7 Cake-Mix Hacks Every 20-Something Should Know

Photo: Courtesy of Out Of The Box Desserts.
I love dessert. Anytime I'm out to eat, you better believe I'm saying yes to that dessert menu. When coworkers bring in their homemade double-fudge brownies on a Friday? Yes, I will be grabbing two (well, maybe three) of them. But whipping up a plate of piping-hot cookies or a fresh cheesecake from scratch myself is another story.

Baking is a science, so any extra help I can get in the cakes and cookies department is seriously appreciated. That's why these seven recipes from Hayley Parker's new baking book, Out Of The Box Desserts, are perfect for the baking-challenged (or for anyone looking to save time).

What do these desserts have in common? They all let boxes of cake mix do the heavy lifting for you. Then, with just a few additional ingredients, you've got the fresh-baked goods of your dreams!
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Photo: Courtesy of Out Of The Box Desserts.
Cake Batter Gooey Butter Cookies
20–24 cookies

Ingredients
1 box Funfetti cake mix*
1 (8 oz) package cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp butter extract
1 egg
1 cup powdered sugar

*Modeled after the famous gooey butter cake from St. Louis, these cookies are traditionally made with yellow cake mix. Feel free to stick to the original, or try my Funfetti version, because everyone loves sprinkles.

Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine cake mix, cream cheese, butter, vanilla extract, butter extract, and egg together with an electric mixer until a soft dough forms, about 1 minute.

3. Scoop rounded tablespoons of dough out using a cookie-dough scoop. Roll the cookie-dough ball into the powdered sugar and place on the baking sheets about 2" apart.

4. Bake for approximately 10 to 12 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking time. Cool completely before serving.

*Excerpted from Out Of The Box Desserts, © Hayley Parker. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company Publishing.
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Red Velvet Cheesecake Swirl Cake
Serves 12

Ingredients
1 box red velvet cake mix
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup oil
4 eggs
1 (3.4 oz) box dry instant cheesecake pudding mix or cheesecake swirl
4 oz cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg for topping
1 (16 oz) tub cream cheese frosting
Red sugar sprinkles

Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Liberally grease a Bundt pan with cooking spray, preferably baking spray with flour. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, beat the cake mix, buttermilk, oil, eggs, and dry pudding mix with an electric mixer for 2 minutes, until creamy and combined. Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan.

3. Meanwhile, make the cheesecake swirl. In a medium bowl, beat together the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and egg with an electric mixer for about 1 minute or until combined. Pour the cheesecake mixture into the center of the batter in the pan, avoiding touching the sides if possible. Top with the remaining red velvet cake batter.

4. Bake for approximately 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean or with moist — not wet — crumbs. Cool in the pan completely before inverting onto a wire rack.

5. For the topping, remove the lid and foil from the tub of cream cheese icing and microwave in 10-second intervals, stirring after each interval, until pourable. Pour the frosting over the cooled cake and top with the red sprinkles.

*Excerpted from
Out Of The Box Desserts, © Hayley Parker. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company Publishing.
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Gooey Lemon Bars
15 bars

Ingredients
1 box lemon cake mix
1 egg
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted for filling
1 (8-oz) package cream cheese, room temperature
3 eggs
1 (16 oz) box powdered sugar, plus more for dusting
¼ cup butter, melted
¼ cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon

Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line a 9" × 13" baking pan with foil, extending the foil over the edges of the pan. Spray the foil liberally with cooking spray.

2. In a large bowl, combine the cake mix, egg, and melted butter until a soft dough forms. Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared pan. Set aside.

3. Meanwhile, in another large bowl, beat the cream cheese, eggs, and powdered sugar together on low speed for about 1 minute, or until combined. Stream in the melted butter, lemon juice, and lemon zest and beat to combine, until thick. Pour the mixture on top of the crust layer.

4. Bake for approximately 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is light golden brown and the center is just about set. It will be a little wiggly — that’s okay. You do not want to overbake these as they’re called gooey bars for a reason.

5. Cool the bars completely, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours or until set. Just before serving, dust with additional powdered sugar.

*Excerpted from Out Of The Box Desserts, © Hayley Parker. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company Publishing.
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Chocolate Gooey Butter Cake
Serves 8

Ingredients
1 box chocolate cake mix
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 egg for filling
1 (8 oz) package cream cheese, room temperature
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup Nutella or chocolate hazelnut spread of your choosing
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 (16 oz) package powdered sugar

Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Liberally spray a 9" springform pan with cooking spray, preferably baking spray with flour. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine the cake mix, ½ cup melted butter, and one egg. Stir with a spatula or spoon until a soft dough has formed. Press the dough evenly into the prepared pan.

