In Cheap Tricks we’ll help you make the most out of everyday supermarket staples. Next up: How to make boxed cake better (like so good people will think it’s homemade).
Cake mixes are wildly popular and, in certain circles, somewhat controversial. While their convenience can’t be denied, the reality that they’re not homemade hangs over them. That’s where doctoring up boxed mix comes in—not only can it make the cake taste better, but it also makes people feel like they’re baking.
When I first started relying on store-bought cake mix, I didn’t know it would turn into a newspaper story and then into the bestselling book, The Cake Mix Doctor. With three children under the age of 10 and so many occasions to bake a cake at the last minute, I used the simplest hacks—like swapping the water for orange juice—to enhance my boxed cake mix recipes. (Hoping to hide the fact I wasn’t baking a cake from scratch.)
The truth is, Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines are popular for a reason. Once I baked more with cake mixes and figured out how far I could push the envelope—or in this case, the packet of instant pudding mix—I got better at it. A few simple swaps reliably transformed the pre-scaled packet of dry ingredients into a flavorful, moist cake. An extra egg yolk here, a handful of chocolate chips there, upgraded my box cakes to the next level, while still keeping the prep time mercifully short. Whether you’re baking red velvet, spice cake, or a plain yellow cake mix, these tips help any cake mix taste homemade.
1. Switch up the liquid.
At the very least, replace the water called for on the package with another liquid: apple cider, coffee, buttermilk, even pink Champagne. Use that same liquid to make a glaze or frosting, as in apple cider cake with apple cider glaze. Or turn to citrus, from lemon to orange to lime to grapefruit, or even clementine. Add the zest and juice to vanilla cake batter and frosting for a supercharged citrus cake.
You can also swap in canned coconut milk anytime your recipe calls for whole milk. It makes for velvety cakes with good structure, not to mention the boost of flavor it brings—add coconut frosting and shredded coconut to transform a box of white cake mix into a coconut layer cake. Pair it with an egg substitute and you’re on the road to a vegan cake.
Soft fruit can also be used in place of some of the liquid in the batter. Ripe bananas, applesauce, mashed roasted butternut squash, and puréed berries all add moisture and personality to cake mix.
2. Enrich with fat.
The directions on the back of the box will tell you to add vegetable oil; for a denser crumb and bigger flavor, swap in unsalted butter. Melted butter can be used in the same quantity and manner as the fat called for in any boxed cake recipe. Or you can change out the neutral oil for fragrant olive oil, especially when pairing with citrus (as in olive oil-lemon cake). Mix in room-temperature cream cheese, ricotta, sour cream, whole-fat yogurt, or peanut butter in addition to the fat called for on the box to yield even richer cakes.
3. Amp up the flavor.
Simply put, most boxed chocolate cake mixes need more chocolate. I’ve successfully added up to 6 ounces of melted bittersweet chocolate (or Nutella) to box-cake batter. To enhance the richness of chocolate batters even more, add a spoonful of Kahlua, dark rum, or espresso. Pair with chocolate buttercream frosting.
For yellow cake, I like to add in a drop or two of maple flavoring, which packs more flavor than most vanilla extracts. And infusing the liquid in the batter or glaze with rosemary, lavender, or Earl Grey tea adds another level of sophistication. You can also add almond extract (sparingly; it’s potto give the cake a boost of warmth.
4. Change the shape.
A standard cake mix will make two 9″ rounds, but you don’t have to follow the rules. Use a springform pan (which makes for a taller, prouder cake), a Bundt pan for instant decoration, an extra-long loaf pan or two standard ones, or a muffin tin to make cupcakes. Note that, when baked in a deep pan, like a loaf or springform, the cake might require up to 80% longer cook time (don’t change the prescribed temperature); test to see if it’s done with a toothpick.
5. Add structure.
On their own, boxed cake mixes have a structure that’s loose and airy. But if you add ¼ cup flour or half a box of instant pudding mix, the texture of the cake becomes denser and tighter, ideal for a pound-cake-like consistency that will hold the shape of a Bundt pan. When possible I toss something into the bottom of the pan, like nuts or coconut, before adding the batter. The goodies in the bottom toast into a delicious topping, decorating the baked Bundt cake with little extra work from you.
6. Make it a looker.
The time saved by using boxed cake mix can be repurposed into presenting something gorgeous. Here are my favorite tricks: Hide softly whipped cream, chocolate ganache, or a smear of cream cheese frosting between the layers, then frost the top and sides of the cake lightly with your favorite homemade frosting in a barely naked fashion, which means spreading the frosting around the sides, then pulling it off with spatula or bench scraper to leave just a thin coating.
Or get whimsical with color-in-layer cakes. Divide the yellow batter into thirds and dye each portion with coordinating flavors or colors. Think matcha for green, cocoa powder or melted chocolate for brown, a tablespoon or two of strawberry gelatin for pinkish-red, or any food coloring powder that fits your mood or the occasion. Bake a few differently-hued layers, slice them in half horizontally for even more layers, and alternate the colors as you stack and frost. Don’t forget the sprinkles—confetti cake doesn’t have to come from, well, a box.
And when you’re in a complete rush and don’t have time to doctor up the batter, pour it into a cast-iron skillet full of sautéed apples or bananas and rum or chunks of fresh mango or pineapple, and turn that cake upside-down.
Now to tackle those boxed brownies →
Anne Byrn is the bestselling author of The Cake Mix Doctor and A New Take on Cake. She lives and bakes in Nashville and writes the Substack newsletter, Between the Layers. Additional reporting contributed by Zoe Denenberg.
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit