It was a rum cake I had made many times before.
I was making it again so our photographer could take a picture of it to help illustrate a story about desserts for Thanksgiving. After its picture was taken, I shared the cake with my colleagues.
It didn't taste the same. It was too moist, too custardy. And it looked a little smaller than usual, too.
I had never had a problem with the recipe before — it is the most foolproof recipe I know. It even uses a box of cake mix, and it is impossible to mess those up (it is the only recipe I make that uses a mix, and I only use it because the recipe is so uncommonly good).
So what went wrong? I made sure to get the mix that is specified for the recipe and is most suited for it, Duncan Hines' Classic Butter Golden Cake Mix. I was certain that the formula for the mix had not changed.
A little research uncovered the problem: The formula for the mix has not changed, but the size of the box has. When the recipe was written, the box held 18¼ ounces. But sometime between the last time I made the cake and this time, the box shrunk to a mere 16½ ounces — a difference of almost 10 percent.
No wonder the recipe tasted too eggy, too puddingy.
To compensate, the recipes for the cake that ran in the paper had some pretty unusual portions of ingredients (¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, instead of the original recipe that uses ½ cup).
Obviously, the folks at Duncan Hines were looking for a way to make more money without seeming to charge any more. You can't blame them for that, or not too much. But their downsizing not only affects recipes such as mine for rum cake but also their own cakes when made according to their instructions.
If we were only talking about a rum cake, it would not be much of a concern. But the problem is endemic.
Most canned vegetables used to come in a 16-ounce size. Recipes for wintertime soups such as chili counted on that for their proportions, but now most cans of things like tomatoes and kidney beans are in the 14-ounce range. And while it is true that a few fewer beans won't make a big difference in a pot of chili, if the trend keeps continuing you will certainly be able to taste the difference.
Some of this downsizing is just annoying. When you go to the store to pick up a half-gallon of ice cream, you expect a half-gallon of ice cream — eight full cups. But what you get instead is 1.75 liters, or about one good-sized chocolate chip more than seven cups.
Is nothing sacred?
Apparently not. Because now the diminution of once-standard portion sizes has even spread — gasp! — to beer.
Labatt Blue is not just a fine little brew, it is the best-selling Canadian beer in the world. Each bottle is 11.5 ounces of golden goodness.
That's right, 11.5 ounces, not the 12 ounces beer drinkers have expected ever since beer was invented, or at least bottles.
Maybe it's a Canadian thing. Maybe Labatt doesn't think of their bottles as 11.5 ounces, it thinks of them as slightly-more-than-one-third-of-a-liter. It's a good theory, or at least vaguely plausible, until you realize that Canada's other big brewery, Molson, puts a full 12 ounces in their bottles.
Meanwhile, Session Beer comes out of Hood River, Ore., an hour or so east of Portland. A favorite of hipsters, it comes in a distinctively squat bottle that the brewers themselves refer to as "stubby." It holds a mere 11 ounces of beer.
I am aghast. I am appalled.
How can you do a 12-ounce curl with only an 11-ounce bottle?