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Flour Girl: Bake Sale Rx

If you are familiar with Anne Byrn, a.k.a. the Cake Mix Doctor, you likely already have an opinion about her methods of treatment: Either she's or a savior or a cheater.

The Cake Mix Doctor's Bake Sale goodies, clockwise from top right: Best Red Velvet Cake, Bake Sale Caramel Cupcakes, Easy Chocolate Cookies, Nancy's Cinnamon Swirl Coffee Cake. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

You might be surprised where I stand on this. I'm a big fan of whole foods and from-scratch cooking. Nothing can replace the satisfaction or the nutrition of making dishes from pure ingredients. But . . . there is a time and place for shortcuts.

In her newest release, "The Cake Mix Doctor Returns!" (Workman Publishing, 2009, $15.95), Byrn saves time with 160 recipes that still allow you to present something homemade. Almost.

Recipe Included

If you get asked to bring something edible to teacher meetings or class bake sales, this book is a must-have. Your kids can help or even make the recipes themselves, depending on their kitchen skills.

Byrn's approach always calls for from-scratch frostings and sauces. Plenty of her recipes use fresh ingredients. For those of us who grew up with the processed tastes of the 1970s and '80s, even the Cake Mix Doctor creations that are made up of a box-of-this and a can-of-that have a comforting familiarity in texture and aroma.

I asked newsroom colleague Stephen Lowman to help sample from the book. Even though he was in the middle of moving to a new apartment, he was able to whip up Nancy's Cinnamon Swirl Coffee Cake and the Best Red Velvet Cake. The coffee cake was meltingly delicious and easy to transport. Its optional glaze should be mandatory.

I made the Bake Sale Caramel Cupcakes and Easy Chocolate Cookies -- emphasis on the "Easy." The Quick Caramel Frosting in the photo that accompanied the recipe looked whipped and sat high atop the cupcakes. In order to get this effect you would need to let the frosting cool and then use a mixer to whip air into it. The recipe directions in the book recommend applying the frosting more as a glaze, while still warm, then waiting for it to set.

I ended up dipping the cupcakes in the warm frosting instead. Because the frosting is so sweet, I think a thin coating works best. If you want a bit more of the caramel goodness, dip the cupcakes again after the first coating has set (in only minutes).

Even if you only keep Byrn's book around for emergencies, it's good to know her prescriptions are in your corner.

--Leigh Lambert

Bake Sale Caramel Cupcakes
22 to 24 cupcakes

MAKE AHEAD: Store these cupcakes in a cake saver or under a glass dome at room temperature for up to 5 days or refrigerate for up to 1 week. Freeze the cupcakes, in a cake saver or wrapped in aluminum foil, for up to 3 months. Let the cupcakes defrost overnight at room temperature before serving.

For the cupcakes
1 package (18.25 ounces) plain yellow cake mix
3 tablespoons vanilla instant pudding mix
1 1/4 cups whole or low-fat milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the frosting
8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter
1/2cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup whole or low-fat milk
2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the cupcakes: Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Line 22 or 24 wells of a standard-size cupcake pan with paper liners.

Combine the cake mix, pudding mix, milk, oil, eggs and vanilla extract in the bowl of stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on low speed for 30 seconds. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl then increase the speed to medium and beat for 1 to 2 minutes.

Spoon or scoop a heaping 1/4 cup of cupcake batter into each paper liner, filling it no more than two-thirds full. Remove any empty liners. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the cupcakes are golden and the tops spring back when lightly pressed with a finger. Transfer the cupcakes (still in the pan) to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes, then carefully dislodge from the pan; let cool completely on the rack.

Meanwhile, make the frosting: Combine the butter and brown sugars in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring, until the mixture bubbles, then add the milk and stir to combine. When the mixture bubbles again, remove from the heat.

Add about 1 1/4 cups of the confectioners' sugar and the vanilla extract, whisking until smooth. Add the remaining 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar or as needed, but not so much so that the frosting thickens and hardens. Dip the tops of each cupcake into the frosting while it is warm, then return the cupcakes to the rack (upright) to cool and set. If you want a double coat, let the first coat harden (this will happen within minutes).

Per cupcake (using whole milk): 258 calories, 3 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 48 mg cholesterol, 186 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 27 g sugar

Nancy's Cinnamon Swirl Coffee Cake
16 to 20 servings

Be sure to use a plain cake mix that does not contain pudding.

MAKE AHEAD: Cover with aluminum foil and store at room temperature for up to 4 days or refrigerate for up to 1 week. Freeze in the pan(s), covered with aluminum foil, for up to 3 months. Defrost at room temperature overnight before serving.

For the cake
1 package (18.5 ounces) plain butter recipe golden cake mix
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

For the topping
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup finely chopped pecans (optional)
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

For the glaze
1 cup sifted confectioners' sugar
1 or 2 tablespoons whole or low-fat milk

For the cake: Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch metal cake pan with nonstick cooking oil spray, then dust lightly with flour, shaking out any excess flour.

Combine the cake mix, sour cream, oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract in the bowl of stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on low speed for 30 seconds, then stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Increase the speed to medium; beat for about 2 minutes, until the mixture lightens and is smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Pour half of the cake batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a spatula.

For the topping: Combine the brown sugar, pecans, if using, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle half of the topping evenly over the batter in the cake pan, then pour the remaining cake batter on the topping to create a final layer. Sprinkle the remaining topping on the second layer of batter. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until golden brown and the top springs back when lightly pressed with a finger. Transfer the cake pan to a wire rack; let sit for 20 minutes, or until barely warm.

For the glaze: Whisk together the confectioners' sugar and milk as needed in a liquid measuring cup, creating a thick, smooth glaze. Drizzle over the cooled cake. Let it set for a few minutes before serving.

Per serving (using whole milk; based on 20): 255 calories, 3 g protein, 29 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 48 mg cholesterol, 193 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 19 g sugar

By Leigh Lambert  |  October 8, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Flour Girl , Recipes  | Tags: Flour Girl, Leigh Lambert, cake, cookies, cupcakes, recipes  
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Sorry, but cake mix always tastes like cake mix, no matter what you do to doctor it up. Since it isn't particularly difficult to bake from scratch, I will continue to do so.

Posted by: margaret6 | October 9, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

I have made a few of the recipes from her original Cake Mix Doctor book and think they are quite good. I, too, prefer from scratch, but sometimes you just need something quick. I have noticed that a lot of her recipes call for plain cake mix that does not contain pudding. I have a very hard time finding these anymore, as most every mix is "extra moist" with pudding. Do you have any recommendations for a brand that doesn't have pudding?

Posted by: AmyH3 | October 9, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Although the Duncan Hines cake mixes describe themselves as "extra moist", they do not contain pudding.

Posted by: Barbara_in_Gambrills | October 14, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

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