EP 19 What’s In Your Pantry: Vinegar & Cake Flour

The two items that Leigh and Kim feature in As We Eat’s first ever “What’s in Your Pantry?” are considered kitchen staples, but both have fascinating histories in addition to long shelf lives. Although we were both dealing with some very challenging life circumstances, we got together to talk about vinegar and cake flour.

Listen to the full episode here 👇🏻

Episode Notes

In the debut episode of  What’s in Your Pantry episode, Kim and Leigh talk about two items that sit on their pantry shelves, one that was used as a loophole to bootleg during Prohibition and another that helped a mid-west baker win $25,000.00.

Vinegar

Chances are good that you actually have several different kinds of vinegar – white, apple, red wine, rice, etc. For example, Leigh discovered vinegars from all corners of the world in her parents’ pantry.

Vinegar in History

In Vinegar, The User-friendly Standard Text Reference and Guide to Appreciating Making and Enjoying Vinegar, Lawrence J. Diggs writes,

“Think for a moment. What other substance can you name that can be found on the shelves of kitchens all over the world in small villages, as well as large cities? What else can be used almost irrespective of culture or religious belief as food, medicine, beauty aid, cleaner and preservative. And finally, what other substance with all its uses, complexities and varieties can be simply, safely, economically made at home? I know of none except vinegar.”

Likely a result of winemaking gone bad, the word vinegar is old French meaning sour wine. We especially appreciated the irony of something that was supposed to be consumable as a drink ended up non-consumable as a drink but had a profound impact on how we cook and eat.

Vinegar itself has actually been around since the fifth century BC.

There are written records of Babylonians using date vinegar as a preservative and a condiment.  In 400 BCE Hippocrates prescribed vinegar as a curative, as well as a preventative. 3000 years ago, Helen of Troy bathed in vinegar daily to preserve her beauty.

Engraving of a bust of Hippocrates.

Hippocrates, a Greek physician who prescribed vinegar as a curative.

If it wasn’t for vinegar perhaps Hannibal couldn’t have attacked Italy. When Hannibal was marching over the Alps to attack Italy, his elephants couldn’t make it through some of the paths, so the soldiers would cover these big boulders with wood that was really high in pitch. They’d set them on fire and then they would pour barrels of vinegar over the fire to create an explosive effect that cracked the boulders enough that the soldiers could clear the paths.

Shanxi is one of the most important regions in China that has been producing Shanxi vinegar for over 2000 years. Legend has it that when a father was looking for a suitable man to marry his daughter, not only would he look and consider the family history and finances, they would require the young man to have a large urn of Shanxi vinegar to be used in the household economy.

Finally, during the American Prohibition, vinegar companies were excluded from not being able to purchase alcohol, and the loopholes were exploited by bootleggers to sell alcohol in the black market. Resultantly, alcohol sold to vinegar makers had to be mixed with 5% ethyl acetate, which is fine for vinegar making, but not so good for wine consumption.

Sour Notes from Sweet Sources

Next we touch on the various fruits and foods that flavor the vinegars we use.

Apple cider vinegar, which is made from cider or apple must, is the one that plays a significant role in folk remedies.

Balsamic vinegar is made from white grapes from Trebbiano mostly, and slowly aged in wooden casks.

Malt vinegar is made from germinated grain that is also used to make ales. It’s typically used for pickling, especially pickled walnuts – a very very English treat – although what we most likely think of when we think of malt vinegar is fish and chips.

Rice vinegar, most popular in East and Southeast Asian cuisines, is aged, filtered rice wine, which is sake. It’s used in stir fries, quick pickles, over salads, and of course in sushi.

Wine vinegars are most typically associated with the Mediterranean countries and central Europe. Red wines are typically used in dressing, sauces, pickling, slow cooking and white wine is used to bring out the sweetness in fruits, especially strawberries and melons.

And there’s all specialty vinegars made from coconut, cane, fruit, raisin date, and honey beer.

Vinegar Beyond the Kitchen

Vinegar is virtually on everybody’s shelf in every size of town in every country for culinary and medicinal purposes. There are so many folk remedies and treatments that utilize vinegar like clearing up coughs, easing asthma, stopping hiccups, helping heartburn.

Leigh shared some archaic but perhaps questionable folk remedies  –

“Ye may purify the waters of the body by sipping a tonic of goodly vinegar, mixed with clear running water. “

“Make the suffering of one who speweth up the food, less grievous by covering the belly with a washcloth well soaked in warm vinegar.”

“Those who sup regularly of the miraculous vinegar will be blessed with a sharp mind for all their lives.”

