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Cake Mix Fix

I have a confession to make: I am a kitchen cook. I’ve never taken a class, and I don’t have culinary experience listed on my resume. My cooking is of the regular life variety – pieced together from recipes I have been given or ones I have seen.

Remember this?

As a 10-year old latchkey kid in the 1970s, I was part of that generation who learned to cook because Mom worked full-time and food needed to end up on the table. We didn’t have much money, so meals were simple and cheap. But oh, so good! Does anyone else remember Bisquick’s taco pie? Good stuff, that was. Tuna noodle casserole was right up there, too. It’s still one of my favorites, although I’m the only one who likes it.

These days, my kitchen experiments range from the simple to the complex, from soup to cheesecake. I still don’t have pots with copper bottoms or fancy dishes or top-of-the-line appliances. In fact, Jeff and I still have some of the original Corelle dishware from our single days nearly 30 years ago!

And my kitchen has a lot in common with a breadbox. We have yet to hit the lottery, though, so we decided we would rather hit Iceland this summer than blow through a wall to make it bigger.

I am not an out-of-a-box cook. Cake mixes and pre-packaged meals contain ingredients I cannot pronounce and do not want in my body. I would much rather bake from scratch, choosing the best quality ingredients I can find.

I also prefer to make my own frosting. Canned frostings are just too sweet for my taste, and there is a bit of a processed aftertaste that kind of sticks with me.

But not everyone has time for that. We live in a busy world, and cooking or baking from scratch is just not practical for many people. And hey – I don’t judge! There are some great mixes and starters and meal kits out there. Frosting out of a can is way better than no frosting at all. If that’s what you need to do to keep sane, then that’s what you need to do!

So when I needed to come up with a dessert for a birthday pot luck at work, I decided to play with a boxed cake mix, and add a little pizzazz. The result was so moist I almost didn’t take it to work.

The ingredients are simple, and start with your favorite cake mix. I used a French vanilla for this version, but chocolate would be an easy swap. Just adjust the pudding flavor to fit.

By the end of January, winter is kind of dragging on everyone, and we are longing for summer sunshine. Especially in Ohio, where the sun shines – well, almost never in the winter. A fruit filling between the layers and sugared blueberries for a garnish at least gave the illusion of vitamin D.

Those flavors just beg for a white chocolate buttercream, but again, go with your favorite. It’s cake. With frosting. I’m not sure you can go wrong with that!

Before I started mixing, I wanted to get the blueberries going. Sugaring a fruit garnish is a super easy yet elegant trick, but it requires cooling time and drying time. Prepping it first allowed those steps to happen while the cake was doing its thing, and cut my overall prep time.

Start by creating a simple syrup. Add one part sugar to one part water in a small saucepan. For example, one cup sugar to one cup water. Bring the mixture to a simmer until all sugar is dissolved.

Set aside to cool completely. Berries need to be firm if you are going to use them as a garnish. Warm simple syrup can cook the berries, leaving them soft.

Wash berries thoroughly, picking off any stems. It doesn’t matter if they dry at this point; you’re going to get them wet anyway.

Once the syrup has cooled, you need to coat the berries with it. I used roughly 3/4 cup of blueberries, so I only needed about 1/4 cup of syrup. Set the rest aside for sweetening lemonade – or mojitos!

Toss the berries gently, coating them completely. Drain off the excess.

Pour enough sugar to cover the berries into a separate bowl. Add the berries and toss gently.

Spread the coated berries on a tray or plate to dry while the cake is baking.

Now it’s time to mix up the cake. Preheat your oven to 350°F and heavily grease your pans.

Note: This cake works best with a deep pan such as a Bundt pan, but you can make layers (as I did) or turn this into cupcakes. Just be aware that the density of the cake keeps it from rising as much as usual, so you end up with a ‘shorter’ cake.


For the cake:

  • One (15.25 oz)box vanilla cake mix
  • One (4-serving size) box instant vanilla pudding
  • 16 oz. sour cream
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil (I prefer canola)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups chocolate or white chocolate chips (optional)

For the buttercream:

  • 4 oz baker’s white chocolate, broken into small pieces
  • 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), cool but not cold
  • 2 tsp CLEAR pure vanilla (brown vanilla alters the color of your buttercream)
  • 3-4 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • additional heavy whipping cream as needed for texture, up to 1/4 cup

For the cake:

In a large bowl (hello stand mixer!), mix all ingredients on low until combined.

The batter will be thicker than your usual batter, so don’t be surprised.

Pour batter evenly into prepared pans.


Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the cake is set. Allow the cake to cook in the pan for 10-15 minutes before placing a cake plate over the top and flipping the whole thing over.

Don’t you just love that golden color?

Let the cake layers cool completely while you make the buttercream.


For the buttercream:

Place the white chocolate in a microwavable bowl and add the 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream. Microwave on low in 30-second increments until chocolate is melted.

Stir until smooth.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, whip the butter until fairly smooth. At this point, I think my technique might be different from others. I add the first 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar and blend. I have found this helps smooth out the remaining chunks of butter, and I end up with a smoother buttercream.

Some bakers feel you should add the liquid ingredients first. Maybe they’re right, but my way has always worked so I go with it.

Add the vanilla, followed by 1/3 of the white chocolate. Blend thoroughly, then continue adding confectioner’s sugar, alternating with the white chocolate until everything is incorporated.

The tricky part with homemade buttercream is getting the consistency right. Too stiff and you’ll pull your cake apart. Too liquid and it will flow right off. To test yours, lift the beaters from the bowl. If the frosting slides off, you need to add more confectioner’s sugar. If it is very stiff, add heavy cream, one tablespoon at a time.

You can see in this picture that there are peaks in the buttercream, and it has formed clumps on the beater.


Assembly

Your first cake layer should be on a cake plate at this point (see above picture). Spread a thick layer of frosting evenly over the top of the layer. Don’t worry if the frosting extends beyond the edge, you will smooth it out at the end.

I wanted a filling for this layer cake, remember? I could have made a pastry cream (yum!), but elected to use a mixed berry jam made by my friend Emily from #emberryfarms. Whatever you choose, spread an even layer on TOP of your buttercream. (Don’t even get me started on what happens when your brain glitches and you try that in reverse! Ugh!) Remember, it will push out toward the edges as soon as you place the second layer on top. Stop about an inch from the edge so the filling does not end up mixing with the buttercream as you frost the sides.

Place the second layer on top, and frost with remaining buttercream. I wanted a more rustic look, so I wasn’t super worried about a smooth texture.

If you look closely, you will see that I inadvertently ‘pushed’ the top layer slightly to the side while I was frosting the sides. That’s an easy fix at this point because everything is still soft. Just use a spatula to gently slide the top layer back in place. Frost over any gaps.

Last step was to add the sugared blueberries in a little pile on top.

I am still working on how to give you all the best look at my baking, and I should have cut a far wider slice of this cake to let you peek inside. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking at 6:30 in the morning, as I also forgot to bring a ‘pretty’ plate for the slice I did cut.

Note the density of the cake layers, and the fact that the layer cake pans do allow the cake to ‘sag’ a bit in the middle. This problem does not occur with the Bundt pan. And I don’t really consider it a problem anyway because look at the thicker layer of frosting in that center! Thicker frosting = more glorious gooey-ness. And who wants to actually complain about that?!

Please feel free to email or post comments or questions. I have messed up my share of recipes, so I’m happy to help out!

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