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Baking with cake mixes and convenience products

I love the story of how Anne Byrn, author of “The Cake Mix Doctor” and many other such cookbooks, got her start doctoring cake mixes to give them a homemade taste without all the time of baking from scratch. I can remember reading an article about her in the Food section of the “Washington Post” in 2000, along with several recipes from her first cookbook, one of which I tested and loved!

Anne is a professional food writer and baker. If I remember the story correctly, it goes something like this: when Anne’s children entered elementary school and the school community learned of her baking skills, she was frequently asked to provide baked goods for numerous school events. Since she didn’t always have time to bake from scratch on such short notice, she ended up “doctoring” cake mixes to make baked goods that tasted homemade.

I have often repeated this story to friends and family–telling them that SOMEDAY I know I will have to go the same route as Anne. My older son is finishing second grade, and I have already provided countless baked goods for so many events and bake sales at the school–the largest one being a dinner theater production for 400 people! I made my signature flourless chocolate torte from scratch for the entire event–quite a task!

But last week, I found myself so overwhelmed with baking tasks for various events, and at the same time, cake mixes were on sale at the grocery store for just $1 a piece, so I decided to seek assistance from the Cake Mix Doctor and other convenience products. My time had finally come to take shortcuts!

I had purchased “Cupcakes! From the Cake Mix Doctor” at a Scholastic book sale at the school a year ago, but had never opened it up. I just KNEW I would need to refer to it someday. I began by consulting the list of pantry items to keep on hand, went to the grocery to stock up on one of every kind of cake mix, and decided to make a recipe for chocolate cream cheese cupcakes.

The recipe called for “blender chocolate ganache” to frost the cupcakes, but being a pastry chef, I happened to have traditional chocolate ganache on hand in my freezer. {Note: I always say that the freezer is a pastry chef’s best tool! It really helps to be able to make things ahead and store them for future use!}

I have to say that the cupcakes tasted wonderful–they included milk chocolate chunks in the batter and tasted delicious with the ganache on top–how could you go wrong with that?! But I had a problem: the cupcakes shrank horribly and sank in the middle. They looked terrible! What is REALLY frustrating about that experience is that it is difficult to assess what went wrong when I started out with a box mix! I can’t really determine whether there was a problem with the proportion of leavening agents (baking powder and/or baking soda) because I don’t know how much was in the mix to begin with.

I know that I baked the cupcakes fully without overbaking them–they would have become too dry if I had baked them any longer. So the only explanation I can think of is that–with the addition of cream cheese and other ingredients not called for on the box mix–the proportion of liquid to dry ingredients was thrown off, thus causing the batter to be too wet. Therefore, the leavening agents couldn’t make the cupcakes rise enough. If that was not the case, then perhaps the leavening agents in the cake mix were simply too old, and they were no longer effective. Either way, it was frustrating not knowing exactly how to solve the problem because I didn’t know what exactly went into the cake mix.

The next convenience product I tried to use was a box mix from Tastefully Simple for Nana’s Apple Cake.  This product was recommended to me by a friend, though I had never used it myself, so I didn’t know what to expect.  I decided to bake these into mini cupcakes or muffins for “Special Person’s Day” at my son’s school.  I used nonstick, Teflon coated baking pans, and I sprayed them with professional quality baking spray, which includes flour to prevent cakes from sticking in the pans.  I also filled the muffin cups 2/3 full of batter, which should have been a sufficient amount to crown without spilling over.  However, the mini muffins turned out so horribly that I couldn’t even serve them!  They overflowed the tops of the cups and stuck all over the flat part of the pans; they also stuck inside the pans, and I couldn’t get them out without completely destroying the shape of the muffins.  The batter seemed to be too sweet, wet and sticky.  Instead of crowning nicely on top, they just spread and flattened out.  I definitely should have used paper muffin cups to line the pans!  That may have helped with releasing them from the pans.  But in the end, I had to throw those out and start all over with another recipe.  So much for trying to save time!  All I did was create MORE work for myself!

In the end, what I learned from these 2 experiences is that I need to stick to the basics of what I know.  I know how to bake from scratch, and convenience products are only convenient if they make LESS work for you rather than making MORE!  Some of the Cake Mix Doctor recipes are so elaborate that I don’t think they are saving ANY time at all.  They probably just give people the confidence to try baking from “semi-scratch” when they might not otherwise attempt to bake completely from scratch.

As for the Tastefully Simple cake, all I can say is this: I used to tell my students in my baking classes that they should always make a recipe according to the original directions one time first so they can see how the recipe is supposed to turn out.  Then, if they want to experiment with the recipe, they will have a “base line” to compare it to.  I guess I should have followed my own advice!  I didn’t really know how the recipe would turn out, so I didn’t know how to modify it properly to bake it in different pans and shapes (as compared to what the box recommends).

It was certainly a learning experience for me!  And as I always say: we can learn from our mistakes so we can do it better the next time.

3 comments to Baking with cake mixes and convenience products

  • Lil' Buddy

    Sounds like really good advice, from start to end!!

  • AntBee


    Does anyone know how to freeze cakes properly?

    I tried to freeze some sheet cakes and then when I thawed them they seemed to have a lot of water/wetness to them so I thought it was not normal, and did not try again.

    Is there a correct way for the home baker?
    I have a seperate large freezer to freeze the cakes in with lots of space.
    Thanks to all who may reply! 🙂

  • Hi there,

    I always say that a freezer is a Pastry Chef’s best tool! It is very helpful to be able to bake items ahead of time and simply finish them off when needed. Freezing is the perfect way to preserve ANYTHING at the state of freshness as when you put it in the freezer. So a cake, for example, will be fresher if you freeze it several hours after baking (you have to allow it to cool COMPLETELY before wrapping and storing it, though–if it is even the least bit warm, this could cause condensation to form inside of the plastic wrap or container, which in turn causes that moisture or wetness that you mentioned) than if you allow it to sit out at room temperature for several days, which allows it to dry out and get stale.

    So to answer you question about how best to freeze cakes: I like to wrap the cakes in 2 layers of plastic wrap all the way around the entire surface of the cake (wrap the plastic wrap completely around the top, bottom, and sides–then do that a second time for 2 full layers of wrap). I place the wrap directly on the surface of the cake to keep as much air out as possible. That is all I do, and my cakes freeze and thaw perfectly every time. Hope that helps!

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