Finally, we discussed how vinegar has an amazing variety of household uses but culinary or medicinal purposes. You can use vinegar from anything from cleaning drains, brightening your laundry, cleaning pewter, washing windows, cleaning mineral buildup on metal.

Here are a couple that we thought were really fun and very interesting:

“Use vinegar and hay to revitalize iron pans, which have rust spots. Fill the pot with hay, add a quarter of a cup of vinegar and enough water to cover the hay. Boil for one hour, wipe the rust away. Rhubarb can also be substituted for hay.”

“Do a vinegar rinse that will help stop cling and reduce the amount of lint that settles on your clothes.”

CAKE FLOUR

The first thing that really caught Kim’s eye when she opened her pantry was a box of SOFTASILK Super Cake flour.

She bought the cake flour to make “Orange Raisin Cake” for a Recipe Box Roulette, and was determined to follow the handwritten recipe to a T. Previous baking efforts were made with All Purpose flour and sometimes Self-Rising flour and Kim started asking herself – what is the deal with all these types of flour?

A closeup of the Orange Kiss Me Cake made in a bundt pan with an orange in the background.

Kim’s Orange Raisin Cake. The Cake that introduced her to cake flour.

FLOUR power

At its most basic, flour is the finest product of the process of bolting or grinding meal from cereal grains like wheat, corn, rye, or spelt. Wheat grains or kernels are composed of three basic elements, endosperm, bran, and germ.  To make flour, grains are ground or milled to separate the endosperm from the other portions in varying degrees. A whole wheat flour is going to contain more of all the components of a wheat grain. Whereas white flour of which cake flour is apart will contain less of that.

We discuss how milling dates to at least 10,000 BCE. Humans evolved grinding techniques into two veins. One was larger mortars used by two or more people who pounded the grains with a pestle, and the other was a device by which a top stone grinds against a bottom stone and the flour collects in a hollow.

Flour’s next major development came when humans harnessed wind and water power to keep stones moving. Water-powered mills, the kind we usually see in bucolic, pastoral scenes, were mentioned by Vitruvius in 13 BCE and this technique spread across Western Europe. Wind power started to be utilized sometime around 10,000 AD. Milling we received another technological upgrade with steam power and the steel rollers with early efforts dating to the 1820s in Hungary, followed by additional and somewhat final refinement in Switzerland in 1834.

A bouquet of FLOURS

We then explore how flour itself is classified into several categories based on the hardness of the flour and the protein content, which correlates to formation of gluten, which gives strength and firmness to baked goods.

Bread flour is made from blends of hard wheat flour and contains 12 to 14% (or more) of protein.

All Purpose flour made from a blend of hard and soft wheat has more like a 10 to 12% protein ratio.

Cake flour is made almost entirely of soft wheat, and it’s got a really low percentage of protein at about 9%. And it’s often bleached by chlorination. And that process allows fat to more easily adhere to the starch for better distribution throughout the dough.

Finding cake flour for the Orange Raisin Cake recipe was not difficult, but there wasn’t a lot of brand choice, but Kim did acquire a box of Pillsbury SOFTASSILK. Tracing the history of this particular brand of cake flour proved to be a fun challenge as the search uncovered a complicated tangle of some of America’s best known flour brands – Pillsbury, Betty Crocker, and General Mills.

Kim’s box of cake flour says Pillsbury SOFTASSILK, but SOFTASSILK Super Cake Flour was copyrighted by General Mills circa 1934, probably a little earlier. General Mills also in turn created the Betty Crocker brand circa 1936 and Kim found a Betty Crocker ad for SOFTASSILK  that uses this claim:

“Betty Crocker for super cakes. Betty Crocker decided in 1937 that she needed a flour so fine that it was to be just used for baking the perfect cakes.”

How a Betty Crocker via General Mills product became a Pillsbury branded product was unclear, although we found out that  General Mills acquired Pillsbury’s assets in 2001.

A FLOUR By any other name…

Curious about the shift from Betty Crocker to Pillsbury  – when it happened, why it happened – Kim started researching Pillsbury, a company formed in 1869 by Charles Alford Pillsbury and his uncle John S. Pillsbury.

The company was the second in the United States to use steel rollers for processing grain. And they were also hugely responsible for funding railroad development in Minnesota. Pillsbury also began its long running Pillsbury Bakeoff competition in 1949 where they invited home cooks to submit a signature dish made with Pillsbury flours. In 1950, Lily Wuebel of Redwood City, California won the grand prize of $25,000 with her “Orange Kiss Me Cake” recipe, which is an orange raisin cake.

In using cake flour in our Recipe Box Roulette’s Orange Raisin Cake recipe, Kim realized why bakers would specifically use cake flour – the softer flour with less protein content helped make sure that the cake stayed cake and didn’t turn into orange raisin bread.

