Cake of Bitterness: Children Cooking

Batter beginning

As the old adage goes, ” it takes the cake.”

None of us likes to recall our culinary disasters, and each of us — no matter how good we may be as cooks — can claim at least one major culinary disaster to our credit.

Julia had her broken omelette.

With me, it was a cake.

Every time I make a cake, I am reminded of my first “from-scratch” cake, in the days when Jiffy cake mixes were big sellers, the only competitor being Duncan Hines. I was 10 years old when I decided one summer day that a white cake with a gooey chocolate frosting would be a delightful surprise for my family.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Carefully I read the recipe from one of my mother’s few cookbooks, The Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, by Meta Given (1955). Recipes for cake in my first cookbook, the “Red Plaid” Better Homes & Gardens Junior Cook Book (1955), only called for boxed cake mixes. My mother never made cakes from scratch, but my grandmother — who lived 1500 miles away — did. I loved Big Grandma’s cooking and her gentle ways. Nostalgia, yes.

So that’s why I opted to go for it and bake a cake, just like one of my grandmother’s.

Baking powder, sour milk, baking soda, flour, salt, all were measured and sifted dutifully into a bowl. Tablespoons, teaspoons, cups, all were new to me. Butter whipped with sugar, eggs beaten in one by one, milk scalded briefly in a small saucepan. Oven preheated to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Even a neophyte cook like me could easily follow the well-written directions.

I poured the batter into the greased and floured and papered pans, the first time I had ever done anything like that. Excited and ready to eat the results of my labors as soon as they came out of the oven, I set the timer and sat down at the kitchen table like a proud mother waiting for her child to wake from his nap.

Baking powder ... the missing link

After about 10 minutes, the smell of something baking emerged from the oven. I always have had a sharp sense of smell and even in my culinary inexperience I could tell that something just wasn’t right with my cake. The air in the kitchen smelled funny, like a sour diaper or something equally distasteful.

My heart started beating faster. I knew I must have done something wrong. But what was it?

My mother walked into the kitchen, sniffing, and noticed the same odor. After another 10 minutes, she opened the oven to look at the cake. It wasn’t rising at all. And the sour smell was even more pronounced now. Anxiety rose even higher in me as I realized that I had made a big mistake.

“What on earth did you put in that cake?” Mom asked me.

We got the cookbook out and went through the list of ingredients. I showed her how much of each ingredient that I put in the cake. When we got to the baking soda, the light bulb went on, because it said, right there in black and white, “3 tsp. baking powder.” And a bunch of stuff with perplexing scientific names.

I had apparently put 3 tablespoons of baking soda into the cake! No wonder it smelled like somebody’s armpit and wasn’t rising!

Mom explained what I did wrong, smirking a little, but realizing, I suspect, that we all make mistakes, especially when we do something for the first time.

Just then my father came home from work.

“What is that awful smell?” he bellowed.

“It’s Cindy’s cake,” Mom told him, laughing a little bit as she did.

What might have been ...


3 cups cake flour
3 tsp. D.A. baking powder or 3 1/4 tsp. tartrate or phosphate type
1 tsp. salt
1/3 cup soft butter and
1/3 cup shortening
1 3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. almond and 1 1/4 tsp. lemon extract or
2 tsp. vanilla
4 egg whites, unbeaten
1 1/3 cups milk

Grease two 9-inch layer pans for thick layers or three 9-inch pans for medium layers; line bottoms with waxed paper — grease paper. Start oven 10 minutes before baking set to moderate (375 F).

Sift flour, measure, resift 3 times with baking powder and salt. Cream butter and shortening with wooden spoon until smooth and shiny, add sugar gradually, creaming thoroughly. Stir in flavoring. Scrape off spoon and remove. Add egg whites in 2 portions and beat vigorously with rotary beater after each until fluffy. Remove beater. Now add flour and milk alternately in 3 or 4 portions., beginning and ending with flour and beating with wooden spoon until smooth after each. Turn into prepared pans. Bake the 2 layers 23 minutes and the 3 layers about 20 minutes or until the cake tests done.

To be continued, a discussion of children cooking and children’s cookbooks …

© 2010 C. Bertelsen



  • Oh, I love this! Great post about the book on your site. Thanks for directing me to it. I would love to hear what book others used for the same reason.


  • Hi Cynthia,
    This is the book I learnt to cook from, probably 1950’s or 1960’s.
    Mum was very patient which helped a lot. But the running joke was the Chocolate Royals that had a bit of bounce quality and for ever after were referred to as rubber duckies. I was probably about 8 at the time.

    Still manage to stuff things up, I mangled some macarons very recently, so won’t be trying them anytime soon!


  • Oh my! I think I tried to make a cake from scratch again about a month later, but have no memory of that. I do know one thing — I’ve NEVER mistaken baking powder for baking soda EVER again!


  • Wow, that was ambitious! Choux are sometimes hard to get just right, so I’m really impressed. Love those things, you’ve planted a seed of an idea. I might have to go make some. How long did it take before you tried again?


  • My first cooking attempt at the age of 10-11 was choux à la crème from my mother’s favorite cookbook. Should I mention that it was a complete disaster? Though I was not disappointed, because my parents ate those sad, flat little things, I waited long enough before my next attempt.


  • Thank YOU! for sharing, “Cindy.” My disaster at that age was Peanut Butter cookies from the Metropolitan Life Insurance cookbook given out as free samples. I did finally master them though and to this day, they are still my favorite!!!

    Looking forward to you discussion on children’s cookbooks…


  • That’s really lovely, Maria. Thank you for sharing that. (Start teaching them the clean-up part, too!) I’m hoping my son starts taking a greater interest soon! However, my sister’s son seems to have inherited the cooking gene, so that’s good.


  • it’s wonderful watching my children take an interest in cooking – i just hate clearing up the mess they make afterwards

    i must congratulate my daughter though – she manages to roll out pastry much thinner than what i can do!


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