The Best Yellow Cake Borrows a Trick From the Box

July 20, 2018

We weren’t a cake family. We were a cookie family, a brownie family, an ice cream family, an ice cream cake family. But not a cake cake family. So it goes without saying that, as a child, cake fascinated me.

Sort of like how we weren’t a PB&J family and, one day, I insisted that is what I wanted for lunch. Or how we weren’t a meatloaf family and, one day, I insisted that is what I wanted for dinner.

Decades later, I could say that this was childish, but I think it’s just humanish. We always want what’s at our fingertips instead of what’s in our hands.

Photo by Rocky Luten

But cake. Every Sunday, my mom and I went to the supermarket, and I flocked to the boxed cake mixes and canned frostings. From where I stood—if I’m short now, I was very short then—they towered up, up, up, like skyscrapers: White cakes and chocolate cakes and red velvet cakes and yellow cakes. Fluffy, double-layered, and, according to Duncan Hines, “deliciously moist.”

Shop the Story

A lot of premade food products struggle to compare with their homemade counterparts, but cake mixes stand out because they usually are deliciously moist. You bring the eggs, oil, and water. They bring everything else. Say, with Duncan’s classic yellow cake, this means:

Sugar, Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour (Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Emulsified Palm Shortening (Palm Oil, Propylene Glycol Mono- and Diesters of Fats and Fatty Acids, Mono- and Diglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate), Wheat Starch, Leavening ("Baking Soda, Dicalcium Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate Monohydrate). Contains 2% or Less of: Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Salt, Cellulose Gum, Xanthan Gum, Dextrose, Artificial Flavors, Yellow 5 Lake, Red 40 Lake.

Some big takeaways: Sugar, then flour. Which is to say, more sugar than flour. Next up: emulsified palm shortening. Which is to say, a shelf-stable fat. Which is to say, another fat—in addition to the BYO-oil—already incorporated into the dry ingredients.

In BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, Stella Parks unpacks the history of this approach: "In 1944, Betty Crocker’s popular radio show, Cooking School of the Air introduced listeners to layer cakes and muffins made with the 'Double-Quick' method."

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Somewhere 30 years ago I stumbled on a Triple Chocolate Cake recipe with a Duncan Hines base. I am not a hard core fan of chocolate, but this cake was amazing! I am almost apologetic when someone asks for the recipe always prefacing it with "It's a doctored cake mix." But the cake is tender, rich and moist; it fulfills every chocolate lovers dream. I have many recipes but this one is my chocolate standby!”
— Donna M.

Basically, instead of creaming the butter with the sugar—you know, until it’s fluffy, then you add the eggs, then you add the dry ingredients and milk—you mix the butter and dry ingredients together at the start. Sort of like cutting butter into biscuit dough, but instead of leaving it in chunks, you keep going (and going and going) until the mixture becomes powdery.

“In retrospect, the Double-Quick method was a savvy precursor to boxed cake and muffin mixes,” Parks writes. “By downplaying the benefits of traditional creaming, General Mills acclimatized folks to a style of baking that made mixes feel intuitive.”

Photo by Rocky Luten

I recognized this method from somewhere else: my last job. Scratch, a bakery in Durham, North Carolina, is known for its flaky-as-heck pies. But the staff is just as just as obsessed with the yellow cake.

The recipe calls for butter and oil—and you add these at two separate times. Start with the dry ingredients, blend in the butter, and then add the wet ingredients, like buttermilk, eggs, egg yolks, and oil. This goes against almost every other cake recipe in Scratch’s repertoire. But it works!

When I set out to recreate the yellow cake that got away, I knew this approach would be key.

The only catch was, I couldn’t stop thinking about this other yellow cake—with a totally different approach—Jessie Sheehan’s Caramelized Banana Upside-Down Cake, a recent recipe contest winner.

So I combined the two. I took Jessie’s recipe as a foundation and adjusted it with a boxed-style layer cake in mind. I double the quantities to fit into two pans. I dropped some of the oil and replaced it with butter and blended that butter into the flour. I added a pinch of turmeric for color (don’t worry, you can’t taste it), just enough to give “Yellow 5 Lake” a run for its money. And I increased the vanilla.


Many, many cakes later, all of this added up to a yellow-as-ever cake that is buttery-rich and vanilla-forward and, above all, “deliciously moist.” Just like Duncan.

We just needed frosting—but this turned out to be a piece of cake. (Hehe.) Our Genius Creative Director Kristen Miglore recently introduced us to her family-famous Fudgy Cream Cheese Chocolate Cake. Her mom always used canned frosting on top, so Kristen set out to find a from-scratch doppelgänger:

This one, adapted from Hershey’s Perfect Chocolate Cake, is excellent and the closest facsimile to canned frosting,” she discovered. (Thanks, Kristen!)

Because I can’t help it, I made a few little adjustments: I increased the quantities originally recommended for a double-layer cake because there’s nothing more stressful than worrying about running out of frosting. I swapped out the milk and called in coffee, which intensifies the chocolate flavor and balances all the sweetness. And, for the same reason, I added a little salt.

I can’t promise that it’s just like boxed cake, but I can promise that it’s just like I always thought boxed cake would be. And isn’t that better, anyway?

What are your boxed cake memories? Share them in the comments below!


Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Susan Louther
    Susan Louther
  • Donna Cheung
    Donna Cheung
  • Donna Moenig
    Donna Moenig
  • Karolyn Schalk
    Karolyn Schalk
  • Rebecca Shepard
    Rebecca Shepard
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.


