If you grew up in the third quarter of the 20th century, you no doubt ate many a cake mix cake in your formative years.
Though patent applications for some form of cake mix go back to at least 1930, they really began to catch on after World War II when the food industry, aided by the advertising industry, mounted a massive campaign to convince homemakers that time saved in the kitchen could be much better spent on other more produtive activities, like smoking Lucky Strikes or applying cold cream.
So an entire generation of Baby Boomers learned to rely on their grandmothers for a real homemade-from-scratch cake. By the end of the 20th century, virtually every grocery store had an in-store bakery where an arguably fresh cake in a box could be easily procured, and even baking a cake from a mix began to look like a lot of work to a lot of folks.
But cake mixes are still out there on the store shelves, and there are a few tricks that can make a cake mix cake taste more like a homemade cake. Some of them are worth a look. Bear in mind that a cake made from a mix is a very carefully developed science project. All of the chemical mysteries of baking have been made as idiot-proof as possible by the company that produced the cake mix. Mess with the formula and the results become less than guaranteed. Which already makes it more like baking a cake from scratch.
So if you’re willing to risk guaranteed serviceable mediocrity for possibly greater deliciousness, one or more of the following ideas might appeal to you.
The simplest, and least risky, cake mix hack is to simply substitute butter for the oil called for on the back of the cake box. This is a fat for fat exchange, so it shouldn’t affect outcome at all, other than to improve taste. Think about it, do you oil your toast or butter it? Butter tastes better.
Use hot water instead of water straight from the tap for a chocolate cake. The cocoa in the mix will develop better and be more chocolatey. Likewise, substitute strong, brewed coffee for some of the water. The cake will have a richer chocolate flavor without having a coffee taste. If you want a real mocha flavor, use even more coffee. Add it to your frosting too.
Another simple change is to substitute milk for the water called for on the box. The taste will be richer and more homemade. The crumb will also be a little denser, more like a homemade cake. Give buttermilk a try. Especially in chocolate cakes, which often call for buttermilk in scratch recipes. If you don’t have buttermilk, add a dash of white vinegar to a cup of whole milk and let it sit for a while.
The same way that dairy ups the flavor in a mix cake, other more flavorful liquids can do the same thing. Think orange juice instead of water for a yellow or orange mix, apple juice for a spice mix, coconut milk for a coconut mix, and last but certainly not least, chocolate milk for a chocolate mix.
There’s a reason you still have to add eggs to cake mix. Early cake mixes had powdered eggs in them, and they never caught on. Eggs are the magic ingredient, so why not add an extra one? Try it.
Add your own mixture of spices to a yellow cake mix for a spice cake that is your very own. (Recipe below to get you started.)
Putting pieces of candy in your cake is another good way to jazz it up. Softer or chocolate candies should be frozen overnight before going into the batter to keep them from melting into oblivion. Chop bigger candies up and dredge them in a little flour to keep them from sinking.
The real giveaway that a cake is made from a mix is canned frosting. It’s made from cheap oils and imitation flavors, and there’s no way to hide its sub-par flavor. Don’t even try to gussy up your cake mix cake if you’re not willing to make your own frosting. A recipe follows for a super-simple buttercream that only uses four ingredients which you probably already have on hand. Before canned frosting was invented, all the Boomer’s Mom’s melted some butter on the top of the stove from the heat of the oven as it baked their cake to make this quick, easy frosting. Give it a try.
If you’re ready to get a little crazy, you can venture into the land of secret ingredients. Mayonnaise was an ingredient in a lot of Depression-era chocolate cakes — it’s basically eggs and oil whipped up nice and fluffy — so a couple of tablespoonfuls added to your cake mix will moisten up your cake.
Same thing with yogurt and sour cream. Either could be used as all or a portion of the liquid added to the mix to give a nice tang, for a cake where tang would be a positive addition. Lemon, for instance. Both will add richness and a homemade taste.
If you’re ready to cut loose and get really experimental while at the same time keeping things super simple, jump on the cake mix and pop bandwagon.
Two ingredients, box of cake mix and a 12-ounce can of soda. Mix and bake as directed. Couldn’t be simpler and the range of flavor possibilities is almost endless. Hit on one that doesn’t come in a box and you could have a new secret family recipe.