Last note for home cooks that may not already be aware: substituting cake and all purpose flour is not a one-to-one ratio. If you don’t have cake flour but you want to make cakes and lighter cakes, use one cup a minus two tablespoons of all purpose flour sifted with two tablespoons of cornstarch as a substitution for each cup of cake flour.

If you are curious about the greater history of America’s flour mills and the fates and fortunes of General Mills, Pillsbury, and Betty Crocker – tune into As We Eat’s Episode 20: Grain Empires: The Wheat Belt, American Innovation, and A Kitchen Confidante.

Episode Transcript

It’s our goal to make sure everyone can enjoy the As We Eat podcast. To that end, we provide transcripts of each episode. We do our best to ensure that they are free from errors, however, if you encounter any, we humbly apologize.

Kim Baker: Hi Leigh.

Leigh Olson: Hey, Kim, how are you?

Kim Baker: I’m doing okay. I had a rough week in the real world last week and I have to admit, I have a very deadline driven career and I had really big deadlines due on Friday. It was really hard to actually do a lot of self care last week. Luckily I have a a spouse who is willing to make all of our meals for us.

So he did take really good care of us. although he didn’t do any dishes. And so I have a sink full of dishes to, to catch up on. But it was interesting being in a space where I wasn’t really able to take care of myself and my family the way I’m accustomed to doing. Deadlines have been reached successfully. 

So I can not clean up my kitchen and look forward to moving on with all the other things I have to do. How are you?

Leigh Olson: You’re doing pretty good talking about taking care of family. I’m actually in Arizona visiting my family. My mom is in the last stages of kidney failure. So my brother and I hopped on a plane to help out with the end of life preparations and to support my dad and my sister. You know, it’s, it’s one of those hard parts of life, but it’s still a part of life. And one of the things that I found really interesting is last week, we talked about the symbolism of eggs cycle of life, life after death and the resurrection of Christ for Easter, which is especially important to my mom. And, um, in a way it’s helped me to be a little bit more present and thoughtful through this whole experience with my mom, because both houses, my mom’s house and my sister’s house are decorated for Easter.

And those symbols are all around me. So yeah.

Kim Baker: At a really potent time for your family, you’re anticipating a major change.

Leigh Olson: Exactly. but yeah, we’re, we’re doing good. We’re getting through all , steps and, um, being together as a family, which has been really, really important for us. 

Kim Baker: Good. I’m glad you’re able to be together and prepare for what comes next for all of you.

Leigh Olson: Yeah. It’s been, it’s been good. So last week we promise people to talk about what’s in our pantry

Kim Baker: We did

Leigh Olson: I went to my pantry, honestly, a couple of times I opened the door and I looked and I closed it and I opened the door. And, and what struck me about the third time I opened it because, you know, I don’t know why I expected anything to 

Kim Baker: Well, it’s like the refrigerator, right? Where you, where you’re like you’re a teenager. You keep opening it and thinking somehow it’s going to be magically different like a portal to Narnia.

Vinegar, a Universal Ingredient

Leigh Olson: Yes, exactly like that. But there was no portal, but what there was, was a lot of vinegars. And the thing that struck me about those vinegars is that they were from all corners of the world.

Yeah. And last week in our Egg Episode, I mentioned that birds are found on every continent. And that helped explain how the symbolism of the egg crossed so many cultures. And I found it super interesting that the item that I chose from my pantry was also super universal.

Kim Baker: Yeah, I imagine. actually hadn’t thought a lot about vinegar before, I’m really eager to hear what you’ve learned.

Leigh Olson: And just as an aside, because I am in Arizona, the birds are singing and the wind chimes are chiming so if you hear those in the background, 

Enjoy, you’re welcome. 

So I’m the new world encyclopedia defines vinegar as a sour liquid produced from the fermentation of diluted alcohol products, which yields the organic compound acidic acid it’s key ingredient. And I feel like with most definitions this is a super over simplified definition. So in his book Vinegar, The User-friendly Standard Text Reference and Guide to Appreciating Making and Enjoying Vinegar, we always say was these

Kim Baker: fabulous book titles,

Leigh Olson: long longest

Kim Baker: right. 

Where did Vinegar Come From

Leigh Olson: Lawrence J. Diggs makes this comment.

And I think that this is much more interesting than the definition from The New World Encyclopedia. 

” Think for a moment. What other substance can you name that can be found on the shelves of kitchens all over the world in small villages, as well as large cities? What else can be used almost irrespective of culture or religious belief as food, medicine, beauty aid, cleaner and preservative. And finally, what other substance with all its uses, complexities and varieties can be simply, safely, economically made at home? I know of none except vinegar.” 