Susan L. August 3, 2018
My mom was not comfortable in the kitchen, so box cakes were haute cuisine. I loved a strawberry cake and strawberry frosting boxed se
Donna C. August 3, 2018
I learned to bake when I was 12, and I am now 65 (how did that happen!!!) and I have been making my family only from scratch recipes since then. A few years ago I found a recipe for Tiramisu Cake that used a box cake mix. I added 6 Tbsp. of flour and subbed out the oil for melted butter. and added 2 tsp of vanilla. This is the most requested birthday cake in our family. We never buy cakes from a bakery, Costco or any other store offering birthday cakes, we are always disappointed in the taste and texture. I will always bake from scratch but a box of white cake mix will always be in my pantry!!
Libby P. October 21, 2018
Would love your tiramisu recipe. Sounds yummy!
Donna M. August 3, 2018
Well I certainly will be giving this a try. It Sounds very intriguing. Somewhere 30 years ago I stumbled on a Triple Chocolate Cake recipe with a Duncan Hines base. I am not a hard core fan of chocolate, but this cake was amazing! I am almost apologetic when someone asks for the recipe always prefacing it with "It's a doctored cake mix." But the cake is tender, rich and moist; it fulfills every chocolate lovers dream.
I have many recipes but this one is my chocolate standby!
Brenda S. August 5, 2018
I would LOVE that recipe - please share.....
Donna M. August 5, 2018
With pleasure!
1 pkg (2 layer) dark chocolate cake mix (Duncan Hines)
1 pkg (small) instant chocolate pudding
4 eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup warm water
6 oz. semi sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt pan. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients except chocolate chips. Beat 3 min. at medium speed. Add chips and beat one more min. Pour into pan and bake for 55-60 min. Remove from oven when done and cool in pan for 15 min. Turn out onto a rack and continue cooling.

Serve with chocolate glaze or thickened raspberries and whipped cream. Ice cream or just whipped cream is nice too. Enjoy!
Brenda S. August 5, 2018
Oh my - yummmm. And I have everything in my pantry but....the box mix. Thanks!
Karolyn S. August 3, 2018
The first 'fancy' cake I ever made was the caramel cake from my mother's copy of the Betty Crocker Picture cookbook, (something she would never have attempted - she struggled with cake mix) I was 9. It turned out great and since then the only time I use cake mix is when I'm on vacation in a rental cottage. Cake is easy and life is too short to eat anything less than the best.
Rebecca S. August 3, 2018
Whether it tastes like box cake or not - this is a terrific recipe. I made it last night and it is the best yellow cake I have ever tasted. I have baked for over 30 years and have looked for a recipe like this. I actually made this one into cupcakes (it made 24, baked at 350' for 20 minutes) and they turned out great. The frosting is also amazing. I used freshly squeezed orange juice to replace the coffee. Thank you!
Janet K. August 3, 2018
I never did like boxed cakes, though I made a few including those improved upon a la the Cake Doctor. Recently, living in South Africa, I was the guinea pig for someone learning to bake 'sponge' as they call it here. It was a revelation as it was so moist. A real homebaked cake is great! A friend and I kept sneaking slices. I always thought of myself as a pie or cookie person but this changed my mind. Anyway, why eat all those weird ingredients? I still leave the baking to others when it comes to cake.
Michael P. August 3, 2018
I don't understand. Why not just use a box of mix then?
Author Comment
Emma L. August 3, 2018
Hi Michael! A big part of my job as a recipe developer is being curious about the food we eat. I saw developing a homemade take on boxed cake mix—a product that many people can relate to—as a fun challenge and one that would hopefully resonate with people.
Ashley M. November 16, 2018
Oh thank you for this. I’m trying to develop a recipe based on my grandma’s famous madera wine cake which used boxed cake and boxed pudding as wine that I don’t use. You’ve given me so much inspiration.
Anne B. August 3, 2018
Terrific story! After I wrote the Cake Mix Doctor, I received emails from pastry chefs from pretty high-end places asking me how to make a scratch cake taste like a box mix. My response was, “why do you want to do that?” And their reply was that their owner/executive chef had memories of box cake from childhood or they did and they wanted to duplicate that. Interesting!
Author Comment
Emma L. August 3, 2018
Thank you, Anne! And thank you for sharing your story—that's so interesting!
Samina August 3, 2018
Anne, I've had all of your Cake Mix Doctor books for years & still use them regularly! They're fantastic, thank you!
Barb August 3, 2018
I suppose it's much like people who search out products that make their popcorn taste like the crude oil theatres pour on theirs instead of just using butter. It's "what they remember".
Anne B. August 10, 2018
Absolutely! Happy to share. As the Cake Doctor I accumulated a lot of stories!
Antonietta N. August 3, 2018
Yellow cake is my fave and I can never get it to taste like Duncan's!! I found a recipe that called for artificial vanilla extract and that literally blew my cake making mind. I'm still searching for that one recipe to put all other recipes to sleep...hopefully this one will be. Great article!
Eric K. July 21, 2018
I love this story, Emma—and that cake is one of the fudgiest, most delicious I've tasted. (I grew up with Duncan Hines so I would know.) So interesting about the order of the butter and flour.
Author Comment
Emma L. July 29, 2018
Thanks so much, Eric :)
Colleen S. July 20, 2018
Artificial Vanilla extract. Taste just like a boxed cake. People love it.