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So, usually christmas cake recipes call for wrapping paper/cardboard around the cake to insulate it a bit. (See this question: Why should I wrap a cake tin in newspaper?)

I find myself lacking in newspaper but with a plethora of shipping boxes due to all the online purchases I've found myself doing recently. I happen to have a box that would be the perfect size (small enough to fit in the oven, but big enough for the cake). And also this seems like a great lazy person solution that appeals to me. To be clear, I mean to put the Christmas cake mix in the baking tin, and then put that in the box.

Given the box is devoid of plastic (paper tape and cardboard only), and isn't touching the element (obviously), would this be a viable method? Anything I need to keep in mind? My plan is to close the box entirely top and bottom and interleave the flaps so that nothing comes open.

Particular concerns:

  • The box catching fire
  • The printing on the box releasing chemicals into my food
  • The oven convection being impeded

Any reasons why this is a bad idea?

(My cake is currently in the oven, I jumped ahead a bit and then thought maybe I should check anyway. It hasn't caught fire yet).

(Also, I did also see the reduce-by-15C-forgo-the-box-entirely method, but my oven only goes down to 140C, the next step down is 100.)

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    Stick the box in the oven on its own for half an hour - see what the glue smells like when it's heated. I'm assuming the box is made of 'flute' aka corrugated cardboard. The glue they sometimes use is horrible. Same with brown sticky tape. – Tetsujin Dec 15 '20 at 13:28
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    Are we talking about a “cake tin in cardboard box” setup or a “pour batter directly into cardboard box” approach? – Stephie Dec 15 '20 at 14:35
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    @stan I have seen enough questions here that both were fathomable. <sigh> – Stephie Dec 15 '20 at 15:39
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    Since you're doing it anyway, please post an answer and let us know how it turned out. – csk Dec 15 '20 at 16:00
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    What type of Christmas cake are you asking about? Japanese light sponge Christmas cake is very different to British dense Christmas fruit cake. – nick012000 Dec 16 '20 at 11:35
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While there is some possibility it could work, I wouldn't even try it. There are things that can go wrong, and many proven solutions to the problem. Replacing a bad hack (newspaper) with a worse hack (cardboard box) is not something I would be keen to try.

A list of preferred solution includes:

  • use cake strips
  • bake the cake in a different pan (bundt or thick-walled ceramic pan)
  • go for a flatter and wider cake (bake it in a quiche pan or a large tawa)
  • make it a layered cake and bake the layers separately
  • reduce the temperature and bake for longer
  • partially bake in a waterbath, then continue without it

If you are absolutely sure that your cake needs a full enclosure (which is quite strange for me - it is actually one of the reasons why I would avoid the cardboard box) I would prefer putting the cake in a roasting dish (earthenware/ceramic or metal) rather than in a cardboard box.

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  • I'm doing the 2nd cake today without the box, in a wider pan with just a foil hat on it to stop browning. It's already being baked at 140C so that's quite low, I'll keep an eye out and see how it does. I find it interesting that the newspaper is a 'hack', it seems to be relatively common for christmas cakes. – stan Dec 15 '20 at 18:43
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    Most of the Christmas cake recipes I've made call for covering the cake. Some add the covering part way through. For that I use foil (weighted with wooden clothes pegs in a fan oven) – Chris H Dec 15 '20 at 22:26
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Although it's now clear that the question doesn't involve baking directly in the cardboard, but in using it as insulation, this answers the other interpretation of the title.

A cake cooked directly in cardboard should bake, as in cook through. It might take a little longer, which would make the top likely to go a bit too dark, and there are a few things you could do to make it better.

A thick cake mix (Christmas cake) would work better than a runny batter (anything light with oil), as it will soak into the cardboard less, though you should take steps to avoid that as well - I would line the box carefully with foil first. That will stop the cake tasting like cardboard, which I reckon is the biggest worry. The box getting wet would also weaken it, leading to a chance of dropping the cake, and by absorbing moisture it could make the outer layer rather dry.

Most corrugated boxes would leak down the middle underneath - another reason to line it, and the box may be held together with glue that could melt and let the cake escape, or smell horrible when scorched.

Personally I'd just use the most compatible proper container I already had, but have in the past made one-off baking forms from cardboard wrapped in foil (for shorter bakes than the typical Christmas cake).

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  • I answered the question as I understood it when I read it this morning - later edits made most of this not fit, so I may delete it – Chris H Dec 15 '20 at 22:24
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    I think this would be a good answer if you edited it to specify baking with the batter directly inside the cardboard. Even though that's not what the OP wanted to know, it is an answer to the question title, so this page might get people who want to know exactly this. – csk Dec 16 '20 at 6:29
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I did a test where I split the cake batter in half, and put it into two identical tins. One was baked in the box and the other with no box and a foil hat on top. It was this recipe: https://helgavan.com/easy-christmas-cake-recipe/

And both were baked at 140°C for 3 hours.

Firstly, the box didn't fare too badly. I removed as much of the paper tape as possible. The remaining bits seemed to be completely unchanged. According to my research cardboard only spontaneously ignites > 400C, so it catching fire in the oven isn't a concern. As far as I can tell the water-based flexographic ink isn't toxic and won't break down after being exposed to heat for such a short period of time. But nonetheless, I probably won't do this again because the box isn't technically considered food-safe.

The box cake came out well. It was slightly darker around the edges but not burnt. It came out pretty much as expected. I've made this recipe yearly for several years and this was pretty much par for the course.

The no-box cake was significantly darker, not exactly burnt but closer than I would like. I did keep an eye on it but the cake batter is dark already so it is difficult to judge. The tin was fairly large and wide, so the cake wasn't that thick (5cm or so, i'd guess). I also did check on it at the 2h and 2.5h mark to check it wasn't done early, and it did need to go to 3h. I think next time I'll probably go the route of using a glass dish that has a larger thermal mass, and covering it with something more substantial than foil.

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    Staples or (metal) paper fasteners would be a good idea fold holding the box closed, or tie it up with cotton/sisal string. Watch for glued joins in the corners; the glue might stink – Chris H Dec 16 '20 at 14:45

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