Neiman-Marcus Cake

A community recipe gets a dash of help from Betty Crocker.

This recipe for Neiman-Marcus cake comes from A Taste of Tradition, Too, one of the many community cookbooks in the AJHS archive. 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, the quirky cover illustration by Suzy Friedman – depicting a polka-dotted chicken serving a steaming bowl of soup to eagerly awaiting and equally polka-dotted chicks – is dated 1992. A Taste of Tradition, Too includes recipes from 116 congregation members. In the Baker’s Choice chapter, Lori Schankerman (one of four Schankermans who contributed recipes) provided her recipe for Neiman-Marcus Cake, a sheet pan dessert combining a dense and chewy yellow-cake base layer topped with a sweet cream cheese custard that almost tastes like marshmallow. The base layer relies on boxed cake mix, which has a fascinating history all its own.

 

The story begins in 1921, when 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 flour brand Gold Medal, encouraging women to solve it to win a flour sack-shaped pincushion. Not only did Washburn Crosby receive more than 30,000 solved puzzles, they were inundated with baking questions. In 1921, there were no cooking blogs – if you had a question, you had to figure it out yourself. Women were sending these baking questions to the Washburn Crosby advertising department, almost certainly a room of men who knew less about baking than they did. Rather than ignoring the letters, Washburn Crosby invented a woman who knew all the answers: Betty Crocker.

 

Named after recently retired Washburn Crosby director William G. Crocker, Betty Crocker’s signature (in the handwriting of female Washburn Crosby employees) appeared at the bottom of letters replying to each of the questions sent in. 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. Once Betty Crocker belonged to General Mills, she became a household name nationwide. On the radio and, later, on television, actresses would read a script written by General Mills. Many of those scripts were penned by Marjorie Child Husted, a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s home economics department. 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, behind Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

Through the Depression, Betty had given Americans tips on using leftovers economically. All the while, she insisted that cakes should be baked for any occasion. She was there to sell flour, after all! At the outbreak of World War II, with Betty’s popularity soaring, 6 million American women entered the workforce. From the perspective of General Mills, there was anxiety – were American women going to be too busy to bake cakes?

 

Domestic, ‘feminine’ expectations hardly disappeared during or after the war, of course, not least of all due to corporate efforts. Working women merely came home from one shift and clocked into another. General Mills and Duncan Hines decided that boxed cake mixes would help busy women keep up with the duties of mid-century home life, and ensure that they remained loyal customers. Though their formulas were developed during the war, cake mixes weren’t a household fixture until the 1950’s. Interestingly, early cake mixes only needed added water – soon, Duncan Hines and General Mills removed powdered eggs from the formula, finding that cracking eggs into the mix simulated a ‘from-scratch experience’ that was much more popular. Betty Crocker ads insisted that cakes made with cake mix were still “homemade goodness…because you add the eggs yourself!” Cake mixes gave working women access to the 1950’s domestic ideal: as historian Laura Shapiro put it 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 American dessert, taking the guesswork out of baking for even the least confident bakers. It wasn’t long before that ‘from-scratch experience’ led to experimentation by home cooks. ‘Poke’ cakes created colorful Jell-O creations or boozy Rum Cakes, and the eggs and fat ratios could be played around with to create a more brownie-like consistency, which is the shortcut that gets us this Neiman-Marcus cake from A Taste Of Tradition, Too. This recipe, on top of tasting great, is exceptionally easy to make. You almost don’t have to measure anything! A box of cake mix, a box of icing sugar, a package of cream cheese, a stick of margarine…this cake basically makes itself. In a 13 x 9” sheet pan, the Neiman-Marcus Cake has definite potluck potential. I can imagine Lori Schankerman preparing it for family gatherings, or maybe bringing it to Beth El-Zedeck events.

 

The Neiman-Marcus title is a mystery. If you Google it, you’ll find hundreds of recipes, but you won’t find an origin story. Depending on who you ask, Neiman-Marcus Cake is from Dallas, Louisiana, Missouri, Kentucky, or Michigan. Maybe it was served at the Neiman-Marcus department store’s café, or it’s a joke about the richness of the cake vis-a-vis the richness of the people who shop at Neiman-Marcus. Perhaps it got the name to add an air of legitimacy to a family recipe. Just like Betty Crocker, it doesn’t really matter that the Neiman-Marcus connection isn’t real. If you’re from St. Louis, it will be immediately recognizable to you as Gooey Butter Cake, a hometown delicacy (with cake mix/cream cheese versions recognized as a legitimate shortcut). It might look like butter kuchen, a German dessert that was popular in the 1950’s across the Midwest. The best answer I can give is that it comes from things like A Taste of Tradition, Too. It’s a community recipe. It’s from where you’re from, if you make it. If you like the department store connection, call it Neiman-Marcus Cake, if you don’t, call it Gooey Butter Cake…either way, it’s delicious, and cake mix makes it easy! Betty Crocker would be proud.  

 

For more on the history of Betty Crocker, read Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food by Susan Marks.

 

Neiman-Marcus Cake  

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 9x13” baking pan and preheat oven to 300℉. 

 

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 cake mix is hydrated and 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 prepared 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 an 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. 

 

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*Aurora Clare is a historian and educator based in New York City. She completed a Master’s Degree in History from New York University in 2016, with a thesis on domestic space and public housing in twentieth-century New York. Aurora has worked with institutions including the Tenement Museum and New-York Historical Society. Her food history project, History Bakes, is cataloged on Instagram at @historybakes. More information about her work can be found at www.auroraclare.com!

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