When my house would rumble with skinny, sweaty, screaming teenage boys, I learned that all I needed to calm them was my 13-inch cast iron skillet and a $1 box of Betty Crocker Cake Mix.
Sure, I can bake from scratch and have produced beautiful Hummingbird, Red Velvet and Lemon Curd layer cakes — regionally called “cheese” cakes. But when it comes to teens, speed and volume are needed — and that’s where the box comes in.
Honestly, at their young age, they wouldn’t know the difference in the Atelier Sucre in New York or Betty Crocker in Pascagoula. Their goal was to find something tasty and filling as quickly as possible.
Before I landed on the Betty Crocker trick, I’d pull out chips, dips, sandwich fixings and cookies. They didn’t like me to hover, so I mimicked the lion tamer who threw raw meat to the big cats. I’d toss it out, then run for cover as they roared and gulped it down. This left a colossal mess in the kitchen, and about $30 of ingredients added to my shopping list.
One day, I found them holding a can of sardines, dry beans and a head of broccoli with teary eyes. “But we’re hungry!” my son said. I remembered a box of German Chocolate cake mix in the pantry and told them to give me 30 minutes (a convection oven is speedy). Within moments of cracking a few eggs, the aroma of chocolate drifted down the hallway and they came running. They thought I was a homemaking goddess.
Grandmother’s cast iron skillet was easier to use than cake pans, so clean up was a breeze — especially when I told my son he’d have to wash it. If I felt festive, I’d use the Bundt. Sometimes I whipped up a quick cream cheese icing (never store bought — I have to draw the line somewhere), and other times they just inhaled it without any topping at all. There was enough for each boy to have a big wedge, and a gallon of milk washed it all down.
The other mothers were suspicious. “I heard you bake cakes for the boys” said one, who imagined I was home wearing a tall chef’s hat creating elaborate layers topped with piped roses. The boys watched the cake emerge from my oven, so to them, it was “homemade.”
“Your mom’s cake is awesome” Arnold told my son — which was funny, because his dad owns several restaurants and is a professional chef. But to him, my superpower was making warm cake appear within minutes.
Stocking up when they were on sale, I could bake cakes every day of the week for pennies per boy. I offered them chips, but they said they’d rather have cake. “What flavor are you baking today?” they’d ask. “How about a basic butter cake?” Yes, it was always someone’s favorite. Colorful sprinkles on the top sent them into party mode.
Now the boys have grown and a few are getting married. I think their palates have matured and I couldn’t fool them with the box, but then again, chocolate is chocolate, butter is butter and cake is cake. And I’m using my “recipe” on a new group of middle schoolers at church. ‘Oh, Mrs. Tarabella, you’re the best! You baked us a cake!”
This story first appeared in Advance Publication Newspapers.