It was a box of cake mix that made Anne Byrn famous a quarter-century ago. No, more like a stash of boxed cake mixes hidden in her pantry — something you wouldn’t expect from a woman who studied pastry at La Varenne in Paris and wrote reviews on some of the top up-and-coming restaurants in Atlanta’s emerging food scene.
In the late 1990s, she moved to Nashville with her husband John T. Whitaker, Regions’ Mortgage Production manager. They started a family, and she found fame.
“I knew how to make croissants, but that really wasn’t feasible with three children under 10 years old,” she recalls. So instead, she got creative, adding fresh ingredients to boxed cake mixes and slathering them with homemade frosting to create beautiful cakes that could pass as made-from-scratch. Her inspiration: Her mother’s recipes from the 1970s and the skills she learned at the cooking school in Paris, coupled with her own eye for food presentation.
That led to her writing an article in the local newspaper, The Tennessean, where she revealed the technique. The article went viral. “That story I wrote in ’98 went out on the wire services, across the country, back and forth,” she says. “So, I ended up turning it into a book called The Cake Mix Doctor.”
The cookbook was released in late 1999 and was an overnight sensation. Anne, the newly crowned The Cake Mix Doctor, headed out on a book tour, appearing on morning TV and QVC, ready at the end of a long week to be back with family. That book turned into a series of cookbooks, but it also ignited an interest in regional cooking and baking.
“That drove me to write the book American Cake, which looked at 100 of our country’s most well-known cakes and maybe a few not-so-well-known ones,” she says. “I let the recipes tell us the story and tell us what was going on in that time in history. I just love, love, loved that project.”
Byrn followed American Cake up with American Cookie, which explored the history of cookies, candies, and bars, and Skillet Love, a historical love story about the iconic cast iron skillet. Before she knew it, she had a collection of 15 books under her belt. Her latest, A New Take on Cake, revisits the original The Cake Mix Doctor book published 25 years ago with all new recipes.
Why is it new? Because I’m not the same baker person I was 20 years ago. I think that’s the thing about time, it doesn’t change a recipe, it changes the people who make them.
Anne Byrn, author of The Cake Mix Doctor
“Why is it new? Because I’m not the same baker person I was 20 years ago,” she says. “I think that’s the thing about time, it doesn’t change a recipe, it changes the people who make them. I know what I want in a cake today is different than what I wanted 20 years ago when I was young.”
Some of those changes include gluten-free and vegan recipes. It also embraces the convenience and the economic value of boxed cake mixes. “I think with COVID and with loss of jobs, there’s huge interest in economic and budget cooking,” she says. “And you can’t beat a cake mix for jumpstarting a very affordable dessert.”
Another thing that’s changed since The Cake Mix Doctor was first released — Anne and John’s kids are all grown. “The last one graduated from college last spring,” she says. “He was in a high chair when I wrote The Cake Mix Doctor. He’s now 23!”
Recipe from A New Take on Cake, from The Cake Mix Doctor, by Anne Byrn
BASIC SUGAR COOKIES
Makes sixteen to eighteen 2 to 3 inch cookies
Prep: 20- to 25 minutes8 to 12 minutes / per batch
A quick sugar cookie recipe is a lifesaver during the holidays . . . or on any day. And this method is so simple I’m a little embarrassed to call it a “recipe.” It’s what you do with it that counts—roll and cut into your favorite shapes. Or roll balls in coarse sugar before baking. Form the dough into a log, then slice and bake. Or turn them into snickerdoodles by adding cinnamon to the sugar (see below). Or give these cookies a completely new look by folding in ⅓ cup of sprinkles before baking. The possibilities are limitless!
1 (15.25-ounce) package yellow or butter cake mix
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract,
½ teaspoon almond extract, or 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 to 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, if needed for rolling
1 large egg white
Sugar sprinkles, for decorating
- Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F. Have ready two ungreased cookie sheets.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the cake mix, butter, egg, and vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until the mixture comes together into a sticky ball, 30 to 45 seconds.
- With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough to ¼- to ⅜-inch thickness on a lightly floured board. Use cookie cutters to stamp out the shapes and place them spaced 2 inches apart on one cookie sheet. (You can reroll the dough scraps once and cut out more cookies.) Brush the cookies with egg white, and decorate with the sprinkles.
- Place one pan in the oven at a time. Bake until the edges of the cookies are golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes for smaller cookies and 10 to 12 minutes for larger.
- Let the cookies rest on the cookie sheet for 1 minute, then remove to wire racks with a metal spatula to cool completely, about 20 minutes. Store, lightly covered, at room temperature for 1 week.
OLD-FASHIONED DROP SUGAR COOKIES
Make the dough for Basic Sugar Cookies, but increase the amount of butter to 12 tablespoons, which should be melted and cooled. Add 1 tablespoon flour to the dough if it seems sticky. Drop about twelve 2-inch (1½ ounce) balls of the dough spaced 2 inches apart In two cookie sheets. Place one pan in the oven at a time. Bake until the edges are golden brown, 9 to 11 minutes.
GLUTEN-FREE SLICE-AND-BAKE SUGAR COOKIES:
Make the dough for Basic Sugar Cookies but use a 15-ounce package gluten-free yellow cake mix, increase the butter to 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter and increase the vanilla to 1 tablespoon. Form the dough into a log about 10 inches long and 2 inches in diameter, wrap in parchment, and chill. Cut into slices ½ inch thick, sprinkle with sugar, and bake at 350°F for 9 to 13 minutes.
GLUTEN-FREE CHOCOLATE SLICE-AND-BAKE SUGAR COOKIES:
Make the dough as directed in Gluten-Free Slice-and-Bake Sugar Cookies but add ⅓ cup chopped semisweet chocolate, melted, and fold in ½ cup mini semisweet chocolate chips. Bake as directed.
DROP SUGAR COOKIES OF ALL SIZES
For nearly 4 dozen cookies, form 3/4-inch (1/2-ounce) balls and bake 6 to 7 minutes.
For 2 dozen cookies form 11/2-inch (1-ounce) balls and bake 8 to 9 minutes.
For about a dozen cookies, form 21/2-inch (2-ounce) balls and bake 10 to 12 minutes.
For 8 large 4-inch cookies, form 3-inch (3-ounce) balls and bake 12 to 14 minutes.
A FEW TIPS FOR BAKING CAKE MIX COOKIES
No need to grease the baking sheet unless the recipe calls for it.
Use a scoop and a scale to portion dough if you want cookies the same size.
Store chewy cookies in a tightly covered container and crisp ones lightly covered.
Freeze baked cookies in plastic resealable bags for up to 6 months. Or freeze the dough up to 1 month, thaw, and bake
In a bowl, stir together 1 cup confectioners’ sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Add food coloring, if desired, taking care only to add a drop at a time, because it goes a long way. The icing needs to be thick enough to set up but thin enough to spread on a cookie with a small knife. Or, you can place it in a clean squeeze bottle and pipe it onto cookies. You can outline cookies in icing, create patterns, or add dots. And for an added touch, sprinkle the wet icing with colored sugar sprinkles. Let iced cookies rest for 1 hour before you pack and store them.