Cake Mix + Creativity = Joy. No. 35
A new book, plus 7 bonus pre-order recipes
I SPENT LAST YEAR BAKING HUNDREDS OF CAKES testing a new Cake Mix Doctor cookbook. When my husband volunteered to dash to the grocery, he knew without asking to buy butter and eggs. I tasted cakes with my friend Martha on the porch even when temps shot into the 90s. It was our pandemic project.
Today is the book’s pre-release day - the official debut! I am sharing iPhone photos and a few studio pics so you can see what’s inside. Details for the pre-order goodies - 7 Bonus Unpublished Recipes you can start baking today! - are HERE.
Let me start by saying this new book is more beautiful than the original CMD - by a long shot! - but it’s not so fancy that it’s not doable. Only one recipe calls for a pastry bag, and that’s my riff on the Costco sheet cake. (You can always snip the corner off a Ziplock bag…)
The book has 50 of the CMD fan-favorite recipes retooled using today’s smaller cake mixes, plus 125 new recipes for cookies, cake pops, baby cakes, skillet cakes, petit fours, loaves, vegan cakes, cupcakes, gluten-free, a little sugar-free, everything you asked for. Yes, I read every one of your emails!
But first, especially for those of you who don’t know the Cake Mix Doctor, I’m going to share how it started.
Flashback 1: Why I wrote the Cake Mix Doctor in the first place.
In the fall of 1998 my three children were young, and family life was someplace between manic and frantic.
We had lots of birthdays and bake sales so baking took place late at night when my kids were in bed. I was often tired, and it was so easy to make a yellow sheet cake or chocolate cupcakes by opening a box of cake mix, adding a few ingredients from the fridge, and slathering on my mom’s chocolate icing.
I wrote about “doctoring up” cake mixes in the local newspaper, and that story went out onto the wire services and was so popular it was picked up by newspapers across the country.
Nashville readers deluged me with recipes of their own, and that’s where I got my favorite recipes for strawberry cake, banana cake with caramel frosting, and Stacy’s Chocolate Chip Cake, one of the most popular CMD recipes ever. Sensing I was onto something, I wrote a quick book proposal, and my agent shopped it to a half-dozen publishers.
The Cake Mix Doctor - an inexpensive paperback with postage stamp-sized photos at the front - made its first national appearance on QVC, and we sold out in less than five minutes. I baked those cakes in Nashville, flew them with me, and frosted them on site.
On the second segment we hired a stylist to help, but it was always hands-on. I recall the relief I felt when the book took off and resonated with people.
Flashbacks 2 and 3: Stocking up and taking stock.
Before I started testing recipes for the CMD, I wanted to get ingredients in house so I could be efficient and bake multiple cakes while my infant son John napped. So I went to the local H.G. Hill’s grocery, grabbed a cart, and filled it with cake mix.
As I stood in the checkout line and greeted friends and neighbors - this was the old-fashioned kind of grocery where you ran into everyone you knew - their eyes fixed on my cart. And I’m not sure it was pity or horror that raced through their minds. I just hope they weren’t planning to buy a mix because I had cleaned off the shelf!
I baked during the day and wrote at night when my family was asleep. And there was a nice rhythm to it. Bake, eat, type, sleep, repeat.
But near the end, when I had greased and floured the last cake pan, my mother had a doctor’s appointment, and then another, and then a biopsy, and then she shared with us the heartbreaking news that she had stage IV breast cancer.
Had it not been for a few good friends who stepped in and typed and edited recipes, I wouldn’t have met my deadline. My mother lived to see the Cake Mix Doctor published and was my cheerleader, watching me on Good Morning America and calling all her friends to watch, too. She died the day after Thanksgiving the next year, and it has been a long two decades without her.
Life lesson: You don’t have to please everybody.
One of the hardest things I learned as a naive author flying back and forth across the country is that not everyone is going to love what you write. And that’s ok.
Some of my contemporaries in the media rolled their eyes at Better Than Sex Cake and Darn Good Chocolate Cake and other cult-favorite recipes. These naysayers didn’t understand that creativity and joy were at the root of doctoring up a cake mix. And this is why my book was so successful.
They didn’t understand in that nerdy baking sort of way the fun that comes from a new pan or a different frosting recipe or covering the entire top of the cake with raspberries or the rush of joy you feel when you bake a cake for someone and they just love it.
The fact that I used a cake mix, to them, was taboo. I was clearly writing about cake mixes in a from-scratch world.
I remember that winter day in a St. Paul, Minnesota, food writer’s kitchen.
She was baking a scratch cake and I was making my yellow cake with chocolate frosting. She set a timer because she thought she could prep and bake her cake as quickly as mine and prove that mixes don’t save time.
But obviously, she didn’t know I am just a tiny bit competitive and eyeing the snow piled on her deck outside, I carefully carried my hot cake layers from the oven and nestled them into the snow to cool. And while they cooled, I went back inside and made the frosting and spread it around the cake, and came in first.
Plus, I made my flight home - that was the greater victory! I didn’t want to be snowed in at the Minneapolis airport!
Accessibility, affordability and the beauty of shortcuts.
I still think cake mixes save time. And they make a lot less mess if you have a small kitchen. They are affordable, and a lot of people rely on the economy of a mix. For the book, I interviewed cookbook author Von Diaz about her mother’s rum cake, which starts with a yellow cake mix, and she explained the deep personal nostalgia behind that cake.
And using a cake mix at this moment in time is ironically cutting-edge. You can make a vegan cake out of it by simply adding sparkling water or whipped garbanzo bean liquid. You can make your white buttercream frosting even whiter using plant butter. You can tint cake batter green by using matcha (tea) powder.
And some professional chefs just gravitate to the retro taste of cake mix. Look on Instagram and TikTok or in a Christina Tosi book. She loves yellow cake mix flavor so much she uses a cake mix to make cake crumbs and frosting. I, on the other hand, have done everything under the sun to get rid of the artificial cake mix taste. So it’s pretty ironic how the world changed in a decade or two.
At the end of day, this book is about creating a cake that when you taste it you wouldn’t believe it started with a mix. And I continue what my mother preached years ago... that you can get away with a cake mix if you make your own homemade frosting.
That was the heart and soul of the Cake Mix Doctor. And now with a new book and a fresh new title, nothing has changed!
What are your favorite Cake Mix Doctor recipes?
A New Take on Cake PRE-ORDER with 7 bonus recipes to bake now! Like this Roasted Plum and Honey Skillet Cake…
Click HERE to see a list of retailers to pre-order the book and instructions on how to receive the 7 free recipes once you’ve ordered.
Bake and share! Follow me on Instagram - @annebyrn. Send me your photos of these pre-order cakes, and I’ll share them on my Instagram stories!
SUBSCRIBER THURSDAY: My 15 Favorite Cake Mix Hacks
Let’s continue the conversation! I share 15 all-time favorite ways to doctor up a cake mix - many of them recent discoveries. For free subscribers, here’s a chance to become a paid subscriber and eligible for the August drawing, which is a beautiful cast-iron Bundt pan from Lodge, one of my favorite Tennessee companies.
One last thing! The inside of the Strawberry Smash Cake looks like this: