Cathy Mitchell knows her audience. They could be her.
A working mom (and now grandmother) with 24/7 demands on her time, she likes to cook but rarely has a lot of time to devote to something fancy. Shortcuts at dinnertime are OK, if the family eats well and the meal tastes homemade.
“I can empathize,” she said, nodding her head.
Although her name may not be immediately recognizable as a best-selling author, Mitchell has a face known by millions from her “As Seen on TV” products and infomercials.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
For a quarter century, Mitchell has successfully pitched small appliances and other products on television, often under the TeleBrands banner. From the SnakMaster to Turbo Cooker, Mitchell has sold truckloads of gadgets to viewers nationwide.
And now, her first (non-gadget) cookbook can carry the same banner as many of those irresistible time-savers: More than 1 million sold.
Mitchell’s “Quick & Easy Dump Cakes and More” (288 pages, $10 plus shipping) has been a runaway best-seller for TeleBrands. Making one of its first real forays into publishing with “Dump Cakes,” the company recently bought a half-page ad in The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, congratulating Mitchell for her milestone. (The book is available online at www.buydumpcakes.com.)
To Mitchell, the cookbook’s success is simple. It lives up to its promise: “Make homemade desserts in minutes.”
“Dump cakes have been around a long time,” said Mitchell, who lives in Valley Springs, Calaveras County. “I noticed they started to come back again. It’s amazing how often things repeat themselves.”
First popularized in the mid-1950s, these dump cakes are generally two-step desserts, using boxed cake mixes (which debuted after World War II) and canned ingredients in novel combinations. They come with such evocative names as Banana Split Cake and Island Delight. The results usually are lip-smacking sweet and total kid-pleasers. Boomers such as Mitchell, who is in her 60s, remember them fondly.
And the name is a grabber: Who doesn’t smile at the mention of dump cakes?
“Every fourth-grade boy can make a joke about dump cakes,” said Mitchell, who recently came to Sacramento to demonstrate her dump cake techniques. “But what’s great about them is they really are quick and easy. Take a can of this, a box of that; bake and you’re done.
“A lot of them can be made in one pan (without a mixing bowl). They’re super fast – and delicious.”
Dump cakes do tend to draw chuckles. Late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel used Mitchell’s book as part of his humorous “As Seen on TV” gift guide.
The cakes may not include ingredients you expect. Lemon-lime or orange soda, for instance, often is used as leavening instead of eggs.
Using processed foods and sugary sodas counters most healthy eating trends (although sugar-free sodas can be substituted in most recipes). While purists may frown upon such mix-and-match recipes, Mitchell finds the positives far outweigh any criticism.
“It’s nice to put together a quick homemade dessert – everybody loves the results,” Mitchell said. “And you usually have the ingredients at home.”
And these recipes are practically foolproof, as long as you don’t think too much. Mitchell recalled a relative who was a meticulous cook but was flummoxed by an early dump cake recipe that started with a boxed cake mix. Her dump cake always came out overly gooey.
“She kept adding the other ingredients (such as eggs, oil and water) to the cake mix before dumping in the canned ingredients,” Mitchell said. “But those canned ingredients take the place of eggs and water; they moisten the dry mix.”
And with the help of cooking chemistry, it all works, she added. “It’s amazing what you can do with a can of soda.”
Mitchell’s can-do spirit and infectious smile make any cook feel like they can work their own little miracles. That’s been the secret to her pitch-woman success.
“I’ve been preparing for this career since I was 8 years old,” Mitchell said. “I did ‘shows.’ While doing the dishes, I would talk to the invisible TV camera. All I’m really doing on TV (now) is what I’ve always done.”
As a cook and presenter, Mitchell was inspired by the pioneers of food TV.
“I loved Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet (Graham Kerr),” she recalled. “I loved anybody who was cooking on TV. I didn’t try to do any of it – it was all so involved. But as I started to cook for myself, I learned lots of little tricks (to improve a dish).”
Mitchell calls herself “a very basic cook,” but those early experiences nurtured her showmanship skills. She started her career as a part-time presenter on the California fair circuit, including the State Fair, while demonstrating gadgets in the halls of commerce.
In 1989, a TV producer asked her to record her pitch for a new product: the SnakMaster sandwich maker. In a rented studio not much bigger than a garage, they taped her spiel where she grilled a cheese sandwich with an iron, then switched to the SnakMaster with much better results.
“Afterward, the producer said I could be paid a flat fee (for her time) or 50 cents a unit,” Mitchell recalled. “I chose the latter – and sold a million of them.”
Since then, Mitchell has been one of the mainstays of infomercials. Her homespun presentation sets viewers at ease as she demonstrates the versatility of the latest pizza maker or counter-top roaster.
“I don’t sell anything I wouldn’t use myself,” she said. “I spend a lot of time working with these things to see how stuff works. At the end of the day, all you have is your word. If you see something I said I made a certain way, it better be just that.”
For the little booklets that accompanied these appliances, Mitchell had written hundreds of recipes.
“I wrote a cookbook for just about every product I ever sold,” she said. “But I never did ‘just a cookbook’ until (‘Dump Cakes’).
“I love cookbooks; I’ve got thousands,” she added. “And I’m known for crazy recipes with basic ingredients. This was fun.”
Shannon Mitchell, who serves as her mother’s assistant, taste-tested many of the “Dump Cakes” recipes along with other family members. Her favorite is one that makes more experienced cooks scratch their heads: pineapple angel cake.
“You wonder how she did it,” she said.
“It’s just angel food cake mix and a can of crushed pineapple,” Cathy Mitchell said. “But it bakes into the most wonderful light cake. ... You use a regular pan, not an angel food cake pan, and the pineapple can be in its own juice or heavy syrup. (The batter) looks like marshmallow cream, but it puffs up in a hurry. You’ve got to bake it right away. I like to sprinkle a little coconut on top, too.”
But wait, there’s more. In addition to the dump cakes and dump desserts, the cookbook features dozens of Mitchell family favorites including 30 different from-scratch brownies.
Out of more than 250 recipes in her cookbook, Cathy’s personal pick is her cherry dump cake with pineapple.
“It’s so good warm,” she said. “It’s almost like a cobbler.”
These recipes are so easy, anyone can make them – even grandkids, Mitchell said.
“Kids love to help,” said Mitchell, who has 13 grandchildren. “It’s so gratifying for them. When you’re a kid, there’s no better feeling than coming to the table and saying, ‘I made dessert.’ ”
Of course, she recommends monitoring the process, making sure nobody (or the dessert) gets burned. But this is an easy introduction to culinary skills that can foster a future love of baking.
Memorable recipe names can help kids get interested, too.
“I love coming up with cutesy names because of working with kids,” Mitchell said. “Razzleberry cake sounds so much more fun than raspberry-lemon – anything to get them to try it.”
While Mitchell keeps pitching products, she’s found she really enjoys her latest sideline.
“I wish I’d started writing cookbooks sooner,” she said, adding that she’s working on more homespun “quick and easy” cookbook ideas.
“My goal right now is to just keep going,” she said with a wink.