When Anne Byrn wrote an article asking for recipes that started with doctoring up cake mixes, the response was so large that it was obvious she'd struck a chord.
Confirmation followed in the form of brisk sales of "The Cake Mix Doctor," her 454-page compilation of recipes and tips for baking cakes using box mixes.
It has shot to the top of the cookbook best-seller lists and has spawned an active Web site www.cakemixdoctor.com.
Ms. Byrn says "The Cake Mix Doctor" (Workman Publishing, $14.95, paperback; $25.95, hardcover) was not written for experienced home bakers.
"This book is for people who were buying cakes, who had given up on baking them," she explains in a recent phone interview. "It's for those people who are too busy to bake from scratch or have never been taught how to. If I can get them cooking and baking, I think the book has served a very useful purpose."
Cakes are comforting, plus they are associated with celebrations and rites of passage. Unfortunately, they are sometimes viewed as an ordeal to make, a mess to clean up, and a challenge to bake.
Using mixes, however, can make preparation easier and the results more predictable. And a mix cake can be made on the spur of the moment.
Cake manufacturers try to come up with variations of the classics, but Byrn says white, chocolate, and yellow mixes remain traditional favorites.
The important distinction, for her purposes, is whether the mix contains pudding or not. "Duncan Hines is what I call plain cake mix, meaning it has no pudding," Byrn says. "Betty Crocker and Pillsbury have pudding."
She doesn't give the nod to either kind, but says the visual and textural differences are a matter of personal preference. The pudding makes for a moister cake, but one that is heavier and tends to rise less.
"If you like a really moist cake with a bottom layer that sticks to the plate, pudding cakes are for you," Byrn says. "On the other hand, if you like to be able to cut a slice and move the entire slice to a plate, then you belong to the plain cake-mix camp."
Cake mixes are hard to ruin, but that isn't to say they're foolproof, and Byrn believes even a doctored mix comes out better if you know the basics of cooking from scratch.
For example, she says 10 to 15 minutes is the right amount of time to let a cake layer cool before turning it out of the pan. Also, the baker should zig-zag a knife through the batter to burst any large air pockets.
Because mixes contain emulsifiers, which keep fat and liquid from separating, cakes stay fresh longer (five to seven days at room temperature, Byrn says) than those made from scratch.
One downside of mixes is that they can contain traces of artificial flavoring. "It's more obvious in the [taste of] yellow cake mixes," Byrn says. "I've pretty much isolated it to be what they call vanillin."
There are many strategies for masking this taste, but her favorite is to use natural fruit flavors, such as grated orange and lemon rind. The best disguise, she believes, is peanut butter.
Chocolate cake mixes don't contain the telltale mix flavor. As a result, she suggests them as a good choice for snobbish bakers.
Frosting is of critical importance with any cake, Byrn says, which is why she heeds her mother's advice and always makes homemade frosting.
One thing learned from correspondence with readers of her cookbook is that people like to use 9-by-13-inch pans. "It's the most popular pan in America," Byrn says. "It's convenient, fast, and you can cover it and take it places."
The drawback is that the cake cools in the pan - so it sweats, condenses, and sinks in the middle.
People who live alone or just don't want a whole cake should consider baking several smaller cakes using mini Bundt pans, Byrn says. Or cut a cake in quarters after baking, eating one now and freezing the others for later - perhaps for when company's coming.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society