Vinegar was likely a result of winemaking gone bad. The word itself is old French meaning sour wine. And the thing that’s fascinating to me, although they can’t trace the origins of the first vinegar that was made, is that this product that essentially made something that was supposed to be consumable as a drink non-consumable as a drink.

And yet it has influenced how we cook, across so many cultures. Vinegar itself has actually been around since the fifth century BC. There are written records of Babylonians using date vinegar as a preservative and a condiment. As we have said in so many of our other episodes, we’re going to have to dig deeper into this because there is so, so much about vinegar. But there are some food facts that demonstrate just how long we’ve known vinegar and how it has influenced us.

So I’m going to go through a couple of things here, and then I’ll talk a little bit about the types of vinegars the uses of vinegars. In 400 BCE Hippocrates prescribed vinegar as a curative, as well as a preventative. 

3000 years ago, Helen of Troy bathed in vinegar daily to preserve her beauty. You couldn’t have any open sores that’s for sure.

Kim Baker: This reminds me of in our Aphrodisiac Episode, we had the courtier who would bathe in strawberry juice. 

I’m thinking slice strawberries and balsamic vinegar together, they would have been pretty rad. But I’m just trying to think of like the idea of walking around smelling like vinegar, it would keep your

skin clear

would

Leigh Olson: I would imagine that there were a lot of other things that smelled worse

Kim Baker: that’s probably true.

Leigh Olson: This is such an interesting fact. When Hannibal was marching over the Alps to attack Italy, he used elephants and some of these paths over the Alps the elephants couldn’t pass. So the soldiers would cover these big boulders with wood that was really high in pitch. They’d set them on fire and then they would pour barrels of vinegar over the fire and the boulders. It created this explosive effect and it cracked the boulders enough that the soldiers could start pick axing at them and getting rid of those boulders so that the elephants could pass through the Alps.

So if it wasn’t for vinegar then Hannibal couldn’t have attacked Italy. I don’t, I don’t know if that’s, it’s probably not a good thing for Italy, but 

Kim Baker: Well, now I’m wondering, I, this is a question that probably has no answer and I’m super sorry, or no answer at this moment. Well, how did vinegar get to Italy? Cause you think of a nice caprese salad with a tasty, a little bit of balsamic. 

Vinegar for the Wealthy

Leigh Olson: Well, another fun food fact. Balsamic vinegar was created for the upper classes. It wasn’t meant for the lower classes, but when Napoleon invaded Italy, invaders do they plunder. And they plundered the castles and palaces and took those balsamic vinegar barrels with them.

So thank you, Napoleon for introducing balsamic vinegar to the world.

Kim Baker: Napoleon 

the only time anyone will ever say that

Leigh Olson: And then we’re over to China. So Chinese vinegar culture is rich and varied. Shanxi is one of the most important regions which has been producing this Shanxi vinegar for over 2000 years. And legend has it that when a father was looking for a suitable man to marry his daughter, Not only would he look and consider the family history and finances, they would require the young man to have a large urn of Shanxi vinegar, 

Kim Baker: Would the urn be then used in the household economy or was it more of a status symbol or,

Leigh Olson: Yeah. So it would be used in the household economy. It would also be used to continue producing the vinegar.

Making Vinegar During the Prohibition

And this is a fun one during the Prohibition vinegar companies were excluded from not being able to purchase alcohol, because they needed that ingredient to make the vinegar. And of course the loop holes were exploited. Bootleggers, set up vinegar companies and sold the alcohol in the black market. And as one would expect. Regulations were born out of this oversight. Alcohol being sold to the companies actually had to be mixed with 5% ethyl acetate, which is fine for vinegar making, but not so good for wine consumption. 

Kim Baker: I have no idea what that tastes like, but I imagine

it’s not good

for drinking. Yeah, no. Yeah. We don’t think of acetate as being something that you would consume.

Leigh Olson: no. Another thing that I thought was really interesting vinegar crosses so many religious lines. it’s from a fermented product.

but vinegar is considered Halaal, which means that it’s allowed in the Muslim culture, as long as the process is natural and spontaneous and not artificially manufactured, which is what we see in most of our vinegars that we get today.

I thought that was really 

Kim Baker: That is really interesting. Of course, hearkening back to our Nowruz Episode. It’s one of the S’s on the Haft-sin table representing age and wisdom. 

Leigh Olson: Yes, because it had to do with patience.

Which totally makes sense. Now, when you think about it, because if it is spontaneous and natural, it does take time for that process to happen a couple of months, even before the alcohol is turned into vinegar. 