3. Make the filling: In another large bowl, beat together the cream cheese, 3 eggs, vanilla extract, and Nutella with a handheld mixer until blended and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add in ½ cup melted butter and the powdered sugar and beat slowly until mixture is combined. Pour the mixture evenly over the cake batter layer.

4. Bake for approximately 40 to 50 minutes, checking at the 40-minute mark for doneness. The outer edge should be set, but the center may still be slightly wiggly and gooey. You don’t want to overbake your cake, so I advise pulling it out around the 50-minute mark. Cool in the pan completely and remove springform outer piece.

5. If desired, dust the top of the cake with additional powdered sugar.

*Excerpted from
Out Of The Box Desserts, © Hayley Parker. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company Publishing.
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Red Velvet Crinkle Cookies
20–24 cookies

Ingredients
1 box red velvet cake mix
2 eggs
½ cup butter, melted
1 cup white chocolate chips
2 cups powdered sugar

Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

2. In a large bowl, combine the cake mix, eggs, and melted butter with a spatula until a soft dough forms. Fold in the white chocolate chips.

3. Drop rounded tablespoons of dough into a bowl with the powdered sugar. Coat the dough balls completely in powdered sugar — you shouldn’t even see red anymore. Place the coated dough balls onto the baking sheet, about 2” apart.

4. Bake for approximately 8 to 10 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking time, until cookies appear soft but set. Cool on the pan completely.

*Excerpted from Out Of The Box Desserts, © Hayley Parker. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company Publishing.
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Piña Colada Cupcakes
Makes 18 cupcakes

Ingredients
1 box pineapple cake mix
1 cup water
½ cup oil
3 eggs
1 (3.4 oz) box instant dry coconut pudding mix
1 (8 oz) can crushed pineapple, drained for pineapple cream cheese frosting
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, room temperature
1 (8 oz) package pineapple cream cheese, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut extract (optional)
4-5 cups powdered sugar
¼ cup heavy cream or milk for topping
½ cup flaked coconut, toasted*

*Note: To toast coconut, place in a single layer onto a baking sheet or small pan. Toast at 300ºF for about 5 minutes. Stir, then toast for another 3 minutes. Stir again, then toast for another 2 to 3 minutes or until golden brown and fragrant. Stay close, because coconut burns very easily!

Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line an 18-muffin tin with paper liners. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, beat the cake mix, water, oil, eggs, and dry pudding mix with an electric mixer for about 2 minutes, or until blended. Stir in the crushed pineapple by hand until blended.

3. Distribute batter evenly among muffin cups, filling until about ¾ full. Bake for approximately 15 to 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean or with moist — not wet — crumbs. Cool completely.

4. Prepare pineapple cream cheese frosting according to recipe below. If piping, you may want to make two batches. Pipe or spread frosting onto the cooled cupcakes and garnish with the toasted coconut. Store covered in the refrigerator.

Pineapple Cream Cheese Frosting
In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter, cream cheese, vanilla extract, and coconut extract (if using) until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add in the powdered sugar,
1 cup at a time, until frosting is light and fluffy. Add 1 tablespoon of milk or cream at a time if frosting is too thick.

*Excerpted from Out Of The Box Desserts, © Hayley Parker. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company Publishing.
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Black Forest Brownie Cheesecake
15 bars

Ingredients
1 box chocolate fudge brownie mix
½ cup butter, melted
1 egg for filling
2 (8 oz) packages cream cheese, room temperature
²⁄³ cup sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
¹⁄³ cup sour cream for topping
1 (21 oz) can cherry pie filling (save about ½ cup for garnish if desired)
Whipped cream, if desired

Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 325ºF. Line a 9" × 13" pan with foil, extending the sides of the foil over the edges of the pan. Spray the foil liberally with cooking spray and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine the brownie mix, melted butter, and egg with a spatula until combined. Dough will be thick. Press the dough evenly into the bottom of the pan.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the cream cheese and sugar until creamy and smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually add in the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla, beating well after each addition. Lastly, beat in the sour cream.

4. Pour the filling evenly over the top of the brownie crust, smoothing it out. Drop 8 to 12 heaping spoonfuls of the cherry pie filling on top of the cheesecake. Using a clean butter knife, swirl the cheesecake and cherry pie filling together.

5. Bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes, or until the cheesecake is lightly golden and the center is just about set. If it wiggles a little, that’s okay — you just don’t want it sloshing around in the pan. Cool completely, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before cutting into bars to serve*. Immediately before serving, top with the remaining cherry pie filling and whipped cream, if desired.

*I would recommend bringing the cheesecake to just about room temperature before serving. Once it’s chilled, the brownie crust becomes very cold and somewhat hard; bringing it to just about room temperature allows it to soften.

*Excerpted from Out Of The Box Desserts, © Hayley Parker. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company Publishing.
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Out Of The Box Desserts by Hayley Parker, $14.50, available at Amazon.