Those of us who don't have to think about every penny we spend perhaps don't realise how expensive home baking can be, as we blithely pick chocolate, dried fruit and nuts from the baking aisle and just add them to the shopping trolley. We might believe a home-made cake is cheaper and better than a bought cake, but is that true? Manufacturers have the advantage of buying ingredients in bulk, which must be cheaper than retail prices. Factory procedures may make use of ingredients which we wouldn't necessarily want to put in a home-made cake, but which does make them long lasting and cheap. Chocolate cakes have their own particular problems, in that good quality chocolate can be expensive, and producing a rich tasting cake often uses a great deal of chocolate. It's not unknown for me to use at least 200g of chocolate in a cake - that's around £2 before any other ingredients are taken into account!
Looking at the supermarket shelves, I could see that making a decent sized cake (at least 6 portions, for example) for £1 was not going to be easy. Packet mixes for a chocolate sponge start at around 85p, but still need two eggs and some filling adding - if that was the cheapest a supermarket could do, then I didn't hold out much hope. Ready made cakes were, surprisingly, cheaper - a 'cream' filled chocolate sponge, claiming to serve 6 people, can be bought for £1, but the box was so light that I suspect the main ingredient would be the air incorporated into the mixture! That particular cake weighed in at just over 200g, so the portions were very light (36g). Cakes without chocolate were even cheaper - 12 plain fairy cakes could be bought for £1. I even found a 'basic' plain sponge mixture for 22p, which only needed one egg, some water and a filling added.
Something else which comes under scrutiny, when looking at drastically cutting costs, is my insistence on buying free-range eggs. I realise that if I was really having to cook with so low a budget, then the ethics of egg production would probably not be high on the agenda, but I've used free range eggs for many years and it is one of the food principles that I stick by. For the purposes of this exercise in cheap cake production, I baked with free-range, but costed up the recipe with basic quality eggs, which are up to 6p cheaper.
The first recipe I tried was for brownies. As soon as I started costing up recipes, it was obvious that chocolate couldn't be used - I would have to find a recipe using cocoa. It also became clear that it wouldn't be possible to use a recipe containing butter either, because of the expense, so I looked for one using oil instead. I chose this recipe, encouragingly called The Best Brownies Recipe, from Food.com, although my idea of portion size meant I cut the cooked brownies into 8 pieces rather than 10. Costs meant that I used granulated sugar instead of caster, to save a few more pennies, and had to cut the vanilla extract down to 1/2 a teaspoon (shockingly expensive stuff!). The brownies produced were rather thin, even though I used a slightly smaller tin (8" square), but they did have a satisfyingly rich flavour, and the right sort of chewy texture for brownies. I managed to bring in the batch of brownies at just under £1 (my costs are based on shopping at ALDI for everything except the cocoa, which was Tesco's own brand):
125ml sunflower oil 15p
200g granulated sugar 15p
2 large eggs 23p
35g cocoa 27p
70g plain flour 2p
1/2tsp vanilla extract 12p
salt, baking powder 2p
Total = 96p, or 12p a portion (each portion weighing around 70g)
Although I like the flavour of the brownies, they were perhaps more suited to adult tastes and didn't look very filling on the plate. If I were cooking for a family, with a limited budget, brownies are probably not the best thing to make for everyday eating. More investigations are needed to find something more family friendly, I think.
We Should Cocoa (rules here) is a monthly challenge to produce something made using chocolate and the extra ingredient or theme chosen by that month's host. The challenge is the idea of Choclette from Chocolate Log Blog. Although Choclette often shares hosting duties with various guest hosts, this month's theme is her idea, and she will be posting a round up of entries at the end of the month.