Move over Betty Crocker: How to make your own cake mixes

No mix can do everything, but these DIY baking mixes could get you far.
No mix can do everything, but these DIY baking mixes could get you far. Photo: Goran Kosanovic/The Washington Post

In the 1950s, it was said that when an elderly woman died, the "flour and shortening" business lost a customer, while when a young woman married, the cake-mix industry gained one. In short, two constituencies: those who baked and those who faked. Today, there's an audience that falls somewhere in the middle and proves the value of a different kind of mix – the kind that is versatile, ready to go and additive-free. The kind you make yourself.

Ideally, you could whisk a large quantity of dry ingredients together to create a base that could be applied to multiple styles of cake, and beyond. Then, whenever you felt like baking, you would have them at your fingertips.

No mix can do everything – or, it can't do everything well. But three of them could get you far. So I asked Abigail Johnson Dodge, author of The Everyday Baker, to create one white mix, one chocolate and one cornmeal option that could go savoury or sweet. She dug right in, making scones, upside-down cakes, loaf cakes, pancakes, muffins and corn bread. Once Dodge was satisfied with a mix, she sent the basic recipe my way, and I built from there.

To our great surprise, we have become attached to these mixes and are now preoccupied with ideas for those that do not yet exist – but could. (A brownie mix is at the top of our list; those that incorporate nut flours are another interest. Do we dare consider yeast?) Submitted for your approval: the formulas for the three mixes Dodge created, with information on substitutions and mix-ins, plus a few next-level recipes that may inspire you to take them in new directions.

Once you compose these dry mixes from scratch, I doubt you will want to give Betty or the rest of her kind another look. A DIY batch baking mix makes for a thoughtful gift, too. You can put it in a box – a beautifully wrapped one.

Charlotte Druckman is the author of Stir, Sizzle, Bake: Recipes for Your Cast-Iron Skillet.

Big Batch Dry Mix.

Photo: Goran Kosanovic/The Washington Post

Big batch dry mix

This plain, versatile mix can be used to make cakes, cupcakes, muffins, scones and pancakes.

Ingredients

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5 cups (640g) plain flour

4 cups (512g) spelt flour or wholemeal flour (see tips)

1⅓ cups (198g) castor sugar

3 tbsp (50g) baking powder

2 tsp (15g) table salt

Method

Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container with a tight-fitting lid (about 4 litre capacity), until thoroughly incorporated. Seal, label and store at room temperature until ready to use.

Makes about 10 cups

Tips

■ Spelt flour is preferred here; it can be replaced with wholemeal flour, or the mix can be made using plain flour.

■ Stir mix well before using. Mix can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three months.

Big Batch Cornmeal Dry Mix.

Photo: Goran Kosanovic/The Washington Post

Big batch cornmeal dry mix

Cornmeal can go sweet or savoury, and there's no use in creating an all-purpose mix with it if you're not going to account for both. With this mix, you can make old-fashioned blueberry muffins or skillet corn bread. But don't stop there: apply it to a peach upside-down cake or sophisticated olive oil cake. Serve syrup-coated cornmeal pancakes for breakfast, or their smoked salmon-topped counterparts as hors d'oeuvres. Recipe from cookbook author Abigail Johnson Dodge.

Ingredients

4 cups (510g) finely ground cornmeal

4 cups (510g) unbleached plain flour

⅔ cup (130g) castor sugar

2½ tbsp plus ½ tsp (42g) baking powder

1½ tsp (10g) table salt

Method

Combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container with a tight-fitting lid (4 litre capacity), until thoroughly incorporated. Seal, label and store at room temperature until ready to use.

Makes about 9 cups

Tip

■ Stir mix well before using. Mix can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three months.

Big Batch Chocolate Dry Mix.

Photo: Goran Kosanovic/The Washington Post

Big batch chocolate dry mix

Everyone needs a chocolate layer cake at the ready for those special celebratory moments. That's what this one's for, and with just some water and oil, and an egg, it's pretty much icing-ready. It's so much better than anything you could have bought in a box. Muffins, scones and cupcakes, of course, are all doable as well.

