DOCTORED UP CUPCAKES/CAKES
Slightly different strategy today: I’m going to teach you my cake witchcraft.
Of course, it’s not real witchcraft–not enough jars of dirt for that–but it’s basically how I manage to make really good cakes when I’ve got three kids and an absurd lack of time (like, really, Isaac–you couldn’t sleep for another 20 minutes at least? No? Had to do a 45 minute nap today? I’m not bringing you downstairs yet, you’ll just have to entertain yourself for a little bit), coupled with low enough self-esteem that the idea of making a cake the “correct” way scares the piss out of me!
What I do, therefore, is cheat: I use box mixes. And this apparently happens quite a lot in bakeries and similar places–it’s just quicker and easier to get the measurements right when they’re measured out for you beforehand. The trick is just to use slightly richer ingredients and compensate for the plastic flavoring, and the results end up being absolutely amazing.
- Your favorite box cake mix
- Whole milk or buttermilk
- 4-5 eggs or egg whites (see notes below)
- Butter (salted or unsalted, depending on your taste)
- Additional flavoring (see notes below)
The big thing with this recipe is that it’s not so much a recipe as a series of tips to make your box cake taste like you got it from a bakery instead of Betty Crocker. The ingredients above are substitutions for the ingredients you’d usually add to a box cake mix, so the resulting dessert will be much richer and more flavorful.
Your milk/buttermilk will replace the water in the recipe because, let’s be real here, how many from scratch cake recipes are like “also, add SO MUCH WATER”? None of them, that’s how many. Usually, you’ll want to stick with whole milk, but I’ve found that using buttermilk for red velvet produces really nice results. Whichever you choose, you’ll want to use as much milk or buttermilk as the box suggests for water.
Most cake recipes call for three eggs, but to make your cake or cupcakes extra rich and amazing, you’ll want to add 1-2 more. I always end up adding two more because baking is my one area to be extra, and I’ve yet to hear a complaint about this. You’ll also want to crack your eggs into a separate bowl to make sure you don’t have any bad eggs/can fish out any shells that get into the cracked egg.
Another note about eggs: if you’re baking a white or angel food cake (or, if you’re me, lemon cake), (a) you’re brave; and (b) you’ll want to beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and add ⅛ tsp cream of tartar per egg white to make sure they keep their fluffiness. You’ll add the egg whites at the very end of your mixing and fold them in gently–the end result will be a gorgeous white, fluffy, delicate cake.
You’ll replace your oil with melted butter, but you’ll also double the amount you add. Melt the butter long enough beforehand that it’s no longer hot when it’s time to add it to your batter; for most recipes, this will end up being about a cup (or two sticks) of melted butter. Using unsalted butter is great for controlling the overall salt content of the cake or cupcakes, but I also really like salt?
Finally, flavor enhancers are going to vary on what kind of cake you’re making. Vanilla extract is a good standby overall, if you’re not sure what you want to add to the cake mix, but you can really get creative with add-ins. Some ideas:
- While vanilla extract is a good standby, you can look into other extracts as well. I’ve always gotten a lot of love when I add orange extract to vanilla buttercream frosting. Almond extract is great, along with peppermint and rum.
- Replace half the milk with a fruit juice that complements the flavor (e.g., orange, lemon, lime, etc.). Or all, if you like; that said, don’t replace all of the milk with alcoholic liquids.
- Espresso powder does amazing things for any cake that tends towards chocolatey. You can get it in decaffeinated form, and it legitimately makes your cake taste other worldly.
Once you’ve baked your cake, you can continue to improve on it, even when using canned frosting like the lazy person I am. For example:
- Brush the cake with simple syrup (boil one cup of sugar in one cup of water until dissolved and allow to cool), which will keep it moist.
- Add some of those flavor enhancers to your frosting before you spread it and whip it for a few minutes to add some air.
- Use jam, jelly, or other fruit preserves in the center of the cake.
I’m thinking about cake and cupcakes because I’m diving into my second-busiest time of the year as a mom. The cupcakes are the first Big Busy Thing of the season: I volunteered to make 26 Halloween cupcakes for Sam’s kindergarten class because I love baking. This past Sunday, I braved insane crowds and hit up Wegmans and Michael’s for almost everything I need to make them spectacular (I say almost because the awesome bag of Halloween candy I got to top the cupcakes turned out to have a lot of NOT awesome candy in it, so I’m heading up to Target sometime in the next week to get another bag while the Wegmans bag is now relegated to the “we never get trick-or-treaters, but just in case” pile). I have to say, I’m pretty excited about them, and if I have enough energy after I make them, I’ll probably end up baking brownies after Halloween because my birthday is November 5 and I like brownies more than cake.
So it’s my birthday November 5, my mom’s birthday November 12 (WHAT KIND OF CAKE DO YOU WANT MOM??), then driving down to Texas for Thanksgiving (have I talked about that yet? I should talk about that), then Christmas and New Year’s, and then I can breathe for another two or so months before the busy stuff starts back up again.
