Prior to attending pastry school and doing two baking/pastry internships I approached baking projects as full or half day endeavors that needed to be carefully planned in advance. I was fairly slow and painstakingly methodical, often times overwhelmed by more complex recipes or doughs/batters/sauces that weren’t coming together exactly as stated. Now, I can mix a bread dough, make an ice cream base and pull together a cookie dough in a couple of hours. I always read through each recipe from start to finish twice, measure all my ingredients in advance and when something doesn’t look right I try to figure out why, adjusting as necessary.
However, there are still times when I find it more practical, not mention fun and nostalgic, to indulge in some shortcut baking, or what I refer to as “dirty baking”, as in quick and dirty. I would define dirty baking as baked goods and sweet treats made with boxed mixes, sprinkles, sweetened condensed milk, corn syrup, candy, etc. Is it easy to make a cake from scratch rather than a box mix? Yes. But does it involve finding a reliable recipe and assembling various ingredients you may not have in the house? Yes. And are the results as reliable as a boxed mix? No, not at all. At least not until you have many years of practice. And so dirty baking lives on. Many (most?) of the recipes you see on Pinterest would fall into this category as well as hundreds of recipes on baking blogs, the back/sides of cake mixes/chocolate chips/bags of flour and in popular food magazines. They’re quick, easy, somewhat reliable and usually very popular with kids and those who like their sweets really, really sweet.
There is much disdain for dirty baking in professional kitchens and by food nerds, “serious” home bakers and your garden variety food snobs. I understand this, I do. Why eat processed food, trans fats and lab created food coloring when you could have something just as tasty for almost the same amount of time, money and effort? There’s that key word, almost. It’s almost as fast, cheap and easy but almost is not quite close enough for people who are busy with jobs, houses, kids, gardens, aging parents, community responsibilities, long commutes, etc. They have other, overriding priorities. Or, they don’t want to buy a quart of milk that will go bad for the half cup in a recipe or invest in a special pan or plan far enough in advance to let a dough rise overnight. I freely admit to being one of those people, even now with all the knowledge and skills I have there will always be a place in my heart for dirty baking.
This past weekend after a long day at work, the culmination of a long week, and a long ride in heavy traffic back to Glosta I wanted to make a few beach treats for the next day. I also had to make fruit salad, do some laundry, pick up the house and most importantly, have a few drinks and get off my feet. So I made some Funfetti Gooey Bars and Peanut Butter Scotcheroos. There was cake mix, sprinkles, sweetened condensed milk, corn syrup and butterscotch chips involved. I used one pan, one bowl and my Kitchen Aid mixer. That’s it. One was baked, one was not. Including a run back to the store for corn syrup they were both done in 45 minutes. I took 10 minutes to cut them the next morning and pack them for the beach. Everyone liked them and Sam’s coworkers enjoyed the leftovers the next day. Do I wish I had the time/energy/ingredients to make jam for homemade shortbread bars or triple chocolate caramel sandwich cookies or Neapolitan cupcakes with fresh strawberry filling? I do. But I didn’t. Having grown up with a decent amount of dirty baking in my life and being “one of those people” who do like the occasional tooth achingly sweet treat I also don’t mind sampling some dirty baking now and again, my own or others.
I feel it my personal responsibility to end this post with two thoughts. The first, dirty baking is not baking in the proper sense of the word. It can be done with thought and with love, but it doesn’t involve the art and science that true baking does. I would never compare boxed brownies frosted with a quick American buttercream to scratch made brownies frosted with a Swiss meringue buttercream. No one should. Second, there will always be people who will argue to the moon and back that there are no acceptable circumstances under which dirty baking should be done. The purists. Whatever. These people take themselves and their sweets way too seriously, IMO. As my very wise manager said the other day, “there is a place at the table for all of our baking”. How cool is that?!?! #Truth.
Here is one of my absolute favorite dirty baking recipes. My mom and sister found this years ago. I cover the top with a second layer of Cool Whip.
And a slightly “fancier” version, with marshmallows:
I’d love to hear about your favorite dirty baking recipes!