The Cake Mix Doctor

by Anne Byrn

Published by Riverhead Books

454 pages, 1999

Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor

by Anne Byrn

Published by Workman Publishing

496 pages, 2001

Cake Mix Magic

by Jill Snider

Published by Robert Rose

192 pages, 2001




Let Them Eat Cake Mix

Reviewed by Carem Bennett


In this age of busy working lives, cake mix cookbooks have become more and more popular. Who has time to make a chocolate cake from scratch? Who has time to make biscotti, when you can just buy them with your latte at Starbucks? Today's conveniences, however, have not replaced the caring and sense of uniqueness that goes into homemade treats. Cake mix modifications enable even the busiest of us to bring something special to our dessert course and family celebrations. Who needs to know it comes out of a box?

Cake mix variations enable inexperienced bakers to create challenging desserts without hassle. Who knew you could use a cake mix to make tiramisu? Cake mix cookbooks are a good alternative for those times when you really want to bake, but you just don't have the time to start from scratch.

Did you ever see Steel Magnolias? Do you remember the scene at the wedding when they're cutting into the armadillo groom's cake? It was a red velvet cake and it looked like the poor armadillo was bleeding. Did it make you wonder if you could make that cake? On page 152 of The Cake Mix Doctor author Anne Byrn tells us how. In addition to a movie classic, this easy-to-use cookbook includes recipes for cakes, biscotti, bars, cookie pops and even tiramisu.

My favorite recipe in this book is the Turtle Cake. It's easy to make and usually a crowd pleaser. I've brought it to cookouts and church council meetings and it disappeared without so much as a crumb left on the plate. It disappears even faster when it's warm. The recipe calls for a little planning, though: you need to have caramels and pecans standing by. Preparing it also takes some patience as you have to cook half of it, layer in the caramel and then cook the rest. The recipe, though, is clearly spelled out and there is no guesswork involved. The format of the directions enables even the novice baker to be successful.

My only real criticism of The Cake Mix Doctor is that it's only available in soft cover. At 454 pages, it's a fairly thick book and it will only stay open to your page when you anchor the sides down or use a kitchen cookbook holder. While the recipes are easy to follow, I found that the book itself was clumsy in a kitchen environment.

I use The Cake Mix Doctor often, especially when I need something tasty and quick. The ingredients for the majority of the recipes are things that I always have on hand in my kitchen: butter, eggs, water, chocolate chips, instant pudding and milk. The color photographs included are excellent and help to set your expectations on what exactly you're going to bake.

The Cake Mix Doctor -- published in 1999 -- has been so successful for Byrn, it was fairly predictable she'd come up with a sequel. Focusing on chocolate was a natural way to go and with Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor Byrn has cooked up a sequel quite worthy of the original.

My personal favorite recipe from this book is "A Lighter Chocolate Pound Cake" on page 109. I used this recipe for a three-dimensional stand-up teddy bear cake with great success. No one even noticed that it was lower in fat. The cake has a thick texture that is perfect for specialty cake pans.

As if the recipes themselves were not enough, there are tips and tricks sprinkled throughout Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor . For example, "How to cut the first slice of cake like a pro" on page 35. These hints and tricks really add value to this book.

While lighter recipes are included in this cookbook, Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor is not for the cholesterol conscious. Many of the recipes begin with adding a stick of butter to the cake mix. While it tastes delicious, the nutrition information is not provided.

I use this book often -- the speckled remnants of chocolate cake mixes are my witness to this!

Jill Snider proves the versatility of cake mixes in her book Cake Mix Magic: 125 Easy Desserts…Good as Homemade. Snider uses basic cake mixes to create Pineapple Mandarin cakes, Lemon Glazed Cheesecake Squares and even a Chocolate Yule Log. In total, there are 156 recipes in the book.

The most popular recipe in this book -- as voted by my household -- is the Chocolate Nut Bars, found on page 148. The recipe only uses ingredients that I readily have on hand: chocolate cake mix, eggs, butter, brown sugar, canned icing and water. The recipe is simple, easy-to-follow and tastes great.

While I had success with the Chocolate Nut Bars, many of the recipes in the book rely on ingredients that I don't always stock. For example, sour cream, cream cheese, light cream, plain yogurt and heavy cream are called for in many of the recipes. Because these ingredients spoil quickly, I only buy them when I'm planning on doing some baking. Since the idea of working with cake mix is a shortcut to excellence for cooks on the go, adding in a lot of more difficult to stock items seems a bit counterproductive.

The format of the book makes it easy to use. The pages utilize white space effectively and the sidebars containing tips and variations really add value. However, the recipes lack nutritional information. In today's health conscious society, nutrition information is essential, even if the recipes are far from health conscious. This is something I'd love to see added in future editions.

In a side-by-side (ahem) taste test, Anne Byrn's books come out ahead. The photographs alone tip the scales for me. With over 150 recipes in Cake Mix Magic, there are only 11 pictures of cakes, and no decorating ideas or tips. Both of Byrn's books feature pictures of all of the cakes and ideas to help you decorate and present them. | November 2002


Carem Bennett is a freelance writer and cake decorating enthusiast.