Boxed Cake Mixes Taught Me How to Bake

"Mastering the few steps of baking cake mix galvanized my confidence and whetted my ambition."

Simply Recipes

The taste and smell of yellow cake batter are etched into my sense memory like the springy crumb of the baked cake itself. Licking a beater or two was not enough, and inevitably I’d outright dip a soup spoon in there, savoring the illicit treat and its full-throttle imitation vanilla, slightly astringent from the cake flour.

We’re talking about batter from a boxed cake mix, of course. Is there any other kind? The concept of cake being made from flour, butter, and sugar was not even conceivable to me until I was in my tweens. Cake mix was a staple at our house, and I loved preparing it even more than I craved eating the cake it produced. 

I cut my baking teeth on cake mixes of the 1980s. My mother was not a big baker when I was a kid, in part because she was busy working, and in part because her own mother, my grandma, had once been a prolific home baker who tempered her otherwise stoic manner by concocting sweet treats from scratch to dole out to her four kids: pies, cinnamon rolls, cookies. Once my mom became a parent herself and my grandmother died, baking carried too much of an emotional weight; mom missed her own mother, and baking her feelings was simply too fraught with grief.

Thus, we had cake mixes. There was no house brand. Mom got what was on sale, anything from Duncan Hines to Pillsbury to Betty Crocker. We always had at least a few boxes in our overstocked pantry in the basement. She likely did things with them, but I’m not sure what, as my memories of her baking cakes at home, ripe for the snacking, are few. 

This unbearable lack of cake is specifically what drove me to get into the mixes and bake them myself. I recall doing this unsupervised, on weekends or after school. If mom helped out, it was minimal, like showing me where she kept her pans and cooking oil. The rest I figured out on my own, but not really–the box said everything it needed to say. 

The “my kid could make this” factor is the bedrock of cake mix’s endurance. These things are designed to be foolproof and deliver light, tender, and moist cakes every single time. While absolutely minimal, the box directions are unquestionably clear. At eight years old, I wasn’t ready for a full-fledged cake recipe, but the box mix gave me steady footing and confidence. I could beat it by hand and it still worked. The vegetable oil that the boxed mixes call for meant I could bake at a moment’s notice instead of waiting for butter to soften—important for kids, who are not known for patience or planning in advance. I baked yellow cupcakes and experimented with inserting marshmallows in the batter. I baked devil’s food layer cakes and assembled them before they’d properly cooled. Since we had no ready-made tubs of frosting, I tried my hand at the One-Bowl Buttercream on the back of the Hershey’s Cocoa tin using sticks of reduced-fat margarine. It’s possible my creations looked like disasters, but I was pleased with them; at least the cake part tasted great.

By the time I began using them, cake mixes had been precision engineered for decades. America’s first cake mix debuted in 1929; earlier renditions included powdered eggs, but as the decades rolled on, companies found that calling for fresh eggs resonated better with consumers. The fresh-egg cakes tasted superior, but more importantly, bakers felt emotional ownership over the finished cake itself. I certainly did; cracking the eggs made it feel like I was making a grown-up cake. Because I was.

"There’s truly a direct line between the kid I was, following instructions in 14-point font on a cardboard box, and the recipe professional I am today."

One fateful day, a cake craving struck and our cake mix reserves were depleted. There was nothing else to do but pull mom’s Better Homes and Gardens cookbook from the shelf and try following a proper recipe. The resulting cake was recognizably a cake, but it was dense, dry, and tough. But in the ensuing years, I did get better at following actual recipes. Mastering the few steps of baking cake mix galvanized my confidence and whetted my ambition. I branched out to baking and cooking from scratch, from chocolate crinkles to meatloaf. I didn’t have to depend on other people to feed me. It was glorious.

Fast forward 35 years years and I’m lucky enough to have written three cookbooks and be part of the team here at Simply Recipes. There’s truly a direct line between the kid I was, following instructions in 14-point font on a cardboard box, and the recipe professional I am today. A successful recipe gets you from point A to point B with no deadweight. It’s surprisingly hard to achieve this, and I think of the infallibility of cake mix when a recipe gets wordy, or its tone too haughty. 

On a recent grocery store trip I agreed to buy a box for my tween daughter, who (unlike my younger self) is generally disinterested in cooking and absolutely terrible at following written instructions. If she can pull off cake mix, maybe she’ll get a taste for the satisfaction of feeding herself, too.