Types of Vinegar

There are so many types of vinegar, but I just wanted to run through a couple. Apple cider vinegar, which is made from cider or Apple must. And this one is the one that plays a significant role in folk remedies. There are so many folk remedies around apple cider vinegar. 

There’s balsamic, which is made from white grapes, which you would not think 

because of the color of the balsamic But it is made from white grapes. Trebbiano mostly.

It slowly aged in wooden casks. And, like I had mentioned, it was originally the artisinal product that was meant for only the Italian upper class. 

Malt vinegar, which is made from germinated grain. That’s used to make ales. It’s typically used for pickling, especially pickled walnuts very very English. And, I think what we most likely think of when we think of malt vinegar is fish and chips. 

Kim Baker: yes. 

Leigh Olson: Rice vinegar, which is most popular in East and Southeast Asian cuisines. It’s aged filtered rice wine, which is Saki. It’s used in stir fries, quick pickles, over salads.

And of course in sushi. Because this one tends to be the most mild of the vinegar. So when you mix it in with the sushi rice, you don’t get that over-powering hit of acidicness. 

Wine vinegars. Those are most typically associated with the Mediterranean countries and central Europe. And there’s a wide range of qualities of these vinegars.

Some of them are aged in wood for several years. These are less acidic than the white or cider vinegar. 

Red wines are typically used in dressing, sauces, pickling, slow cooking and white wine is used to bring out the sweetness in fruits, especially strawberries and melons. And then there’s all of these specialty vinegars, coconut vinegars, cane, fruit, raisin date, honey beer.

That one I found very interesting. It’s actually called ale-egar. So where vinegar is wine sour wine ale-egar is soured beer. Kombucha vinegar. So made out of kombucha and all of these flavored vinegars. When you put the herbs in the flowers, in garlic, you can make any kind of a flavored vinegar.

And the culinary uses are just as varied. You can pickle with it, you can preserve with it. Vinaigrette, salad dressings. It’s used as a major component in a lot of condiments mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise chutneys, marinades. You can make pan sauces, dipping sauces, in a pie crust, or as a main ingredient for a pie vinegar pie, which I think we’re going to have to talk about.

Yes.

Kim Baker: we’re going to have to talk about vinegar pie.

I must know more about this food.

Leigh Olson: It is a desperation pie and there are a lot of them. So I think we have to do

Kim Baker: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. The antithesis of the egg episode actually. Cause, cause there’s so many, there are so many desperation things that are like, no egg, chocolate cakes, depression, cakes, and all manner of things that, what can I do without this component ingredient? 

Vinegar Folk Rememdies

Leigh Olson: Yeah. And again, to that point this is an ingredient that is virtually on everybody’s shelf in every size of town in every country. So it was readily available, And then you get into the medicinal uses. As I mentioned earlier, Hippocrates, he was the Greek physician who practiced until 370 BC E prescribed vinegar for things like skin rashes and ear infections, and they’re still used for those two things. There are so many folk remedies and treatments that utilize vinegar like clearing up coughs, easing asthma, stopping hiccups, helping heartburn.

Here are some specific receipts. That I found particularly interesting slash fun. 

Ye may purify the waters of the body by sipping a tonic of goodly vinegar, mixed with clear running water.”  So if you need to purify the waters of your body, this is what you can do. 

Make the suffering of one who speweth up the food, less grievous by covering the belly with a washcloth well soaked in warm vinegar. Yeah. I, I don’t know why on the belly, it would make you not speweth up your food,

Kim Baker: So I’m wondering whether there’s some sort of sense of like the skin reacting to a vinegar soaked cloth would distract you from nausea and so that you wouldn’t speweth. All of this is conjecture. we actually need a physician to, or do we? Cause these are, home folk remedies. So, you know, I’m curious, 

Leigh Olson: And the last one that I want to share is 

Those who sup regularly of the miraculous vinegar will be blessed with a sharp mind for all their lives.”

Kim Baker: Yes. All right. I’m going to 

go guzzle some vinegar. 

Leigh Olson: but don’t 

guzzle, 

don’t guzzle. There are specific ratios that you need to follow. Otherwise it will upset your stomach a lot.

Kim Baker: True. So talking about folk remedies, this is something that my in-law’s family uses vinegar, especially with colds, the back to the idea of clearing nasal passages and such. I was visiting my in-laws many years ago. My sister-in-law had a cold and so she was trying to take care of the cold. I tried years after that, remembering that they were using this as a remedy for a chest cold. And my husband had when I tried to mix up a thing for him, but I didn’t know the ratios. And so I over-vinegared him and he’s speweth. Poor guy, I felt so, so bad Vinegars in drinks can be super tasty. And I’m thinking about shrubs. A coworker had huge tree Italian plum tree in his yard.