I’m breathing right now. I’m focusing on things I do because I enjoy them– well, no, that’s not how I want to phrase that. I enjoy baking for myself, for my mom. I’m excited about this trip to Texas, and I’ve basically been prepping Christmas since May. So I do enjoy all of the busyness, but I guess the difference with the last couple of weeks is that it doesn’t feel as hustly and bustly. It’s more “this is a fun thing to do and we can do it or not” as opposed to “I genuinely enjoy doing this and it’s also important that I do it.”
Which is all to say, we’ve been to two (2) fairs in the last week.
The first was the Topsfield Fair, which bills itself as the oldest county fair in the country, which… maybe? I don’t know. All I know is that it’s the location of some of my earliest childhood memories. My parents took us there every year for years and years (I completely forget why we stopped going?). This year, they wanted to go back and wanted us to join them with the kids, so we all packed up and hoofed it across the state to the Topsfield Fair grounds, about an hour to an hour and a half away, depending on traffic (most of which was right outside the fair).
The drive itself was probably the only bad part of the day, because Isaac got carsick and Kyle didn’t have cash to pay to park, so we had to go find an ATM after pulling into the parking lot (which resulted in a lot of frantic texts from my mom, who watched us go through the whole routine: “where are you going?? That was you right?? Is everything okay??” and most of these because the fairgrounds don’t have very good 4G). Once we parked and got Isaac out of his pukey clothes (and Carrie into a sparkly skirt and tights and boots), everything started going well.
Sam had the best time of all of us, which is par for the course. I didn’t know if he’d enjoy it or not because he’s not generally into agriculture things, and as a general rule, the Topsfield Fair is about agriculture. They have giant pumpkin contests and livestock contests and a greased pole and a duck race and things like that, none of it the usual fare for my kid whose favorite things are Star Wars, Minecraft, Legos, and space, sometimes in that order.
But Sam had a blast. He and I went down one of the giant slides together…
(shown: me having regrets)
…before heading to check out the produce barn…
(this year’s winning pumpkin–and a gourd behind him lolol)
…and then hurrying to the poultry barn, which ended up being the day’s clear favorite. Sam got to hold a chick and fell in love. He decided he wanted a pet chicken, which Kyle and I told him “maybe when you’re older” (which translates to “like maybe when you have your own house” because I’m all for chickens but I do not want to be the one cleaning the coop, thanks). Unfazed, he proceeded to feed as many chickens as could figure out how to get the chicken feed out of the little cup he received (which ended up being about ⅗ of the ones he addressed with it).
And he pet a calf and he met some goats and he watched honeybees and he had slow churned Oreo ice cream and won at a midway darts and chased Kyle through a “haunted” fun house.
I’ll be honest: county fairs are not my speed at all. They’re a bit too much sensory overload, with the blinking lights and ringing bells and the barkers at top volume… but the overwhelmed exhaustion at the end of the day was totally worth it for how much fun Sam had.
Much more my speed was the second fair of the week, King Richard’s Faire, our local Renaissance Fair (faire? I can never decide?).
Kyle and I have been Renaissance Fair(e) people since we started dating; one of my earliest trips down to Texas was during Scarborough Renaissance Faire, about an hour from where Kyle grew up. We went together, loved it, and kept going back as long as we lived in Texas. When we moved up to Massachusetts, we switched to King Richard’s Faire, which is significantly less hot and significantly less gigantic… which makes it perfect for a family with twin toddlers and a five-year-old.
(I mean, aside from the giant tree roots that make strollers an adventure, but that’s neither here nor there)
We had a much more relaxed time at King Richard’s Faire, mostly wandering about, watching a few shows (like Jacques ze Whipper, which was delightful), and letting the kids run around in quieter areas while we people watched. The weather was gloriously autumnal, with highs only in the low 60s and not a cloud in the sky. We spent WAY too much money on food and tickets, but honestly, I’d do it again a hundred times over. It’s a great fair, and I genuinely felt sad that we had to leave when we did.
I think the reason I end up preferring King Richard’s Faire boils down to that it’s a quieter, more relaxed place. It’s kind of an escape from reality–for those hours we were there, we were in a fantasy pseudo-Renaissance realm that just had this really pleasant aura about it (not a literal New Agey aura, but more of the general feel of people around the fair). The air was full of the scent of wood fires and incense and roast meat, the trees dappled our arms and the ground with shade, pipes and drums played faintly from all corners, and it just felt really relaxing.
Less sensory overload. That’s what it boils down to; I enjoyed the Topsfield Fair, but I didn’t feel as exhausted when we got home from King Richard’s. I’d love to do both again next year, but this time going into the former with the expectation that it’s going to wear me out and also avoiding the giant slide like the plague.
But in the meantime, we’ve got to plan for our big trip next month, and I will write about that the next time I write here (along with Halloween probably? We’ll see). Until then…