Last month, for my son's very first birthday, I was determined to make his birthday cake. Determined, but … busy.
Lacking a full afternoon to devote to baking, as well as the culinary prowess a from-scratch cake would require, I knew I'd be resorting to boxed mix. But I still wanted my cake to be fancy, since my son, Julian, has a bit of a refined palate. (Just kidding. He eats plain yogurt for basically every meal.)
In an attempt to make the cake pretty, I bought small round pans and cake wraps, to prevent the layers from doming. (It worked! Very cool invention.) But what about the taste? As luck would have it, there are plenty of easy ways to make boxed cake mix taste like it's from some fancy-schmancy bakery. Even better, most are super easy, with items you probably already have in your kitchen.
1. Add an extra egg
Adding an extra egg to a boxed cake recipe is a longtime trick to amp up the moisture and density. Most box recipes call for three eggs — try four and you'll be pleasantly surprised.
2. Swap milk for water
If the recipe calls for a cup of water, try a cup of milk instead. I used whole milk, but any milk, including non-dairy ones, should work just fine. This gives the mixture more fat and flavor, which means a more delicious cake.
Pro tip: Try adding milk and an extra egg. I did this for my son's actual birthday cake, which turned out to be perhaps the moistest cake I've ever eaten.
All the boxed cakes I've made in the past have been really light and fluffy (not a bad thing), but this was completely different. It was a solid cake, in all senses of the word. Plus, it was just as delicious days later because of the added moisture.
3. Or try coffee … or ginger ale!
Instead of water, considering something else to add flavor. I came across a lot of recommendations to swap coffee for water, especially in chocolate cakes, to achieve a richer, deeper chocolate flavor.
If the recipe calls for 1 cup of water, substitute 1 cup of hot coffee, for example.
I tried this, and in practice, it made the batter smell really good, although I couldn't really tell the difference once the cake was baked. Maybe my taste buds aren't all that sophisticated, but it just tasted like chocolate cake to me. (My mother-in-law, however, swears that she was awake all night after eating a slice.)
One fun perk of adding coffee to a recipe is that you can technically call your chocolate cake a mocha cake, which at least sounds fancier.
Not into the coffee-chocolate combo? If you're making a yellow cake, the Pioneer Woman suggests adding ginger ale instead of water for extra flavor.
4. Add mayonnaise
This might sound weird at first, but think about it: mayo is mostly just egg yolks and oil, which are already in the cake anyway! Once again, the logic here is that the mayo will add moisture, which we've already established is a very good thing when it comes to cakes.
I added a couple generous spoonfuls to a yellow cake recipe and it turned out great. Better than usual? Maybe a little. The difference wasn't all that noticeable, but I'd still say it was worthwhile.
Out of mayo? Try adding a bit of sour cream or Greek yogurt to a cake for a similar result.
5. Add a box of instant pudding
Another tip is to toss in a box of instant pudding — just the powder; don't prep the pudding first.
I was skeptical of this at first, since all the other tips I came across focused on adding moisture to a cake. It seemed to me that adding a box of dry mix to another box of dry mix and not increasing any amount of liquid would just lead to a very dry cake.
That's not what happened, though. I won't try to explain the science, but the cake I made with this technique was fantastic — spongy and moist, but not overly so. I used chocolate pudding and devil's food cake, but feel free to experiment with flavors you like (butterscotch pudding and vanilla cake sound pretty good to me!).
However you do it, it's pretty easy to make a boxed cake taste better — and the best part is that most of these tips are foolproof. Have fun experimenting!