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Thinking outside the box: How to jazz up boxed cake mix

All it takes is understanding a little bit of food science, being willing to spend a couple of extra minutes on the cake and, well, going outside of the box

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Chocolate cake on a stand.

Chocolate cake on a stand.

David Holifield, Unsplash

Boxed cake gets an undeserved bad reputation. Don’t get me wrong, homemade cake is fantastic and when I have the time, I love spending all morning and afternoon crafting the perfect cake. But sometimes, boxed cake makes more sense.

It’s cheap, easy, quick and convenient. Following the instructions on the back of the box won’t make it come out tasting like that famous chocolate cake you’ve seen in the “Matilda” movie, but it’ll still taste pretty good. Fortunately, there are some mix-ins and ingredient swaps that you can do to make your boxed cake taste so good that you’ll hoodwink yourself into thinking it was homemade.

All it takes is understanding a little bit of food science, being willing to spend a couple f extra minutes on the cake and well, going outside of the box.

What’s in a boxed cake mix?

Typically, boxed cake mix includes flour, sugar, some type of leavening agent (like baking soda) and corn syrup or a similar ingredient. Understanding what’s in boxed cake mix can help us make good decisions about what to include when we jazz it up.

What’s the best boxed cake mix to use?

It depends. Tasting Table ranked The Caker and King Arthur Baking Co. as the two best to use, but Pillsbury, Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines weren’t all that far behind. Part of it comes down to what flavor of cake you want.

My personal favorite is King Arthur Baking Co., but I’ll also go for Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines almost interchangeably since I find that they have a similar texture. Any boxed cake can be jazzed up so get the boxed cake mix that you like the best.

What’s the secret to a moist cake?

Don’t overmix, don’t overbake and do put frosting or curd or jam between each layer. Overmixing your ingredients for cake can make the gluten develop more, which is what leads to that gummy, chewy texture in some baked goods. Overbaking a cake will dry it out while adding frosting between each layer will help the cake taste moister.

What butter should I use in cakes?

Unsalted butter like Kerrygold or Plugra will be your best bet. Plugra boasts an 82% butterfat ratio, which is slightly higher than grocery store butter. You can also make your own homemade butter pretty easily — all you need is a stand mixer, heavy whipping cream and some time. Follow Kitchenaid’s recipe here for great butter.

How to jazz up a boxed cake mix

Substituting dairy products for the water, making sure the ingredients are room temperature and other changes can help you jazz up your boxed cake recipe. Here are some tips you can try.

  1. When you see that the recipe calls for water, try swapping it out. Typically what I do is substitute the water for heavy cream and whole milk. I start by adding one tablespoon of heavy cream to the appropriate measuring cup and then filling the rest of the measuring cup with whole milk. You’ll want the dairy product(s) you add to be the same amount as the water. You can do the milk trick with a tablespoon of Greek yogurt if you prefer that over heavy cream. For chocolate cake, try using heated up buttermilk and using that instead of water.
  2. Switch out the oil for butter. This is another easy switch. Use the same amount of butter plus an extra two tablespoons in the recipe that calls for oil. Make sure that the butter isn’t melted or fresh out of the refrigerator — you want it to be room temperature.
  3. Speaking of room temperature, make sure that your eggs are room temperature. If you forget to pull out the eggs a couple of hours before baking, there’s still a quick way that you can make the eggs room temperature. Fill a bowl with warm water and put the eggs in it and wait until they warm up — it shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes. But make sure that you don’t make the water too warm. You don’t want the eggs to cook.
  4. Add two extra egg yolks to the batter and switch out the eggs in the recipe for just an egg yolk. So if the recipe calls for three eggs, do two eggs and three egg yolks. Egg yolk gives the baked good that buttery yellow color, but they’re also known as emulsifiers. Egg yolks make sure that your baked good has a good crumb to air ratio (that is, the cake is fluffy without being too fluffy). The yolks will add a little bit more density to the cake.
  5. Put a dash of flavor in the cake. If you’re making a vanilla cake, put a teaspoon of vanilla in it. For chocolate cake, add a little bit of salt, vanilla and anise or cardamom as well. This will help the chocolate cake to taste more chocolatey.
  6. Add some texture with a mix-in. Vanilla cake can easily turn into coconut cake by adding in a cup of shredded coconut. Adding in a couple tablespoons of hazelnut butter can dramatically improve chocolate cake. If you want to do a funfetti cake, try adding in sprinkles. If changing the flavor of the cake isn’t your thing, consider putting in a tablespoon or two of powdered pudding mix — that can help change the cake’s texture.
  7. One of the big differences between a cake made from a box and a homemade or bakery cake tends to be the filling. Don’t skip layering the cake. The simplest way to layer a cake is to bake it in round pans, let it cool and then cut off the top of the cake that is raised in the middle so you can have even layers. Use frosting in between each layer. You could also add layers of chocolate ganache, lemon curd, fruit or marshmallow fluff. Layering a cake will give it some more depth.
  8. Let’s talk frosting. Store-bought frosting tastes great, but you can make it taste better or you can make your own. If you want to use store-bought frosting, empty the jar into a bowl with a mixer. Add in a pinch of salt, a little bit of vanilla extract and just a dash of heavy cream and then whip it together. I sometimes add a touch of corn starch to make it a stiffer frosting. If you want to make homemade frosting, it can be pretty easy. Make an American buttercream frosting to put on your cake. Make sure your cake is completely cool before frosting and if you can, pipe it on the cake. An easy way to pipe is to fill a sandwich bag one-half to three-fourths full of frosting, seal it and cut off a bottom tip to pipe it.
  9. For vanilla cakes, add a dollop of sour cream to the mix. It’ll help to give it both a better flavor and texture.
  10. For chocolate cakes, consider adding finely chopped chocolate into your mix. It’ll melt when it bakes, which will give it a great flavor. The Hersey’s dark chocolate bar is a great addition. Make sure that it is chopped finely and not just coarsely, as that will make sure that it melts perfectly.