Not to mention, you’ve reduced the amount of fat, and if you use diet soda, you’ve reduced the amount of sugar and calories. For example, white cake mix and 12 ounces of peach mango-flavored, no-calorie soda contains 160 calories and 3 grams of fat per slice. The original recipe on the box contains 228 calories and 10 grams of fat. Not bad, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
• French vanilla cake mix + orange soda = Creamsicle cake
• Spice cake mix + ginger ale = Ginger spice cake
• French vanilla cake mix + grape soda = Purple Cow cake
• Strawberry cake mix + vanilla cream soda = Strawberry shortcake
• Dark chocolate cake mix + root beer = Chocolate root beer float cake
• Cherry chip cake mix + Dr. Pepper Cherry = Very cherry cherry chip cake
• Devil’s food cake mix + Diet Coke = Sinless devil’s food cake
• Lemon cake mix + Sprite = Zesty lemon cake
While you’re getting into the creative spirit of concocting your own flavors, try substituting a pint of ice cream for the oil and water called for by your cake mix. So that means; cake mix, ice cream, eggs. You can’t go wrong with this one. Make sure your ice cream is good and melted before mixing your cake. If the ice cream is still frozen or really cold, the cake won’t cook in the allotted time, and you’ll have a mess. Also, something about the chemistry makes the cake more sensitive while baking than an ordinary mix cake, which is to say, it might fall if you open the oven door too much or mess with it. But never fear, it’s still good, just more dense like a pound cake.
Spice Cake from a Yellow Cake Mix
1 box yellow cake mix
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
¼ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. allspice or cloves
Combine all together and follow directions on box or use any of the tips above.
Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
For chocolate frosting, add some cocoa to the softened butter and beat out the lumps before adding other ingredients. Back in the day, a lot of Mamas added a pinch of salt to chocolate frosting. Extracts and flavoring can change it up as needed.
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 -1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 to 2 tablespoons milk
In medium bowl, mix powdered sugar and butter with spoon or electric mixer on low speed. Stir in vanilla and 1 tablespoon of the milk. Gradually beat in just enough remaining milk to make frosting smooth and spreadable. If frosting is too thick, beat in more milk, a few drops at a time. If frosting becomes too thin, beat in a small amount of powdered sugar. Frosts 13×9-inch cake generously, or fills and frosts an 8- or 9-inch two-layer cake.
Melted Ice Cream Cake
Use whatever flavor combination you want, but vanilla cake and dulce de leche ice cream is always reliable. To gild the lily a bit, pour some dulce de leche over the glaze. Just buy a jar, spending two or three hours making you own would defeat the purpose of a two-ingredient cake.
1 box cake mix (18.25 oz) in any flavor
1 pint ice cream, melted
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease cake pan liberally with cooking spray or butter and flour. Mix the cake mix, eggs and ice cream together and beat for 2 minutes on medium speed. Follow box for baking times. Time will vary based on type of pan you use. Let cool and remove from pan. Allow to cool on wire rack.
1/4 cup milk
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
In medium saucepan combine ingredients with a whisk over low heat. Stir until glaze is smooth. Pour over cake.
Homemade Dulce de Leche
If you just have to do it yourself. Below are two different ways to make this delicious caramel spread: One is more classic—cooking down milk and sugar—but it requires a fair amount of attention and stirring. The other uses sweetened condensed milk and a long, though mostly unattended, time in the oven. Either way, leftover dulce de leche will keep for a couple of weeks, refrigerated. It would be great stirred into coffee or cocoa, spread on toast, or warmed and drizzled on ice cream. Try it with peanut butter on a sandwich.
4 cups milk
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
Stir together 4 cups milk, 1 1/4 cups sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until caramelized and thickened, about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours. (After about an hour, stir more often as milk caramelizes, to avoid burning.) Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla. Transfer to a bowl to cool. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
Sweetened condensed milk method:
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
Heat oven to 425°F with rack in middle. Pour the contents of 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate and cover tightly with foil. Set plate in a roasting pan and add enough hot water to pan to reach halfway up pie plate. Bake milk in middle of oven 45 minutes. Check water level and add additional, if necessary, then continue to bake 45 minutes more, or until milk is thick and brown. Remove pie plate from water bath and cool, uncovered. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.