Ingredients

4 cups (510g) plain flour

3⅓ cups (425g) wholemeal flour (may substitute spelt flour)

2½ cups (212g) unsweetened cocoa powder

1⅓ cups (265g) castor sugar

3 tbsp (50g) baking powder

2 tsp (15g) table salt

Method

1. Combine the flours, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container (4 litre capacity). Whisk until very well blended, making sure to get into the corners and bottom of the container. Cover, label and stow at room temperature until ready to use.

Makes about 11 cups

Tip: Mix can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three months.

Extras for the big batch dry mixes

Swaps and add-ins that can be used with basic recipes that use one of the three dry mixes:

Oils

Neutral-flavoured oils such as vegetable, canola or refined coconut oil

Extra-virgin olive oil or unrefined coconut oil

Purees

Apple sauce

Pumpkin puree

Banana puree

Carrot puree

Flavourings

Freshly grated lemon or orange zest

Freshly grated peeled ginger

Ground Spices

Cinnamon

Ginger

Cloves

Nutmeg

Cardamom

Espresso powder

Add-ins

Poppy, carawayor fennel seeds

Sesame seeds

Dried culinary lavender

Diced crystallised ginger

Chopped nuts, toasted

Hulled sunflower seeds

Diced apple

Diced banana

Whole berries (halved or quartered, if large)

Chopped chocolate or chocolate chips

Lightly packed, coarsely shredded zucchini (avoid the centre seeds, wrap in paper towel and squeeze out liquid)

Lightly packed/finely shredded carrot

Coarsely chopped dried fruit, plumped in hot water and drained

Shredded coconut/toasted coconut

Fresh herbs

Corn kernels

Chopped spring onions (for savoury cornmeal batters)

Shredded or crumbled cheese (for savoury cornmeal batters)

Pre-bake toppings (up to two per baked good recipe)

2 tbsp raw sugar

½ cup sliced or chopped almonds, walnuts, pecans and/or hazelnuts

½ cup rolled oats

1 medium tomato, thinly sliced and drained on paper towel (for savoury cornmeal batters)

Finishing toppings

Icing sugar

Glaze or icing

Simple but delicious: Blackberry Cake With a Kick.

Photo: Goran Kosanovic/The Washington Post

Blackberry cake with a kick

This simple cake showcases fruit that's sweet-tart and perhaps undeservedly underrated, with a little grown-up mischief from black pepper, homely comfort from dark brown sugar and richness from creme fraiche.

Ingredients

½ cup (125g) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the tin

flour, for the tin

2½ cups (337g) big batch dry mix (stir well before using)

⅓ cup (67g) packed dark brown sugar

¾ to 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

½ cup milk

½ cup creme fraiche

2 large eggs

3 tsp pure vanilla extract

1⅓ cups (170g) blackberries (large ones halved)

½ cup rolled oats, for sprinkling

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Use a little butter to grease a 23cm round cake pan, then flour it, shaking out any excess.

2. Whisk together the big batch dry mix, brown sugar and pepper (to taste) in a mixing bowl, until well incorporated.

3. Use a fork to whisk together the milk, creme fraiche, eggs and vanilla extract in a large liquid measuring cup or jug until well blended. Pour over the dry mixture, along with the melted butter, and whisk with the fork to form a slightly lumpy batter.

4. Use a flexible spatula to gently fold in the berries, then use the spatula to spread the batter evenly in the tin. Scatter the oats over the top. Bake (middle rack) until a toothpick or skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes.

5. Transfer the tin to a wire rack to cool for 15 to 20 minutes, then run a round-edged knife around the edges to loosen the cake, then invert onto the rack and lift off the tin. Turn the cake right-side-up and let cool completely.

Serves 8 to 10 (makes one 23cm round single layer cake)

Fully Loaded Chocolate Muffins.

Photo: Goran Kosanovic/The Washington Post

Fully loaded chocolate muffins

Sometimes, it's okay to break the rules and add a few extra chocolate chips to your muffins. These might remind some of fruit and nut chocolate bars. Spices – cinnamon, and just the tiniest bit of cayenne – take them beyond the vending machine.

The dried cherries need to be rehydrated for 30 minutes. The muffins are best served the same day they are made, but they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two days.