And so he had way more fruit than he could deal with. So he sent some home with me and I made a plum shrub, which is for those who don’t know, because I didn’t, until I made one, you mascerate stone fruit in a sugar mixture.

it draws the fruit liquid out. Drain off the liquid from the sugar fruit base. And then you mix that an equal part with a complimentary vinegar. And then you cut that again with your favorite alcohol or sparkling water. It’s not as sweet soda.

If you pick the right vinegar, it will enhance the fruit flavor, like you were saying with the white vinegar. Yeah. It clarify the taste of fruit. So I did an Italian plum and red wine vinegar mixed with a coffee core 

It was really good. 

Leigh Olson: Yeah.

I’m a big fan of shrubs.

Kim Baker: I feel like I’ve not taken advantage of vinegar as much as I could. Cause I know you could add a drizzle to things that just like really help pop flavors. 

Vinegar for Household Cleaning

Leigh Olson: The other thing that that you can use vinegars for, are household uses You see this in a lot of the older cookbooks. Typically they will have at the very last part of it, how to use vinegar for household things You can use it from anything from cleaning drains, brightening your laundry, cleaning pewter, washing windows, cleaning mineral buildup on metal.

And here are a couple that I thought were really fun and very interesting:

Use vinegar and hay to revitalize iron pans, which have rust spots. Fill the pot with hay add a quarter of a cup of vinegar and enough water to cover the hay. Boil for one hour, wipe the rust away. Rhubarb can also be substituted for hay.” Yeah. 

Or you can “do a vinegar rinse that will help stop cling and reduce the amount of lint that settles on your clothes.” Again, folk remedy. I have not tested this, but I’m going to to see how this works. That’s what I learned about vinegar. there is so much more. I mean, we could talk specifically about

vinegar ever cider vinegar forever and ever.

 What amazing ingredient did you dig up out of your pantry?

Cake Flour

Kim Baker: hole did they go down today? Did you say?

Oh, for today’s episode, I resolved that I’d cover the first thing that caught my eye when I opened up my pantry cupboard. You know, kind of like a version of ingredient roulette, if you will, the first thing you put your eye on, because frankly there’s so much that we have in our pantries, any pantry that is just a really fascinating springboard 

Everything’s got history to it from salt to pepper, to mustard, to vinegar, right? There’s a story behind the stuff that we keep in our homes. And so the first thing that really caught my eye when I opened up my pantry was a box of SOFTASILK Super Cake flour. And I got really excited to talk about it because As We Eat is the reason why I have cake flour in my pantry at all.

I bought the cake flour because I drew Orange Raisin Cake for a Recipe Box Roulette. And I was determined to follow the handwritten recipe to a T. And the recipe called for cake flour. As I recall, that particular recipe card was found in a recipe collection, the West Seattle order of the Eastern star one of the collections that you’ve collected , Leigh. 

Leigh Olson: Right. 

Kim Baker: So I’m a very casual Baker, no pun intended.

cause Kim Baker. 

And I’ve made cakes and cupcakes and bread before, and I’ve worked with all purpose flour and self-rising flour and a tiny bit with yeast. I have coconut flour and almond flour in my pantry due to a couple of rounds of trying out low carb diets.

But I had never used cake flour before and well, you know, me and I got curious. And so I started asking myself, what is the deal with all these types of flour? Things you ask yourself in the middle of the night, So at its most basic flour is the finest product of the process of bolting or grinding meal from cereal grains like wheat, corn, rye, or spelt. Early receipts for flour actually spelled out as flower, F L O W E R. Wheat grains or kernels are composed of three basic elements, endosperm, bran, and germ. And to borrow again, from our eggs episode, this would be like endo sperm being the egg whites, the brand being the eggshell and the germ being the yolk.

Milling Flour

To make flour, so grains are ground or milled to separate the endosperm, from the other portions in varying degrees. A whole wheat flour is going to contain more of all the components of a wheat grain. Whereas white flour of which cake flour is apart will contain less of that.

We know that milling dates to at least 10,000 BCE. From the Azillian culture of Southern France, where minerals were ground for pigments. Grain was probably ground too, but only to levels sufficient for grool certainly not the flour we know today because frankly, more muscle and endurance was needed. Humans evolved grinding techniques into two veins. One was larger mortars used by two or more people who pounded the grains with a pestle. Or a device by which a top stone, grinds against a bottom stone and the flour collects in a hollow. 

Milling Stones

But as I said, human powered grinding can only get you so far. So flour’s next major development came when humans harnessed, wind and water power to keep stones moving. Water powered mills, the kind we usually see in bucolic, pastoral scenes were mentioned by Vitruvius in 13 BCE and this technique spread across Western Europe.

