The Cake-Mix Doctor
By Ann Byrn

1999. 454 pages, 150 recipes

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"This book began as a newspaper headline in early summer 1998. I wrote a food story in Nashville's morning newspsper on how to jazz up cake mixes using fresh lemon zest, or chocolate chips, or a spoonful of rum. I incorporated tips for turning each cake-baking session into a resounding success, and I invited readers to send me their favorite recipes to print in a sequel…Within a week 500 recipes had arrived via fax, mail, and computer."

Butterscotch Cashew Chewies

Chocolate Marble Gooey Cake

Orange Chiffon Cake

Lemon Biscotti

Cranberry Oat Crumble




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I guess it's the snob in me that feels compelled to issue a disclaimer for my reviewing a book called The Cake-Mix Doctor. So I want you to know that this book is not the real me. Then again, it may be the other real me who would like to come out of the closet every now and then: the other me who might cheerfully wear a Santa hat throughout the month of December; the other me who wouldn't furtively look around to see if anyone she knows is within sight before she looks at Family Circle in the Safeway check-out line; the other me who could offer her guests onion-soup mix dip without apology or irony.

Not that I'm militantly anti-cake mix. I really like angel-food cake made from a box and I happily eat cake-mix cupcakes at school bake sales. I have especially happy memories of an annual ritual my daughter Belle and I had when she was little: we would go to the store so she could pick out a cake mix that we would then make together for her birthday cake.

How could I possibly be attracted to a book that included recipes with names like "Sock It To Me Cake" and "Better Than Sex Cake"? A cookbook that contained a biscotti recipe whose principal ingredients were yellow cake mix and yellow Jell-O? How can I be sitting here telling you that I am crazy about a book called The Cake-Mix Doctor?

I probably wouldn't have even noticed The Cake-Mix Doctor if it hadn't been sent to me. Even then, I didn't give it much attention until I noticed Belle reading it with the intensity she usually reserves for the latest In Style magazine. "Mom, don't these look goood?" she said flipping through the pages of color photos that have all the book's delectations lined-up and labeled in the manner of yearbook class pictures. Look at recipes. Doesn't they look so easy? Let's make one of these sometime." Did I hear the word "Let's"? Any time your 17- year old actively seeks you out for a mother-daughter activity, you jump at the chance.

We first made the Butterscotch Cashew Chewies. How easy were they? Oh, they took maybe seven minutes to make (not including cooking time). How good were they? Way too good. (We're not big cashew fans, so we left them out.) All recipes I've tried here are so ridiculously easy they encourage spur of the moment spontaneity…assuming you have the appropriate cake mixes at hand. When I started testing recipes, what I did - in an uncharacteristic moment of foresight and efficiency - was make a list of all the mixes and other ingredients I'd need for my "must-try" recipes and rounded them up in a trip to Safeway, hoping that those same acquaintances I wouldn't want to catch me reading Family Circle wouldn't see that my shopping cart contained six boxes of cake mix, four boxes of vanilla instant pudding, one box of yellow Jell-O, two bags of butterscotch chips, and a tub of Cool Whip.

Most of the recipes have between 10 and 20 servings! Which is great if you're making something for a big gathering; or are on the bake-sale circuit; or have a crew of workmen in your house who you want to make a good impression on. This last case applied to me when my upstairs bathroom re-model coincided with testing recipes for The Cake-Mix Doctor. I'll never know if my offerings of Chocolate Marble Gooey Cake and Butterscotch Chewies played a part in the workmen's genial dispositions and excellent craftsmanship while they were sheet rocking the walls, tiling the shower, and untangling the ancient electrical system.

The author Anne Byrn is a seasoned food writer and former food editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You could argue that she's overqualified for the job of Cake-Mix Doctor and that she's wasting her time applying her years of experience to a cooking phenomenon that was designed to be a no-brainer. She devotes an entire chapter to" Cake Mix 101" in which she tells us the best way to grease and flour a pan, how and how long to store a cake, how to finesse frosting, and compiles a crib sheet of "Ten Tips for a Sensational Cake". My guess is that most cake-mix users won't care about these finer points. By the same token, it's precisely her culinary expertise that enables her to tweak and tinker with cake mixes so that the results are far superior to un-doctored cakes. She also shows us that cake mixes are not just for cakes but also for cookies, bars, cheesecakes, and even has a recipe for a gingerbread house. When I made her Cranberry Oat Crumble, no one could believe its parentage was a plain yellow cake mix…and these were people with fairly savvy palates. Byrne says never forgot her mother's words of wisdom: " You can get away with baking a cake from a mix, but you absolutely must make homemade frosting." As a result she includes a whole chapter on simple frostings and glazes.

I tell you, be ready for raves for just about anything you make from here. It's just as well the recipes do not include calorie or fat-gram counts. As it is, I've had to practice selective amnesia when eating many of these creations, choosing to forget about the sticks of butter, the eggs, or the packages of cream cheese that went into them. (There is also a chapter titled "Lighter Cakes".)

What about those Lemon Biscotti, the ones with the blasphemous ingredients of lemon cake mix and lemon Jell-O. As it turns out, they were excellent in their dry crunchy biscotti texture. The lemon flavor had a bit of a neon quality to it. Still they were very good….as long as I shifted my standards from elitist to populist.

One of the nicest outcomes of having The Cake Mix Doctor at my house was that Belle and I resurrected our old birthday cake-mix ritual for the first time since she was ten years old. On her birthday a few months ago, she decided we'd go for the Orange Chiffon Cake. Amazing to think that this wonderful, subtle and sophisticated cake was the product of an unassuming plain white cake mix and a little orange-juice concentrate. A far cry from the last time when she picked out her birthday cake-mix which, as I recall, contained something called "funfetti" and which, at her insistence, I added red food coloring until it achieved the exact shade of pink as Barbie's Ferrari.

Unless, you are an absolute food purist, you will have hard time not to be won over by The Cake-Mix Doctor. It's a fun book .