even imagine how excited the kids would be to find this in their lunchboxes. Or make it just for yourself for a little snack. No one will tell, certainly not me, and you deserve it.
CHOCOLATE SNACK CAKE
Makes one 9” square cake, serves 9
If you want to skip the frosting, and I understand if you don’t want to go to the trouble, sprinkle the top of the cake with ½ cup chocolate chips and bake. It’ll add that little extra chocolate zip and keep the cake from being a little too plain jane. But you do realize that cake is just a means to a frosting end, right?
For the cake:
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water
for the frosting:
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch-process preferably
1 Tablespoon corn syrup
¾ teaspoon vanilla
pinch kosher salt
2 Tablespoons milk
1 ¼ cups powdered sugar, sifted
- Preheat oven to 350°F and place a rack in the lower third.
- For the cake: In a 9”x9” square cake pan, mix the flour, brown sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt with a fork, breaking up the big clumps of sugar.
- Add the wet ingredients – oil, vanilla, vinegar and water – and mix thoroughly, making sure to get into the corners.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted just off center comes out clean but with moist crumbs.
- Cool completely on a wire rack.
- For the frosting: In a medium bowl with a wooden spoon (or with a standing/electric mixer), stir together the melted butter, cocoa powder, vanilla, salt and corn syrup until well combined.
- Add half the milk and half the powdered sugar, beating until smooth.
- Add the remaining milk and powdered sugar, beating until smooth.
- Once the cake has cooled, spread the frosting on top and dig in.
- Cake holds well for a day or two, tightly wrapped at room temperature.