published Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Side Orders: Fixes for the mixes

We can all hope that the cold months of winter are behind us. But for me, getting housebound by snow and ice, or just staying inside for days at a time due to the ridiculously cold temps, gave me a chance to do something I've never done ... make cake after cake using tips I've been gathering for years from various sources. All guaranteed they would turn a cake mix into something that would taste like a cake made from scratch.

So I went to the store and bought all kinds of cake mixes, from ones with pudding to others that boasted their moist textures and "real" flavors.

I totaled the days I spent making cakes -- 11 in all -- and also counted the number of cakes I tossed -- four in all. Some were no better than a cake made using the directions on the box. And don't waste your money on the spice cake mix or carrot cake mix. Even adding fresh carrots to the carrot cake mix didn't help. But others surprised me.

And just so you'll know, I also bought canned frosting. None were as good as homemade. I couldn't even go beyond a teaspoon of the canned cream cheese frosting. Don't bother when making it from scratch is no more expensive and takes just seconds to make.

Here are the tips that did make a difference:

• A surefire way to make all cake mixes better is to substitute buttermilk for all the liquid called for in the box's directions. Because it's so thick, you might have to add slightly more volume of buttermilk than a direct one-to-one ratio.

• Devil's food or chocolate cake mix is improved by substituting brewed coffee for the water. Just make sure it's not too hot or the eggs will scramble. Throwing in a handful of chocolate chips or chocolate shavings is another easy way to boost the chocolate flavor in a box mix.

• Lemon yogurt makes a great substitute for some of the liquid called for on the box of lemon, butter, yellow and white cake mixes. Use 6 ounces of lemon yogurt, 2 tablespoons of oil and 2/3 cup water or buttermilk, then add the eggs called for on the box. Plain or vanilla yogurt works with any cake mix flavor.

• Add 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1 to 2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice to any of the yellow or white cake mixes. All commercial cake mixes are very sweet, especially if they are frosted, and this helps balance the flavors.

• Add vanilla no matter what flavor cake you're making.

• Adding 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise or sour cream (full-fat versions of both) to the batter adds moisture and more homemade taste.

• Even if it already has it, add some pudding mix to the batter for more flavor.

• Add melted butter -- the real thing, not margarine or tub "butter" -- for all or part of the oil.

• Use Baker's Joy to spray baking pans, then sprinkle with a finely ground nut and sugar mix instead of flour.

• To any flavor cake mix, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup self-rising flour and 1/2 cup sugar. Sift these ingredients together into the mixing bowl. When adding the liquid ingredients, add an extra tablespoon or two of water or milk to make the batter the right consistency. It makes the cake rise more and gives it a really smooth texture.

• Turn yellow cake mix into orange by using orange juice instead of water, add a teaspoon or two of orange extract for more orange flavor. You can also boost the flavor by adding a teaspoon or two of orange zest.

• Use coconut milk (the full-fat version) in place of the liquids in both chocolate and vanilla cake mixes.

I mentioned to my friend, Dianne Cosper, about trying all these different cake-mix tips, and she asked if I'd ever had Earthquake Cake. At the time I hadn't. But once I did, I found that it really does a tasty number on German chocolate cake mix. And best yet, you don't have to frost it -- the cream cheese mixture becomes a frosting explosion.

There are recipes for this cake across the Internet. I found this one at grouprecipes.com. If you don't like coconut, leave it out. Or better yet, substitute chocolate chips for the coconut. And using coconut milk rather than water in the cake mix, as prescribed in the tips above, made it even more moist and added more flavor.

Earthquake Cake

1 box German chocolate cake mix

1 1/2 cups chopped pecans

1 cup flaked coconut

1 (16-ounce) box powdered sugar (4 cups)

1 stick softened butter

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese softened

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 teaspoons milk

Pour pecans and coconut into bottom of greased 9-by-13-inch cake pan. Prepare cake mix per directions on box and pour over top of pecans and coconut.

In mixer, cream powdered sugar, butter, cream cheese, vanilla and milk together. Place this mixture in dollops over top of cake mix. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour. Top of cake will crack. Serve warm, topped with ice cream if desired.

New on the market

Have you ever looked at the ingredients in a package of rice mix? For example, in a box of Rice-A-Roni you'll find hydrolyzed corn gluten, salt, sugar, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and other not-so-good ingredients lurking in between grains of rice.

RiceSelect now has a new line of completely natural rice blends available in area stores, including Publix and Walmart. There are three varieties: brown rice with chia, arborio rice with mushrooms and arborio with jalapeno that spices dinner up a bit. I've only had the brown rice with chia and, when I took a look at the ingredients I found: Texmati light brown rice, whole wheat orzo and chia seeds. That's it.

What a healthy change of pace ... and taste.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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