Food & Drink It's a piece of (cup)cake

Author Ann Byrn wants you to stop worrying and love the cake mix

Last month I fell in love with a cupcake at Central Market. Well, to be honest, I fell in love with six, each decorated with a bright buttercream flower - pansies, roses, and sunflowers - atop vanilla or chocolate cake. Together, in a clear plastic container, they looked as giddy and hopeful as a high-school prom corsage. And they tasted as swell as a first kiss: The cake was delicate and the frosting, a periwinkle blue flower with yellow stamens, was smooth and light and not overly sweet.

In Cupcakes! Ann Byrn shows readers how to make gourmet cupcakes from a box of store-bought cake mix, such as the Lemonade Angel Cake (above), a sweet-tart combination of angel food cake and lemonade, frosted with a cream cheese-buttercream frosting, and decorated with a sprinkling of crushed Lemonheads. (Photos by Susan Pagani)

Since then, I've been obsessed with the little cakes, which provide just enough pastry for the afternoon cup of tea and don't have to be shared - there's no fighting over who gets the flower. As it turns out, I'm not alone. September's InStyle Magazine declares the cupcake "hot," in a two-page spread listing stars from Alec Baldwin to Jay-Z to Katie Holmes who buy them at bakeries in New York and Los Angeles.

Into this friendly market comes Anne Byrn's latest, Cupcakes! From the Cake Mix Doctor, a how-to for home cooks longing to create their own but not from scratch. Byrn is known as the Cake Mix Doctor not for healing sick cakes, but for "doctoring up" lowly box-mix cakes with extra ingredients and real frosting. But, if the concept smacks of a lady's literary-club recipe annual, don't be fooled: The cupcakes are cute, naturally, but the recipes are well-conceived and the author is a straight talker. "On their own," she says, "cake mixes are boring and canned icings are dismal," but the former makes it easy for busy and beginning bakers to create worthwhile cakes and cupcakes with a high success rate.

Byrn wasn't always a cake-mix master. She has a culinary arts certificate from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris and served as the food editor at the Atlantic Journal-Constitution for 15 years before moving home to Nashville, Tennessee, where she was a food writer for the Tennesean. It was there that she first wrote a story about cake mixes. In the dog days of summer, she thought home cooks needed a cake recipe that didn't involve suffering long hours in a hot kitchen. "I was a scratch baker, a cake snob, so I didn't have a lot of experience with cake mix," she says. "But I found it had some redeeming qualities."

When Byrn asked readers to send in their cake-mix-based recipes for a follow-up story, she received 500 letters, some of which were included in the resulting book, The Cake Mix Doctor. Five years later, there are three books,, and a newsletter that goes out to 50,000 readers. Byrn says her books appeal to retired women and moms, many of whom have come to baking late in life and like the reliability of baking with a mix and recipes that use ingredients found at the local supermarket; you don't need a Central Market to bake from the Cake Mix Doctor books.

But you do need cake mix. Byrn recommends Duncan Hines because it is made with less pudding than Betty Crocker. A box of cake mix will yield only 12 pieces of cake, but 24 cupcakes - half the calories, yet another reason to love the cupcake.

During the recipe testing for Cupcakes! Byrn baked 5,000 cupcakes to devise 135 recipes ranging from the odd Pineapple Banana Smoothie to the classic Red Velvet to the crafty Monster Monkey, an over-sized banana cupcake decorated to look like a chimp.

I made the Lemonade Angel Cakes. A combination of angel food cake and lemonade, they were spongy and tart. The frosting was made with more lemonade, cream cheese, butter, and powdered sugar, which sounded like overkill, but was fluffy and not at all cloying. It took about 30 minutes, including baking, and, while a chef could have swirled and smoothed the buttercream better, with a sprinkling of crushed Lemonheads my cake-mix cupcakes looked like the real thing.

Cupcakes! is full of useful information - darker pans are more likely to burn light batter and recycled shirt boxes make great cupcake caddies - and by demystifying some of the steps, Byrn removes the intimidation factor. "The science intrigues me," she says. "I like to figure out what went wrong and what can I do to prevent that next time. Knowledge really is power, especially in baking; the more you bake, the better you'll get."

In the meantime, the Cake Mix Doctor is in: Add more batter to the pan if you want bigger, bakery-style cupcakes, add an extra egg if you want more loft, and add cream cheese if you want a rich cupcake that consistently rises to a pleasing dome. "And," Byrn adds, "if they don't rise, there's always lots of frosting."

Have a cup-a-cake, will travel

It was a dark and stormy morning. Suddenly, an egg timer went off. An oven door slammed. The maid screamed. Somewhere in San Antonio, the wheel of an CRV hit a crater-like pothole, and a cupcake was flung from the cup holder, bounced off the armrest, and rolled under the seat.

The Cup-a-Cake container takes the cupcake where only cookies dare to go: school, backpacking, road trips, field trips, duck hunting ...

Have no fear, the mess was averted before cupcake got in the car: The small cake was encased in a lightweight, yet durable, plastic Cup-a-Cake container, a set of prongs suspending its perfectly coiffed frosting from harm - not a shiny gold dragée or a chocolate curl out of place.

Invented by a clever group of Detroit mothers, Cup-a-Cake containers come in a range of pastel colors and feature a large clasp even small fingers can easily open. We found they sealed snugly and kept our cupcakes fresh and relatively cool. But the real genius is in the internal structure. We turned them upside down and sideways and tossed them across the table, and, if they tumped, the cupcake didn't budge.

But, niftiness aside, if you have a small kitchen, it's hard to justify an item that really only has one use, unless, of course, you regularly bake cupcakes `see related story, "It's a piece of cake," page 30`. The other downside is that the product is not available in San Antonio stores, but it can be ordered online at Cost is two for $6.

By Susan Pagani

Scroll to read more Flavor articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.