Wind power started to be utilized sometime around 10,000 AD. Milling we received another technological upgrade with steam power and the steel rollers with early efforts dating to the 1820s in Hungary. Followed by additional and somewhat final refinement in Switzerland in 1834. 

Ironically, we get flour faster through steel roller milling, but there are claims that the process itself damages, enzymes and creates a product that is effectively inert or lifeless. 

Flour and Protein Ratios and Uses

Just not as spunky as if you were to mill it with stone. In the U S the flour that we tend to use in baking is actually white flour, which is flour from which bran and germ had been entirely removed. And ironically in turn enriched So there are a lot of different additives that get put into flour. And then white flour itself is classified into several categories based on the hardness of the flour. 

Bread flour, is made from blends of hard wheat flour. And that can things about 12 to 14% or more of protein. 

All purpose flour made from a blend of hard and soft wheat has more like a 10 to 12% protein ratio. All purpose flour is readily available. It’s a real work horse.

It’s probably the flour we most often have in our homes because it can be used for all manner of baking from, really rustic, course breads to delicate angel food. You get really predictable results from all purpose flour. 

Cake flour is made almost entirely of soft wheat, and it’s got a really low percentage of protein at about 9%. And it’s often bleached by chlorination. And that process allows fat to more easily adhere to the starch for better distribution throughout the dough. The protein content of wheat correlates with formation of gluten, which gives strength and firmness to baked goods.

For example, if you’re baking like a rustic Boule, you want a firm strong result. so you’re gonna use a high protein flour, like bread flour for that. But who wants to eat tough cake? You’d want less gluten and you would use a softer cake flour for that. And so to me, this is starting to make sense, cause I like formulas.

I like doing things where X plus Y equals Z result. It’s like a cool science experiment. Baking has always felt like for me, it’s a fun science experiment, so true. So to solve, for course, thick bread, you use a heavier flour, you knead it, you proof it. Because you’re trying to encourage the formation of gluten But to solve for cake, especially a soft cake, like a chiffon cake, which used to be incredibly popular.

You use those softer flour. You only mix until the ingredients are combined and you bake it immediately. There’s not a whole lot of sitting, letting it sit around because you’re trying to avoid having gluten bonds form.

I found this quote from Susan Reed on the King Arthur website that I thought was really cool because, it’s not like we’ve had this knowledge about gluten bonds and protein ratios. Cooks and bakers in the past, probably noticed which flours worked best for certain ingredients so much of it was instinctive.

 So this quote from Susan Reed, ” while man has been grinding flour and baking with it for millennia on the molecular level, there are a lot of things we really don’t know yet. We just know that some things work. Why is still a work in process.” 

And I really, appreciate that sentiment quite a bit. And it’s something we’ve talked about before, too, like the sense that we haven’t always had access to the chemistry and the bio science and the technology that we have today, that a lot of what we have learned over time has been trial and error, which mushrooms are poisonous and which ones aren’t, or that certain red berries are sweet. Earlier notes that I had made for a Recipe Box Roulette about cake flour was that it was widely used for heritage cakes and cookies that we foundly remembered today. But my reality was that we didn’t do a lot of baking in my childhood home.

We made bread on occasion and I I have a memory of destroying an LP. I was kneading dough. I was a little kid. My mom, gave me some stuff to work with. I didn’t wash my hands before I turned over the record. And so I left a huge clumps of dough on the side of the record.

I’ve never forgotten that. So it really could have just been that we didn’t keep cake flour in the house. I had this assumption that because we didn’t have it, therefore it wasn’t a very widely utilized thing. But, finding cake flour for the Orange Raisin Cake recipe was not difficult.

There wasn’t a whole lot of brand choice, but it was there in the flour aisle. And especially at a time too, when folks were buying up a lot of flour in order to make sourdough and everyone was obsessed with making bread early last year during the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The brand choice I did have was Pillsbury SOFTASSILK. Now, untaggling the history of SOFTASSILK proved to be actually challenging.

So as I said, the box in my pantry, it says Pillsbury SOFTASSILK. But SOFTASSILK Super Cake flour was copyrighted by General Mills circa 1934 probably a little earlier. I found a definitive 1934 copyright.

Flour and Betty Crocker

General Mills also in turn created the Betty Crocker brand circa 1936. And I did find a Betty Crocker ad for softer silk that uses this claim, quote ” Betty Crocker for super cakes. Betty Crocker decided in 1937 that she needed a flour so fine that it was to be just used for baking the perfect cakes.”

