I love messing around with boxed mixes. A scoop of whipped cream adds rich moisture and height to a cake mix, and brownies are instantly improved by swapping out water for coffee and plain vegetable oil for something more exciting (like olive or pistachio). If you want to improve the (somewhat rubbery) texture, all you have to do is omit an egg and add more oil. All great tricks, but perhaps the easiest thing you can do to improve a boxed mix is to season it.
I’m not talking about salt and pepper, though a pinch of salt is never a bad idea, I’m talking about extracts, spices, and a couple of specialized powders, each of which gives your cake, quick bread, muffin, or brownie a little extra oomph. Not only are you adding more flavor, you’re obscuring the more synthetic tasting notes you often get with a boxed mix.
Add extracts to intensify (or change) the flavor profile
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A boxed vanilla cake is never vanilla-y enough, but that is easily fixed with an extra teaspoon of vanilla extract. The cake flavor doesn’t have to be vanilla, of course; you can just as easily up the extract in a yellow cake mix, white cake mix, or even a strawberry cake mix (strawberries and vanilla work famously well together).
If you want people to ask for the “recipe,” consider swapping out or supplementing the vanilla extract with almond. Just half a teaspoon will give your cake a sophisticated, more aromatic flavor that screams “bakery” instead of “box.” Once you’re done playing around with those, try branching out into less common extracts. I’ve never had a root beer-scented vanilla cake, but I would not be mad at it.
Add spices (duh)
They don’t call them “baking spices” for nothing. A pinch of cinnamon, a grating of fresh nutmeg, a tiny spoonful of cardamom can bring warmer, more interesting flavors to coffee cakes, muffins, or even a classic chocolate cake. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even add a pinch of cayenne for some heat.
Impress with powders
My two favorite baking secret weapons are espresso powder and malted milk powder. A pinch of instant espresso can makes chocolate cakes and brownies taste more chocolatey, while malted milk powder acts like MSG for desserts by adding a roasty, toasty, butterscotch-y, and somewhat savory flavor to sweets and treats. Add little spoonfuls of the malted powder to your batter to taste, then proceed with the recipe as usual.
Just as with savory dishes, most sweets are improved by a hint of lemon, though here I favor zest over juice. The fragrant, heady, almost floral lemon oil infuses a mix with bright, fresh flavor; try zesting a whole lemon into a white cake mix and be prepared to be wowed (or at least mildly impressed).