Ingredients

¼ cup dried cherries

1¾ cups (237g) big batch chocolate dry mix (stir well before using)

½ cup (100g) castor sugar

⅛ tsp table salt

⅛ tsp ground cayenne pepper (optional)

½ cup buttermilk

1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk

1½ tsp pure vanilla extract

⅓ cup canola oil

½ cup chunky chocolate chips

¼ cup toasted skinned hazelnuts, chopped (see tips)

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 190C degrees. Line nine holes of a standard-size muffin tin with paper or foil baking cup liners, or grease them with cooking oil spray.

2. Meanwhile, place the dried cherries in a small bowl and cover with warm water; let sit for 30 minutes, then drain.

3. Whisk together the big batch chocolate dry mix, sugar, salt and the cayenne pepper, if using, until well incorporated.

4. Pour the buttermilk into a large liquid measuring cup or jug, then add the egg, egg yolk, vanilla extract and oil; use a fork to whisk together until well incorporated. Pour over the dry ingredients, then add the chocolate chunks, plumped dried cherries and hazelnuts; use a flexible spatula to gently fold to form a barely blended batter that's a bit lumpy.

5. Divide evenly among the muffin cups or holes. Bake (middle rack) until a toothpick or skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean, 17 to 19 minutes.

6. Transfer the tin to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, then dislodge the muffins and place them directly on the rack to cool completely.

Tip: to toast the hazelnuts, spread them on rimmed baking sheet and bake for 4 to 5 minutes, until fragrant and golden brown. Cool completely before using.

Serves 9

Maple-Cashew Scones.

Photo: Goran Kosanovic/The Washington Post

Maple-cashew scones

The combination of maple, cashews and spelt here is especially great, but if you used wholemeal flour in your dry mix base, you wouldn't be disappointed with the results. An alternative name for these would be pancake scones, because they were inspired by and taste like pancakes; they even spread a bit more than typical scones.

Ingredients

2½ cups (340g) big batch dry mix (stir well before using)

½ cup (125g) cold unsalted butter, cut into eight pieces

up to ¾ teaspoon spices (optional; see tips)

½ cup toasted, unsalted cashews, coarsely chopped (see tips)

up to ½ cup buttermilk

⅓ cup plus 3 tsp maple syrup

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

flour, for the work surface

1 large egg

3 tsp heavy cream

sea salt flakes, for sprinkling (about ⅔ tsp)

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 190C degrees. Line a baking tray with baking paper or a silicone liner.

2. Combine the big batch dry mix, cold butter and spices, if using, in a mixing bowl. Use two knives or a pastry blender to work the butter and flour into pea-size pieces (this step can be done in a food processor, pulsing as needed, then transfer to the mixing bowl). Stir in the cashews and toss to distribute evenly.

3. Pour 1/3 cup of the buttermilk into a large liquid measuring cup, then add the 1/3 cup of maple syrup and the vanilla extract; use a fork to whisk until well incorporated. Pour over the dry mixture; use a flexible spatula to stir and form a moist dough with some floury bits showing. If the dough isn't coming together or seems dry, add more buttermilk, one tablespoon at a time, until you reach the desired consistency.

4. Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough there and gently knead a few times until the dough is evenly moist and just holds together. Be careful not to overwork the dough or the scones will be dense.

5. Gently pat and shape the dough into a 15cm disk. Use a large knife to cut the dough into eight equal wedges. Transfer them to the baking sheet, spacing them about 5cm apart.

6. Whisk together the egg, the remaining teaspoons of maple syrup and the heavy cream in a bowl, then use the mixture to liberally brush the tops of each scone. Sprinkle them with salt flakes.

7. Bake (middle rack) until the tops are lightly browned and the tops spring back when gently pressed, 16 to 18 minutes. Transfer the baking tray to a wire rack and let the scones cool, about 15 minutes, before serving or storing.

Makes 8

Tips:

■ For spices, you can use ground cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cloves, freshly grated nutmeg, ground cardamom or espresso powder.

■ To toast the cashews, spread them on a baking tray; bake for 8 to 12 minutes, or until fragrant and lightly browned. Cool completely before using.

Bread-n-Butter Pickle Corn Bread.

