When I was a little girl, I loved to bake cakes from boxed mixes. I had a babysitter who taught me how to stir the batter so that there were no lumps, and to slice off the top of one layer to make a flat surface. Even though she never let me lick the bowl (for fear of salmonella) I looked forward to the times when she would watch me, and late in the evening when my parents returned home I would insist they have a slice of my frosted, sprinkled sugar bomb before I went to bed.
In the years since, however, I've become a bit of a confectionery snob. When it comes to baking, I've always thought, if it's not from scratch it’s not for me. If you can make a whole batch of double-fudge brownies in 30 minutes, without ever breaking out a set of measuring spoons or a bottle of vanilla, then it doesn't really count as home cooking.
But recent developments have me wondering if it's time to reassess my old rules. The box options have expanded beyond basic Betty Crocker to include more upscale brands such as Ghirardelli. Ina Garten has her own line that includes everything from lemon bars to French crepes. Jacques Torres sells a mix for mudslide cookies.
So I've decided to give baking mixes another chance. Twice a month, I'm going to make something from a box and review it here for Serious Eats.
The Control Cake
Before moving on to the newer baking mixes on the market, I thought it would be a good idea to prepare a cake from a standard mix to use as a kind of control. It had been years since I'd tasted anything resembling a Moist Deluxe Classic Yellow—how could I asses the quality of the gourmet mixes if I had no point of comparison?
I baked a Duncan Hines Fudge Marble Cake and iced it with Vanilla Creamy Home-Style frosting. I'm not going to lie—it pained me to do it. Someone I knew got in line behind me at the supermarket and I felt the need to explain my project. I was embarrassed, as if she had caught me renting porn at the video store.
I made the cake according to the lower-fat instructions, replacing the oil with applesauce and reducing the water by 1/4 cup. Once it was in the oven, it filled my kitchen with that distinct artificial batter smell, rich with corn syrup. The taste was pure 8-year old birthday party. It was so sweet it practically made my teeth hurt yet I couldn't stop eating it, like the dessert equivalent of a fast food meal.
Alarmingly, the cake stayed fresh for over a week (they're not kidding about the moist deluxe). More alarmingly, every time I passed it on the counter I whacked off a hunk with a butter knife and ate it quickly, with a guilty foodie conscience. The low point came when I began taking swipes of the frosting alone. Finally, after about ten days, I threw the remains in the garbage.
While I won't be baking another cake like that anytime soon, I remain undeterred in my experiment. I'm excited to try all that the boxes have to offer, from strawberry scones to Swedish pancakes, and beyond.