Box cake mix. These three words bring out the sharp (serving) knives from two extreme camps: the scratch bakers who shun them and the non-bakers who can't live without them. OK, there's a middle ground of those who spend time improving them — which takes just enough time and ingenuity to confound the scratchers and annoy the box-mixers.
Wherever you stand, even the most fervent scratch baker might need a box now and then. ("Mommy! Before I go to bed, I promised my Scout troop you'd make 48 cupcakes for tomorrow.") So, we decided to test versions from the "mix masters": Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines and Pillsbury. We opted for yellow cake because spring is here and yellow seems springy. But were the cakes?
It bemused us when we learned that each of the boxes weighed the same, and all called for 3 eggs and 1/3 cup vegetable oil. (Only the water requirement varied.) Such is the mystery of science, technology and possibly corporate spying. But we digress.
Speaking of springy: The texture of all three had more spring than Flubber, with a moist crumb that dissolved far too quickly in the mouth. (Full disclosure: a scratch baker is writing this.) The flavor, though, was not half-bad: The aftertaste that used to nag us was muted, and these mixes would work fine with homemade frosting. (Just be sure it spreads easily, or you'll be pulling half the cake off with your first swipe of the frosting spatula.)
Pillsbury earned the highest points (barely past the average of 5) from our eight tasters. And, a tip from Lisa Schumacher, who baked the cakes for our tasting: Add a teaspoon of vanilla to the batter to add some oomph. Our rating is based on a scale from 1 to 9, with 5 being average.
Here are the results, with tasters' comments:
1: Pillsbury Moist Supreme Classic Yellow Cake (5.1 points. 18.25 ounces, $1.49): "Nice flavor balance." "Lemony note — natural flavors." "Odd aftertaste."
2: Betty Crocker Super Moist Yellow Cake (4.3 points. 18.25 ounces, $1.40): "Very moist." "Not much here: Slight hint of vanilla; not too sweet or rich." "Faint vanilla flavor, and chemicals."
3: Duncan Hines Moist Deluxe Classic Yellow Cake (3.8 points. 18.25 ounces, $2.45): "Bland." "Sugary; forget the frosting." "Decent density."