Photo: Goran Kosanovic/The Washington Post

Bread-n-butter pickle corn bread

As this rendition proves, the addition of chopped pickles is one of the better things to happen to this American staple. Working cottage cheese, Sriracha and – the real trick – some reserved pickle juice into the batter might just land this in the baking canon.

Ingredients

2½ cups (354g) big batch cornmeal dry mix (stir well before using)

1½ tsp table salt

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

½ cup buttermilk

½ cup cottage cheese, preferably full-fat

2 large eggs

1 cup drained bread-and-butter pickles, coarsely chopped, plus 3 tsp of their pickle juice (from the jar)

1½ tbsp Sriracha sauce (may substitute hot sauce of your choice)

½ cup (125g) unsalted melted butter, plus 1 tsp for the skillet

¼ cup chopped fresh chives

1½ tbsp chopped fresh dill

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C degrees. Preheat a 23cm cast-iron skillet on the stove on low heat, gradually increasing the heat to medium.

2. Combine the big batch cornmeal dry mix, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl.

3. Use a fork to whisk together the buttermilk, cottage cheese, eggs, pickle juice and the Sriracha in a large liquid measuring cup until well blended. Pour over the dry ingredients along with the melted butter, the chopped pickles, chives and dill; use a flexible spatula to stir and form a lumpy batter.

4. Melt the remaining teaspoon of butter in the hot skillet, tilting to coat. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake (middle rack) until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes.

5. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 to 20 minutes. Run a round-edged knife around the edges to loosen the bread, then invert onto the rack and lift off the pan. Let cool completely before serving. (The bread can also be served directly out of the skillet.)

Serves 10-12

Three-step basic cake

1. To make a basic single-layer cake (20cm square or 23cm round) or loaf cake (22cm by 11cm), use a fork to whisk together 2½ cups big batch dry mix, ⅓ cup castor sugar or packed light or dark brown sugar and up to two teaspoons spices in a mixing bowl.

2. Whisk together one cup buttermilk, unsweetened coconut milk, water or a fruit puree, two large eggs, up to 3½ teaspoons flavourings, 1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract, ½ cup unsalted melted butter in a liquid measuring cup, then pour over the dry mixture, along with up to 1½ cups of add-ins. Stir to form a lumpy batter. Pour into a greased/floured tin, scatter pre-bake toppings over the surface (optional).

3. Bake in a 190C oven for 35 to 40 minutes (square or round) or 55 to 60 minutes (loaf), until a tester inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cool for 15 to 20 minutes on a wire rack before removing from the pan to cool completely.

4. To make a two-layer cake, double the recipe and bake in two tins.

Three-step basic corn bread (sweet)

1. To make a 20cm square or 23cm round bread, use a fork to whisk together 2½ cups big batch cornmeal dry mix, ⅓ to ½ cup castor sugar or packed light or dark brown sugar and up to one teaspoon spices in a mixing bowl.

2. Whisk together one cup buttermilk, unsweetened coconut milk or a fruit puree, two large eggs, up to 3½ teaspoons flavourings and 1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract in a liquid measuring cup, then pour over the dry mixture, along with ½ cup unsalted melted butter and up to one cup of add-ins (optional). Gently fold until well blended, then pour into the greased/floured tin.

3. Bake in a 180C degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes (square) or 50 to 55 minutes (loaf). Cool on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes in the pan, then dislodge to cool completely.

Three-step basic chocolate cake

1. To make a basic single-layer cake (23cm round), whisk together 1¾ cups big batch chocolate dry mix, ¾ cup castor sugar, up to ¾ teaspoon spices (optional) and 1½ teaspoons instant espresso powder (optional) in a mixing bowl.

2. Add ¾ cup water, ½ cup oil, one large egg and 1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract and whisk to form a smooth batter. Pour into a greased/floured 23cm round layer cake tin and tap it gently on the counter to release some of the batter's air bubbles.

3. Bake in a 190C oven for about 40 minutes until a tester inserted into the centre comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes, then invert to dislodge and turn right side up on the rack to cool completely.

4. To make a two-layer cake, double the recipe and bake in two pans. To make 12 cupcakes, bake in a 190C oven for about 18 minutes.

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