The Doctor is in – testing doctored box mix methods
I like to save time – I don’t like to futz around with stuff, which is one reason why I love a good one-bowl cake recipe. (psst – it’s why I love my chocolate cake recipe) That’s one wonderful thing about box mixes, one bowl, a couple of ingredients, and done. But what if I want the ease of a box mix, but the taste of a more homemade or professional bakery taste? Sometimes the answer is Doctored Box Mix.
Scratch versus box is a very controversial issue. If you have ever been on a cake chat board, a forum or a FB group where this comes up, you’ll find people are VERY passionate about it. I’m not here to pick a side – I am known to make both. However, what I do believe, is that box mixes need a little help to be as good as scratch cakes.
I did a little google search on doctored box cake recipes, and there was SO much out there – the results are overwhelming. What I found is that there are many lists out there of ways to enhance your box mixes – many of them identical, and then there are specific recipes that people like and that they share. What I didn’t find was some explanation about what results each different variable brought to the cake table. Sure, I could add an extra egg and some sour cream, but how would that differ from making it with an extra egg yolk and some mayonnaise?? That kind of thing frustrates me to no end. I’m results oriented – and I want to know what I’m going to get (kind of what one expects from a box mix…exactly what you get every time).
My goal was to find a happy medium place where I would get a yummy cake that involved only one bowl, not too many ingredients (definitely nothing too specialized), and less than 10 minutes to get into the oven. After all, if you’re going to go with a box mix, you are trying to go for quick, amiright?
In my research I found some recurring doctored box recommendations: add an extra egg, replace water with some sort of dairy, and replace any oil with melted butter. These came up in every list I found and in many of the recipes. Another frequent flyer was the addition of instant pudding. There were also suggestions like adding mayonnaise, sour cream and lemon zest. I decided I would test out the most common sugestions I found.
In any good experiment, one needs a control subject. In this case, I needed to make a plain box cake, nothing extra, just follow the instructions and make the cake. For my experiment I used a cake mix on sale – Duncan Hines Classic White cake. (disclaimer – I used whole eggs instead of egg whites, so not EXACTLY the instructions) The result was a solid, decent vanilla flavored cake. It had that classic “box” taste, with an almost bouncy, cottony texture.
Butter and Milk
The next cake I made used the trifecta of an extra whole egg, replacing the oil with double the volume of melted butter, and replacing the water with milk (I used 2%). I also added an extra tablespoon of vanilla extract. The batter was thicker and creamier than the original, and the resulting cake had a more denser texture and a slightly finer crumb than the plain box. I thought it tasted homemade, not box mix-y at all.
Next I went for the classic addition of instant pudding. Basically I took the same recipe as the 2nd cake and just added pudding. As a recap, butter instead of oil, milk instead of water, an extra egg, a tablespoon of vanilla extract and a box of french vanilla instant pudding. This batter was even more thick than the 2nd cake and had a distinctly yellower color, due to the pudding mix. I think if you went with a naturally colored version like Jello Naturals, the color difference would be negligible. The resulting cake was very moist and the most dense of all of the doctored box mixes. It had the same distinct yellow color, but the crumb was finer and it was definitely a winner in flavor. It didn’t taste at all of box mix either.
Everything but the kitchen sink
Finally, I decided to try a doctored box method that added an extra cup of flour, a cup of sugar and one cup of sour cream. I did not use melted butter for this one, as it only called for 2 tablespoons of oil, so I stuck with it. However, I still used the milk, extra egg and vanilla. I had tried similar recipes like this one and had lukewarm reactions to them, but I wanted to continue my trials. As you would think, this batter made a bigger cake – afterall, we bulked it up with extra dry ingredients. It definitely took the longest to bake.
The result, to me, was surprising: the cake still tasted like a box mix cake. The additional flour and sugar didn’t mask anything, and the sour cream didn’t seem to create any additional moistness. Now, if I had added the sour cream on TOP of a full fat addition, maybe things would have been different, but that’s not what I was testing. This is not to say that the cake wasn’t tasty, but it tasted almost as box-y as the first plain box cake. The texture was more pleasing in this version, and the crumb was nice, although no finer. All in all, it was a good cake, but if I was trying to find that sweet spot between time/effort and results, this one took too many extra steps for a limited reward.
And the winner is…Pudding!
I also tested these on my guinea pigs (aka husband and kid), and their reactions were the same, even though they tried them at different times. The overall favorite for all of us was the pudding cake. Moistness, nice crumb, strong vanilla flavor – they all won.
The butter/milk doctored box cake came in a close second, and the many-ingredient cake came in 3rd. Last, not suprisingly, was the plain box mix cake.
There are still more variations to try along this doctored box mix journey, so perhaps there will be a 2.0 coming your way, but for now I hope that I demystified at least a couple of different ways to change up your vanilla cake in a fast, delicious way – with only one bowl!
If you try any of these versions, let me know in the comments below – I’d love to see what YOU find to work best.