So Betty introduced SOFTASSILK Super Cake Flour. It was a vital ingredient in Betty’s ABC’s of cake baking. How a Betty Crocker via General Mills product became a Pillsbury branded product, I actually haven’t fully untangled yet. I do know that General Mills acquired Pillsbury’s assets in 2001.

So it’s possible that for name recognition, they shifted the brand from Betty Crocker to Pillsbury. But I don’t have an answer on that yet. I’m going to be contacting the General Mills librarian to get a little bit more information about this, because I’m really curious the shift from Betty Crocker to Pillsbury when it happened, why it happened. So just to tie this up a quick note about Pillsbury is that it was formed in 1869 by Charles Alford Pillsbury and his uncle John S. Pillsbury.

Pillsbury Bake-off

The company was the second in the United States to use steel rollers for processing grain. And they were also hugely responsible for funding railroad development in Minnesota. Pillsbury also began its long running Pillsbury Bakeoff competition in 1949 where they invited home cooks to submit a signature dish made with Pillsbury flours. In 1950, Lily Wuebel of Redwood City, California won the grand prize of $25,000 with her Orange Kiss Me Cake recipe, which is an orange raisin cake.

So I’m like excited about this, right? I’m baking a Pillsbury award-winning dish with a flour that originated as a brand with its competitor. There’s this weird symbiotic thing going on between the flour and this recipe and the companies behind it. So one hand you got Pillsbury with this bakeoff competition. It’s award winning recipe is this Orange Raisin Cake. that became At the same time, I’m making this cake using flour that was originally branded by General Mills. Now, the thing about Pillsbury and General Mills is that they were competitors in Minnesota. So you’ve got these companies that are just constantly like kind of head to head The synergy of this recipe and the flour, and the fact that I have the flour’s because of this recipe, to me, was really cool. Of all the flours that could have used in the recipe I decided to go the way it was written, kind of led me to this moment in food history.

And in using the cake flour in the Orange Raisin Cake, I realized why you would use cake flour. 

So by using cake flour, you helped make sure that the cake stayed cake and didn’t turn into orange raisin bread. 

I wouldn’t have known that if I had just assumed that I could go ahead and use all purpose flour. I wouldn’t have seen that different outcome.

I wouldn’t have noticed the fact that cake flour gave me a cake, So did Marie Antoinette really say, let them eat cake or did she say let them meet quick bread?

Leigh Olson: Did she really say it at 

Kim Baker: Yeah, she didn’t, I don’t believe she Yeah. spoiler. So my last note here is, by the way, for home cooks, that may not know. Cause I didn’t know until I started playing with cake flour, substituting cake and all purpose flour is not a one-to-one ratio. You can’t just say use two cups of cake flour to, two cups of all purpose flour.

And that in itself, I think is an interesting thing. So if you don’t have cake flour and you can’t find it, or you don’t want to get it, but you want to make cakes and lighter cakes, I would recommend using one cup, a minus two tablespoons of all purpose flour sifted with two tablespoons of cornstarch as a substitution for each cup of cake flour.

So there you have it. That’s what’s in my pantry.

Leigh Olson: All right. So are you going to make a cake? Do you think 

Orange Raisin Cake made with SOFTASSILK Cake Flour

Kim Baker: I actually have made the cake with the SOFTASSILK cake flour. And it’s a delicious cake. It’s perfect with a cup of coffee. For me, it evoked things I’ve read in books about folks getting together for a cup of coffee and a little slice of cake. It is, a company cake. It’s perfect. It keeps well it’s delicious. The orange is really bright and cheerful. The raisins are nice and sweet. And so I keep cake flour in the house now specifically for finer baked goods, the things would, the, I do want to be light and airy.

I was thinking that would be a lot of fun to get into the backstory behind Pillsbury, General Mills, and Betty Crocker. Between these three brands, some of whom are subsidiaries of each other. I would estimate that about 90% of the branded foods that we have in our cupboards at home come from one of these three companies. General Mills with its acquisition of Pillsbury has a tremendous reach into its sub brands.

And I, think we should talk about the history of, mills and milling in the United States, how it really affected how and what we eat and how these companies have grown and developed.

Leigh Olson: I think that sounds like a really interesting episode. I think that everybody here in the States at any rate is pretty familiar with all three of those Betty Crocker, Betty Crocker has such an amazing history and lore around that brand specifically. So 

Kim Baker: Definitely. 

Leigh Olson: Let’s do it 

Kim Baker: Okay. Cool.

All right. 

So I’m going to go make a cake, I guess, because why, wait, why not?

got the cake flour. 

Leigh Olson: I think I am going to dye Easter eggs. Another thing that I didn’t mention that you could use vinegar.

Kim Baker: Yes. I hope you have a time with your family, Leigh

Leigh Olson: Thank you.

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