February 03, 2012

18 Secrets to Baking a Cake

The little recipe booklet, Cake Baking Secrets (1932, 16 pp.), published by the Furst-McNess Company of Freeport, Illinois, has an interesting aspect to it, in that it uses a first person narrative to persuade you to try their products.

The advice is dispensed by a Mrs. Edith Moore and it feels like she is talking directly to you, sharing her personal experiences and the wisdom she has gained after fourteen years of entering baking competitions at state and county fairs, shows and exhibitions all over the U.S. She is described in the booklet as a Champion Cake Baker, and mentions, several times, the prizes her cakes have won.  She attibutes her success to the F.W. McNess brand of products that she uses in her baking.

Furst-McNess was a partnership that began in 1908 between Frank E. Furst and Frederick William McNess, a chemist. They were a direct sales company who sold medicines, flavorings and spices from horse drawn wagons in the Midwest and upper Midwestern states. Other direct sales companies with similar product lines who were active at that time were W. T. Rawleigh and Watkins.

There's a picture of Mrs. Moore on the front cover of the booklet. It appears to be a realistic photo, rather than a colored illustration such as those used for the infamous Betty Crocker, but given the intracacies of print advertising, I suppose you never can tell for sure.

The products mentioned in this particular recipe booklet were sold under the J. W. McNess label: Champion Brand Flavoring Extract (Vanilla), Baking Powder, and Breakfast Cocoa. The rear cover of the booklet also mentions Champion Lemon Extract.

Mrs. Moore advises about the importance of the quality of ingredients one needs in order to achieve a successful cake: super-fine sugar, fresh butter, fresh milk or cream, very sour milk when called for, cake flour, a high quality flavoring agent and baking powder (she makes no bones about the fact that, in her opinion, the McNess brand is the best and the only one that should be used).

Mrs. Moore's Secrets to Prize-Winning Cakes:

  • Use good quality butter, sugar, flour and milk

  • Always use cake flour

  • Use F.W. McNess Champion Brand Flavoring Extract instead of regular vanilla

  • Use F.W. McNess Baking Powder instead of other brands

  • Use F.W. McNess Breakfast Cocoa for chocolate cakes

  • Make sure all measurements are level

  • Mix your ingredients correctly by using the proper methods of stirring, beating and cutting or folding

  • Let your egg whites stand a few minutes before using

  • Cream butter and sugar first

  • Sift your flour and baking powder five or six times before measuring

  • Add flour and milk alternately

  • Add baking powder and salt to the last cut of flour for best effect

  • Fold in eggs, don't beat

  • Fill the pans 2/3 full, 1/2 full if cupcakes

  • Do not move the cake in oven after it begins to rise until it is fully risen and slightly set

  • For chocolate or mahogany cakes, prepare the chocolate mixture first so that it has a chance to cool properly

  • Before adding chocolate mixture to the sugar, butter and eggs, add a half cup of flour to prevent curdling

  • Don't be tempted to add extra flour to the chocolate batter; the cocoa custard is thickening enough

This booklet is a brilliant little sales tool, which is evident by the fact that the Introduction from the company inside the front cover tells of the thousands and thousands of women who have already learned the secrets of cake baking from this very booklet.

It looks like the secrets to successful cake baking are about the same in 2012 as they were in 1932. Of course, each person, just like Mrs. Moore, has their own preferences for brands of baking powder and vanilla extracts. Other than the lack of directions for an electric mixer, this booklet could have been written yesterday.

On the other hand, today the big secret to a prize-winning cake might be to bake your cake from scratch rather than starting out with a cake mix.

After reading the booklet, I was left to wonder whether or not Edith Moore was a real person or just a ficticious personna created by the advertising department of Furst-McNess.  According to a communication from the McNess firm, it turns out that she was indeed real, thought to be from Kansas and that "she communicated with former company president, Charles Furst concerning her use and love of the Furst-McNess line of products."

Would love to hear from anyone who knows more about the real Mrs. Edith Moore; please leave a comment if you do.

If you want to see if Mrs. Moore's advice holds water, then you are in luck, as many of the Furst-McNess extract products are still available today.


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