A community recipe gets a dash of help from Betty Crocker.
This recipe for Neiman-Marcus Cake (a name of unknown origins) comes from A Taste of Tradition, Too, one of the many community cookbooks in the AJHS Library Collection. A Taste of Tradition, Too is a “treasury of recipes” compiled by The Sisterhood of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, IN. Though the cookbook has no listed publication date, Suzy Friedman’s cover illustration is dated 1992. In the chapter Baker’s Choice, Lori Schankerman shared her recipe for Neiman-Marcus Cake, a sheet pan dessert combining a dense and chewy yellow-cake base layer, with a marshmallow-y top layer consisting of a sweet cream cheese custard.
The main ingredient of the base layer is boxed cake mix, a mid-century innovation with a fascinating history all its own.
In 1921 The Washburn Crosby Co. (which became part of General Mills in 1928) ran a picture puzzle in the Minneapolis Saturday Evening Post to promote their Gold Medal brand flour. The advertisement encouraged women to solve the puzzle in order to win a flour sack-shaped pincushion. Not only did Washburn Crosby receive more than 30,000 solved puzzles, but they were inundated with baking questions. Women sent these questions to the Washburn Crosby advertising department; almost certainly a room full of men who knew less about baking than they did. Rather than ignoring the letters, Washburn Crosby invented a woman with all the answers: Betty Crocker, named after recently retired Washburn Crosby director William G. Crocker.
Betty Crocker replied to each of the queries in letters signed in her name by female Washburn Crosby employees. Washburn Crosby bought a radio station in Minneapolis and began airing The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air, which expanded outside Minnesota to Western New York in 1925. Betty Crocker became a household name after the General Mills acquisition: on the radio and later on television, actresses would read a script most likely written by Marjorie Child Husted, a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s home economics department for General Mills; if there ever was a ‘real’ Betty Crocker, it was Marjorie. The Cooking School of the Air turned Betty Crocker into the definitive American voice on not just baking, but general “female concerns”. By 1945, Fortune Magazine named Betty Crocker the second most popular woman in the United States, right behind Eleanor Roosevelt. For more on the history of Betty Crocker, see Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food by Susan Marks.
Through the years of the Great Depression, Betty gave Americans tips on the economical use of leftovers, all while insisting that cakes should be baked for any and all occasions (she was there to sell flour, after all)! At the outbreak of World War II, 6 million American women entered the workforce. General Mills was concerned: were American women going to be too busy to bake cakes?
Domestic, ‘feminine’ expectations hardly disappeared during or after the war; working women merely came home from one shift and clocked into another. General Mills and Duncan Hines determined that boxed cake mixes would help these busy women keep up with the duties of mid-century home life, while ensuring that they remained loyal customers. Cake mixes were a household fixture by the 1950’s. These mixes gave working women access to the 1950’s domestic ideal: as historian Laura Shapiro wrote in Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950’s America, “you could come home as a working girl and make a cake and decorate it with peppermint and feel just as feminine as women who didn’t work.”
Cake mixes revolutionized the American dessert, taking the guesswork out of baking for even the least confident of bakers. It wasn’t long before this simplicity led to experimentation by home cooks. The Neiman-Marcus cake recipe in A Taste Of Tradition, Too emerged from this tradition of innovative cake mix bakers.
This cake is exceptionally easy to make, and tastes fantastic! Requiring a box of cake mix, a box of icing sugar, a package of cream cheese, a stick of margarine, it practically bakes itself.
By Lori Schankerman, adapted by Aurora Clare
1 box (2 layer size) yellow cake mix
½ cup Margarine (1 block), softened**
8 oz. (1 block) Cream cheese, softened**
4 eggs, divided
1 cup pecans (optional)
1 tsp vanilla
1 lb (1 box) confectioner’s sugar
Grease and flour a 9×13” baking pan and preheat oven to 300F.
Lightly beat one egg, just to combine yolk and white. In a medium bowl, combine cake mix, margarine, vanilla, beaten egg, and pecans (if using). Mix until the dough begins to come together. It will be far too dry to resemble cake batter, but might look a bit more like cookie dough. Press dough into pan, using your fingers to mold an even layer that reaches the edges.
In another medium-sized bowl, beat half the confectioner’s sugar with 3 eggs and the stick of cream cheese. Once combined, add the other half of the sugar. Beat with electric beaters on medium speed. Initially, the mixture will look like a yellow-ish gel, but as you beat it, it will lighten in color and thicken into a custard-like consistency. When large bubbles appear in the mixture after about 5 minutes, it is ready.
Pour sugar mixture over dough. Bake for one hour (a toothpick test will not indicate doneness because of the cream cheese layer, but trust that it is done after an hour, when it has risen and the top has formed a lightly golden, cracked crust). Cool for at least one hour in the pan on a wire rack. Dust with more confectioner’s sugar for decoration if desired. Enjoy!
**Note: To soften the margarine and cream cheese, leave them at room temperature for at least an hour or microwave them individually in a microwave-safe bowl in 10 second intervals, or 15 seconds on 50% power, flipping over the block between each interval, until soft and malleable but not melted.