The Cake is a Lie (or: Cake in a Mug)

by Joey deVilla on November 17, 2008

cake_in_a_mug

If you work in an office with a microwave in the break room, there’s a chance you’ll catch a strong chocolate aroma during break time. That’s because the “Cake in a Mug” recipe, which requires a coffee mug, a microwave oven, hot chocolate mix and a few other easy-to-get ingredients has been making the rounds on the forwarded-email circuit.

The Recipe

There are a few variants of the recipe floating around the ‘net. This is the simplest one and comes from Wired’s “How-To” wiki.

Ingredients

  • Egg: 1
  • Flour: 4 tablespoons
  • Hot chocolate mix: 9 tablespoons
  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • Oil: 3 tablespoons
  • Water: 3 tablespoons

The Steps

  1. Spray the non-stick cooking spray into the mug.
  2. Add the flour and hot chocolate mix to the mug and store them together.
  3. Add the egg and stir.
  4. Add the water and oil and stir until you have a cake batter-like mixture. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the mug so there aren’t any pockets of dry ingredients left.
  5. Microwave the mixture at high for 3 minutes. As it makes, a cylinder of cake will rise from the mug. It’ll shrink slightly after the baking is done.
  6. When the 3 minutes are done, take the mug from the microwave and tip the cake cylinder out of the mug into a dish. Use a fork to break the cake into quarters, which will allow steam to escape from the center.
  7. Let the cake cool a little, then dig in!

I Want to Believe, But Can’t

The problem with the recipe is that it uses a microwave for baking.

Microwave ovens work by bathing the food in low-energy microwave radiation, which creates an alternating electrical field in the oven. Water molecules, thanks to their shape, are more positively charged at one end and more negatively charged at the other. Because of these charges, they will align themselves with an electrical field, and if you constantly alternate this field, they will constantly realign themselves with the field, which creates molecular motion, which creates heat.

The practical upshot of all this is that microwaving is essentially boiling without the immersion. As long as the kind of cooking you’re doing is steaming or boiling (or their kissing cousins, thawing and reheating), a microwave oven will do the job, and more quickly than conventional boiling. However, if you want to get the complex flavours that come from the breaking down of proteins and the caramelization of sugars, you need temperatures higher than the boiling point of water. That’s why boiled food is bland and why chefs have long scoffed at microwave ovens.

That’s also why I think Cake in a Mug won’t be any good – it’s essentially a boiled cake.

Some folks at the SomethingAwful forums gave the recipe a try, and the general consensus is that while it smells great, the taste and texture of the cake are terrible. One particularly curious person replaced the chocolate mix with Strawberry Quik and ended up with this pink horror:

strawberry_quik_cake_in_a_mug 

I don’t think I’ll bother trying out the recipe.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary November 17, 2008 at 10:21 am

It’s not just the boiling, it’s the horribly skewed proportions. Three tablespoons of oil to four tablespoons of flour? *shudder* The 9 tablespoons of hot chocolate mix don’t make up for it, not just because the dry volume is still way off, but because the mix is just skim milk powder, sugar and cocoa.

Did you see the MeFi thread about it?

Maria November 17, 2008 at 10:23 am

It sounds and looks a lot like Easy Bake Oven product.

Winston November 17, 2008 at 10:29 am

I’ve done something like this with store-bought cake mix. Still not as good as proper baking but I expect it tastes a lot better than this recipe (and is easier too).

kate November 17, 2008 at 12:04 pm

isn’t steamed pudding a great tradition in the UK? i mean, sure, you dump a lot of cream on it, too, but it might not be as bad as it seems at first thought. (alto i think you might have gone well beyond “first” thought here.)

there’s always the possibility that my memories of British desserts are clouded by the constant stream of hard cider that was running in my veins that semester, tho.

Miriam November 17, 2008 at 1:21 pm

I’ve played around with the cake in a mug recipe a bit (not the one with hot chocolate mix, but the original one here.) I’ve found that it actually tastes pretty good if you omit the egg and sub in some extra milk. (I’ve never measured, just eyeballed it until the batter looks like a good consistency.) I also make it in a bowl.

It’s not the same as real cake, but it still makes a tasty chocolate…snack of some sort. If you think about it, some people like cake batter, even though that hasn’t undergone any of the baking-related flavor changes.

Microwave Cookbook November 17, 2008 at 6:13 pm

Similar to frying, many oils and other molecules in food can be just as heated by microwaves. They can get to very high temperatures!

Also, while boiling, things do not go above a certain temperature because it is only water that is heated, while steam escapes. Microwaves heat water *and* *steam* directly and the steam heats up to much higher temperatures than is possible by boiling.

Why I haven’t tried this list of ingredients, the concept is theoretically possible among the many things one can cook in a microwave!

pageslap November 18, 2008 at 7:19 pm

I tried this and the cake was decent- not stellar, but fun to make and, in the middle of the night, with no better options in sight, welcome. It’s better with butter rather than oil.
Recipe mods here: http://pageslap.wordpress.com/2008/07/26/mug-cake-the-follow-up/

Heather November 26, 2008 at 5:54 pm

This is really going around at the moment. A former coworker just sent me the recipe and said the consensus is that it’s tasty – if you can get past the fact that it looks a bit like dog food.

I think you need to do a *full* review Joey!

Katie July 14, 2009 at 1:52 am

Not bad. Not bad at all. Obviously not some kind of Thomas Keller creation, but on par with a lot of store bought cake. I used butter instead of oil, and I gotta say, it was pretty good. Fun to do also.

Carême February 10, 2010 at 4:55 pm

I make my mugcakes without eggs, no need of all that fat either. In my country we don’t have cake mixes so I don’t use anything like that

it’s not a oven cake, it’s boiled, so what? It’s a different taste, a different texture, but I never expected the same as made in a oven… it’s just fun to do with kids and friends (and boyfriend^^)
Don’t think that the petit gateaus and small cakes that are served in restaurants have more balanced quantities and more well-made 😛

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