Anne Byrn's 'A New Take on Cake' teaches home cooks easy ways to dress up cake mix
According to Anne Byrn, the kitchen is an equalizer where healing our divisions might begin with cake mix.
Hear her out: Cake mix is affordable, accessible and the perfect entryway to baking for the time-starved. Even if professional purists may turn up their noses at incorporating a mix into any "serious" recipe, no home cook will complain if you bring a mix-made cake to a party.
"Maybe we're less critical of each other in the home kitchen," Byrn said.
Formerly a food editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a graduate of the La Varenne École de Cuisine in Paris, Byrn once again lives in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.
Her latest cookbook, A New Take on Cake, features recipes with one secret in common: they were based on cake mixes and finished with homemade frosting.
The cookbook is a modern take on The Cake Mix Doctor, which Byrn released more than 20 years ago. Though it was immediately popular, it was still an unusual turn for a classically trained food expert.
The concept came about essentially by accident.
In the '90s, Byrn worked as a freelancer for The Tennessean. Before heading off on vacation one summer, she wrote a column about a cake her mother used to make using a doctored mix. She returned to a desk piled high with similar recipes mailed in from readers.
"Cooks throughout Tennessee were sharing ways to take a cake mix and make it better," Byrn said. "I interviewed a lot of those cooks and got a lot of material, and some of these stories started going out on the wire and getting picked up by big papers."
Byrn, a savvy reporter, knew she had a hit on her hands.
"I had a book agent, but I hadn't published anything with her — just batted around ideas," she said. "And I got in touch with her and said, 'Nancy, this story has really taken off. Do you think there could be a book there?'"
Nancy did, and Byrn quit her column and published a book in 1999. Soon, the former restaurant reviewer who learned how to make croissants in Paris was on a book tour espousing the benefits of boxed mix.
"You just have to set your gourmet crown aside," Byrn said. "These are recipes that people loved and anyone could make cheaply and well."
Byrn said her culinary background has helped her coax home cooks along in their journey. She feels well equipped to answer with ease nearly any kitchen question that arises.
Still, she added, she does have her principles. "You can get away with a cake mix, but you have to make frosting from scratch," she said. "That became the mantra of the book."
For all of The Cake Doctor's popularity, it's easy to wonder why Byrn might reinvent the wheel.
Much has changed in the past two decades, she said. A New Take on Cake is updated with guidance on natural mixes and cakes that fit various dietary restrictions without appearing restrictive.
There's a vegan chocolate cake with Nutella icing, for example, and a gluten-free vanilla cake with cherry buttercream. There are loaf cakes and sheet cakes to make things less stressful for the novice.
"Layer cakes are where people start to lose it," Byrn said.
In the interim between books, Byrn also had time to fine-tune the recipes, a necessity spurred by manufacturers' downsizing of cake mix boxes over the years. With baking a fairly exact science, removing even a few ounces of mix can really mess up a recipe.
"People kept coming up with workarounds," Byrn said. "But I thought if I ever redid the Cake Mix Doctor I would retest the recipes with smaller cake mixes and make them work."
She also added new photos, making each cake pictured in the book herself with tools most home bakers have on hand.
Though the idea has always been to level the playing field, not everyone has had positive feedback to offer along Byrn's journey.
"When I was on my first book tour, people were snubbing cake mix," she said. "Food police and gourmets and a lot of food writers from newspapers and other outlets wondered who had the audacity to write a book starring cake mix."
But baking is baking. Byrn said her idea is to help people get creative in the kitchen with fewer resources.
As it turns out, spending less time in the kitchen makes Byrn's concept perfectly modern.
"I didn't really know then, but I do now — cake mixes for a lot of people are empowering and liberating," Byrn said. "A reader thanked me for writing a feminist cookbook that got her out of the kitchen. She didn't have to spend hours making a cake."
Neither do you. Try Byrn's cake mixed-based recipes below:
Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South. Sign up for my newsletter here.
Reach me: firstname.lastname@example.org