Cake In A Box: A Defense of Duncan Hines

My husband’s mother is an amazing cook. She’s not a chef or a culinary school grad, just an incredible home cook who has spent her adult life cooking delicious meals for her family. One of her signature dishes is her chocolate birthday cake. Moist and fluffy, covered in buttery frosting; even though we lived on the other side of the country my husband and I would try to be near my mother-in-law on our birthdays just to get a taste of that cake.

When I had kids of my own I realized the time had come for me to make a kick-ass cake of my own. I saw my mother-in-law shortly before my daughter’s first birthday and asked her if she’d share her famous birthday cake recipe with me. She explained to me that the magical frosting was a simple frosting recipe (milk, icing sugar, cocoa and a bit of melted butter) with a stick or two of butter and an egg yolk whipped in.

“Okay,” I said, feeling impatient. “But what about the cake part?”

Her face froze and she looked me straight in the eye. “Sissy,” she said. “I thought you knew. It’s a boxed mix.”

My jaw fell halfway to the floor. That delicious cake that we were willing to travel thousands of miles for wasn’t made by my mother-in-law at all! It was made by Duncan Hines! It was like finding out that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. So I sucked it up, bought a chocolate fudge cake mix and made the frosting according to her specifications. And it was frickin’ delicious.

Chocolate birthday cake
Photo by Ardfern, courtesy of

A few years later my husband and I were dining out in a fancy New York restaurant and asked the server what the dessert special was. She looked a little embarrassed and explained that the pastry chef had a bizarre Duncan Hines obsession and had created a from-scratch recipe that mimicked the taste and consistency of boxed cake mix. I almost jumped out of my seat and immediately ordered it. It was delicious and tasted just like the real thing. Whenever I tell this story my friends laugh and tell me that I was duped into paying $12 for a piece of boxed cake. They’re probably right, but I would do it again.

Anyway, my son turned three this weekend and after five years of making boxed cakes I decided I needed to step up my game and make him a cake from scratch. After all, I’ve evolved as a mom over the years and felt I was capable of taking on the challenge. I make things far more difficult than birthday cakes all the time. Plus having kids has turned me into a bit of a food hippie and I would really rather not buy anything even remotely processed if I can help it. So I found a simple chocolate cake recipe, mixed it up, poured it into a pan and let “˜er bake.

The sucker fell flat as a pancake. Desperate, I ran to the supermarket and grabbed a box of Duncan Hines chocolate fudge. It stayed light and fluffy and was beyond delicious. A kid actually came up to me at his party and told me it was the best cake she’d ever had in her life. I learned my lesson. For the rest of my days, I’ll be eating cake from a box.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the fallen cake wasn’t put to waste because I turned it into a batch of cake pops. But that’s a different post altogether.)

By Sissy Larue

30-something, mother-of-two, former rock 'n' roll reporter, currently into retro house-wifey things, bad TV and any movie that I can sneak out of the house to watch.

19 replies on “Cake In A Box: A Defense of Duncan Hines”

I’m a big baker. I always have been and over the past year I’ve really stepped up my game. I make a lot of stuff from scratch — those Earl Grey chocolate cupcakes or the bacon cupcakes I’ve previously posted about — but I keep a ton of back up box mixes in my cabinet for times I’m not feeling particularly adventurous.

That said, you only get a certain kind of cake out of box mixes if you don’t doctor the recipe. They’re not good for tall layer cakes and you can’t do a pound cake with them (without extra effort). This rainbow cake I made for my daughter’s birthday would have fallen apart if I tried to make it from a box (box-cakes are soft cakes). But your everyday cake? Your pretty frosting and celebration cake? Ain’t nothing wrong with a little Duncan Hines. Unless you’re a Betty Crocker girl, like me.

It sounds, btw, that your MIL makes a 7 minute frosting. I’ve got an even easier buttercream that will rock your socks off if you want the recipe.

Oooh, I remember that rainbow cake from Jezebel! Thing of beauty, my friend. I do bake other kinds of cake: pound, loaf, bundt, cheese, angel food, you name it. But I can’t master the regular run-of-the-mill birthday cake without the help of the box. I am going to start experimenting with doctoring though.

The basis of the frosting is a recipe from the back of a box of Duncan Hines (I believe): 1/2 cup cocoa, 1/4 cup melted butter, 1/2 cup milk and 3 cups icing sugar. We then add the egg yolk (I usually skip it if young kids are around) and then start adding butter about 1/4 cup at a time, mixing it on a fairly high speed for several minutes with each addition. I keep going, adding up to 1 cup of butter until it “looks right.” I usually add more cocoa as well.

I’ve made cake from scratch before and if you can get it right it is AWESOME. The one I made was soooo moist there was no need for frosting. But I only made it once. From then on out it has been box ftw. I also do box brownies even though making them from scratch would be easy. Box mixes are convenient and good so whats not to love

My grandmother also makes a famous cake that everyone in her neighborhood requests for their birthdays that is actually a Duncan Hines cake. (It’s a delicious cake.) From scratch cakes are easy enough to get the hang of after you’ve been doing it for a while, but in a pinch, the box cake is still delicious.

Boxed cake FTW! The only downfall is the lack of variety, but The Cake Doctor cookbook is a good solution which sounds like terrible Semi-Homemade processed crap, but it’s actually pretty good.
I didn’t get to see my family until late Christmas day this year, which was was, so on Christmas Eve Eve I made a boxed red velvet cake and ate it by myself straight out of the cake pan while watching The Nutcracker. That is just one of my precious memories of boxed cake.

I thoroughly endorse the Cake Mix doctor books. She has a whole line of them and there’s a chocolate mint pound cake that I make from her that people go crazy over.

Here’s the thing about box cake, its just regular cake ingredients premeasured and mixed for you. You’re just taking some of the work out of what you need to do.

Box cake! Best kind! Box cake! Best kind!

I love making cookies out of box cake mix. Sometimes the recipe is printed on the side of it — basically you add less liquid, I think. The best ice cream sandwich I’ve ever eaten was made with cookies from a box of spice cake mix, filled with scoops of pumpkin ice cream. In my heaven, there is an infinity plate of these lil’ dreamwiches.

I love box-cake. My boyfriend is an amateur foodie and when I asked him to make me box cake for my birthday he gagged. He made it anyway, but basically just put it in the oven in a glass pan and made me decorate it myself. Jerk.

I will go down defending box-cake ’til the day I die.

Leave a Reply