Even though the best-quality cake mixes don’t completely live up to the taste of a cake made from scratch (thanks to the preservatives and additives needed to keep it shelf-stable), we’ve all probably made or eaten one at some point.
Whether you’re short on time, looking for convenience, or not a super-confident baker (yet!), sometimes life will call for a boxed cake mix. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to upgrade all sorts of boxed cakes mixes, from classic yellow cake to moist chocolate fudge cake.
Here are 10 sweet ways to make boxed cake mix even better—from enhancing it with different ingredients to transforming it into a different dessert entirely (cake batter ice cream, here you come).
A quick note on safety before we dive in: Boxed cake mix contains flour, which you shouldn’t be consuming raw if you’re worried about food safety. For any recipes and ideas that aren’t baked (like the ice cream), you can and should be cautious and bake the mix first. Simply spread the mix on a sheet pan and bake it for about 5 minutes at 350°F—keep a close eye on it and take it out before it begins to brown. Let it cool completely, then use it however you wish.
1. Up the Richness
Regardless of the type of boxed cake mix you’re using, one reliable approach to improving the flavor is to add 1 egg yolk in addition to the eggs already called for. If the instructions call for oil, you can also use melted butter instead. To really up the richness, add an additional 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter (this amount isn’t enough to adversely affect the texture or crumb).
If water is called for as the liquid, try using whole milk instead. You can also try mixing in up to 1/4 cup of sour cream or crème fraîche. I find this is most effective with chocolate cakes, as they tend to have a moister crumb to begin with.
2. Amplify the Flavor
Sometimes more is more—and this is one of those times. Take whatever flavoring is in your boxed mix, and add more of it: If you’re making a vanilla cake mix, add another teaspoon or two of vanilla extract, or a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste. For a chocolate cake mix, add a pinch of espresso powder (this will boost the chocolate flavor without adding any coffee taste). If it’s a coffeecake, add extra cinnamon. Lemon cake mix? Add some fresh lemon zest.
3. Add a Few Fun Mix-Ins
Just like they do with a pint of ice cream, mix-ins make almost any cake even better. A general rule of thumb: Stick with 1 cup (at most) of mix-ins. For vanilla or yellow cake mixes, try adding diced crystallized ginger, dried fruit, or fresh berries. For chocolate or vanilla cake mixes, try adding unsweetened shredded coconut, toasted chopped nuts, or chocolate chips.
You can also go beyond the basics and get more experimental: Fold in candied fennel seeds or crushed graham crackers (use up to 1/2 cup so you don’t risk the cake being too dry), or swirl in Nutella. You can add flavor in the form of spices too, like turmeric, saffron, cardamom, or even loose tea (I like matcha and Earl Grey best); use 1 to 2 teaspoons per box of cake mix.
4. Give it a Soak
Another method for adding flavor and moisture to your cake is to use a soak or syrup. Make a simple syrup (with a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water) and brush it onto your warm cake. You can flavor the simple syrup with pretty much anything (think: citrus, bourbon, coffee, honey, mint, you name it).
Don’t worry about the sugar content—the syrup adds moisture and flavor (if you’ve infused it with one) more than sweetness. If you do want it to skew on the sweeter side with a more caramelized quality, make a rich simple syrup (using a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water) with turbinado sugar.
5. Turn it Into Ice Cream
Cake and ice cream are perfect partners, so consider taking the pairing one step further. Instead of serving cake with ice cream, make cake batter ice cream.
Here’s how to do it: Divide your cake mix in half. Bake one half according to the package instructions; let it cool and crumble it into small chunks. Then, make a basic ice cream custard base (using any recipe you like for vanilla ice cream), but stir in 1 cup of the remaining dry cake mix per 1-quart batch of ice cream. I like to decrease the sugar in the ice cream recipe slightly, since the cake mix is sweet, but that’s up to you.
Finally, churn the ice cream according to the manufacturer’s instructions on your machine and, just before it’s fully frozen, add the baked cake chunks. If you want to really up the ante, you can also add sprinkles and a swirl of homemade buttercream frosting.
6. Raise the (Cereal) Bar
Rice Krispies Treats are pretty fantastic in their most basic form, but they’re also a good blank canvas for other flavors (like cinnamon and sugar, espresso and chocolate, or peanut butter).
Here’s where cake mix comes in: Start by making a regular batch of Rice Krispies Treats (you can also use other cereals like Kix or Cheerios). When you add the marshmallows to the melted butter, stir in 1/2 to 1 cup of dry boxed cake mix. The result? Cake batter bars! Be forewarned; these are very sweet. You can’t decrease the sugar too much since the marshmallow quantity is essential to getting the texture right, but if you’re into sweet desserts, then you’re set.
7. Make Cookies
“Soft-batch” or “soft-baked” cookies are a style of store-bought cookies that I’ve always loved. The texture is difficult to recreate at home; it’s more than just chewy or just soft, but rather some perfect combination of the two. As it turns out, boxed cake mix is the secret to pulling them off.
There are two methods to try—each yields a slightly different cookie, so experiment and see which you prefer. For the first method: Combine an entire box of dry cake mix with 1/2 cup of melted butter and 2 eggs. Mix into a dough, then drop large spoonfuls on a cookie sheet and bake at 350°F for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden.
The second method: Start with your favorite sugar cookie or chocolate chip cookie recipe and substitute 1 3/4 cups boxed cake mix for an equal amount of the all-purpose flour called for; bake them according to the recipe instructions and enjoy.
8. Use it for a Trifle
Boxed cake mix might not yield the most flavorful cake on its own, but you can combine it with from-scratch components to make a superior dessert. Enter: the trifle.
First, bake the cake according to the package instructions and let it cool. Once cooled, cut it into 2-inch chunks (or crumble it into large pieces). Next, make a homemade pastry cream or custard. You can go with a plain vanilla version or try something flavored, like chocolate, coconut, or coffee. You could also add ingredients to the warm custard or pastry cream to flavor it (sliced bananas or stirred-in almond paste would both work well). Let your custard or cream cool, and once it’s chilled, layer it with chunks of cake in a large bowl.
Consider adding other layers, too: whipped cream, a drizzle of caramel sauce or jam, or fresh fruit. Just make sure all of the components work together, flavor-wise. I like to let the finished trifle sit for about 30 minutes in the fridge so that the layers start to meld, but don’t wait too long before serving or the cake will start to get a bit mushy.
9. Waffle It
Thinking outside the box is a skill every baker would do well to master. Here, we’re taking it literally: Follow the instructions for making the batter but instead of baking the cake as the box directs, pour the batter into a heated and greased waffle iron. Use the same amount as you would of waffle batter, and cook it the same exact way. You’ll end up with cake in waffle form, complete with golden divots and crispy edges.
10. Bring on the frosting
For our final bit of cake inspiration, we’re doubling down on that cake-y flavor. Instead of baking the cake and frosting it with a traditional buttercream, frost it with cake batter frosting. You’ll end up with a cake-on-cake spectacular that’s worthy of the most celebratory birthday.
To make it, use a ratio of 1:1:3 (meaning 1 cup of softened unsalted butter to 1 cup of cake mix to 3 cups of confectioners’ sugar) and mix it as you would a standard buttercream. You can also add some boxed cake mix to a seven-minute frosting, a whipped cream-based frosting, or a cream cheese frosting; aim for 1/2 cup of boxed mix (maximum) per 3- to 4-cup batch of frosting.
Oh, and did I mention sprinkles? Adding them to your frosting is not—I repeat not—a bad idea.
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