Serious Eats: Sweets
Mixed Review: New Williams Sonoma All-Natural Cupcake Mixes
Why does someone use a boxed mix instead of baking from scratch? In my mind, there are a variety of possibilities. But let's start with the underlying premise: There is something desirable about a baked good that's made in your own oven over one that's purchased at the store. Boxed mixes wouldn't exist if people weren't drawn to a "homemade" sweet.
Beyond that, some possibilities:
- Option one: You are pressed for time. The boxed mix allows you to significantly reduce the time to produce a baked good in your own kitchen.
- Option two: You're pressed for money. Did you know you can get a box of Safeway Pantry Essentials Blueberry Muffin Mix for $0.79?
- Option three: You think of yourself as a bad baker, or at least as someone who needs some help. You believe that a sweet made from a mix will turn out better than a sweet you make from scratch.
- Option four: You're a 20-something girl in college. Hitting the student kitchen with your friends, a box of Betty Crocker mix, and a bottle of Yellow Tail is practically a required course.
It probably comes as no surprise that I'm skeptical of option number three. I don't believe in bad bakers, I believe in bad grandmothers who didn't show their grandkids how to bake. Just kidding—but I do think that baking is every bit as accessible as cooking, all those measuring cups just make it seem more difficult than it is. And yet I have to believe that option number three is the only explanation for who would purchase Williams Sonoma's New All-Natural Cupcake Mixes.
There are five varieties of the new cupcake mix: vanilla bean, coconut, chocolate, meyer lemon, and red velvet ($14.95/mix). There are also four premade frostings: vanilla bean, meyer lemon, coconut, and chocolate ($19.95/24-ounce jar). I decided to try one standard mix (vanilla bean) and one of what I will call the "special flavors" (red velvet) as well as the frosting that could go on any of the cupcakes: vanilla bean.
Vanilla Bean Cupcakes:
The first thing I noticed about this cupcake mix was the instructions. I mean I have made quite a few cake mixes in my day, and never have I come across instructions like these. First you whisk together milk and eggs in a small bowl. Then, in a separate, larger bowl, you beat together cold diced butter and the mix (Wait? Are we making scones?) until it comes together into a crumbly, sandy mix. This took an annoyingly long time to do, and it seemed as if the mix and the butter just didn't want to come together. Then you add the milk-egg mixture in three parts, "stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowls between additions." Here, Williams Sonoma could not be more of an antithesis to the less-is-more approach of Duncan Hines and co., who sell their product with the promise that the process is just a glossy "add, mix, bake!"
Now if I was someone who perceived myself as unable to make cupcakes at home, I can't see how I would be anything less than intimidated by the extensive, cookbook-esque directions and less than obvious steps. This is in addition to the fact that I think that box mixes should try to rely on melted butter, because creaming butter is the step that most bakers are probably trying to avoid.
Then there's the cost issue. At $14.95 per mix (without the eggs, butter, milk, or frosting that you must provide separately) each of the 12 cupcakes will cost you a couple of dollars (not including labor). With that price, why on earth wouldn't I just go to one of the gazillion cupcakes shops around town? I guess it's that underlying premise we talked about, but still, it seems wrong.
So with all this kvetching I was doing, you might wonder if I even had time to taste the final product. Well, I did. The vanilla bean cupcakes taste very good—much better than other boxed mixes. You can see small flecks of vanilla bean on the surface of each cupcake, and they have a strong, rounded vanilla flavor that is accented by a pleasant eggy-ness. I did take issue with the texture. Many of the cupcakes had air pockets—no doubt caused by my own inability to get the flour and butter mixed to the right consistency. But given that I baked them at what I thought was the correct "sandy texture" I can't help but think I won't be the only person with this problem.
Red Velvet Cupcakes:
In addition to the mix, the red velvet cupcakes require buttermilk, white vinegar, eggs, and vegetable oil. This violates another rule I have for mixes: every add-in should be stocked in my fridge or pantry. Buttermilk isn't something I normally have on hand, and I found myself running to the store when I finally read the directions on the back of the box. Also, because I didn't have any generic white vinegar (and didn't want to buy any), I ended up using the only white vinegar I had: an artisanal organic Sonoma champagne vinegar, and yes, I felt like an ass.
Still, this mix was much easier to put together than the vanilla bean mix, and the cupcakes baked up soft and without any holes. Here it was the taste that was the issue. Unlike the fragrant, flavorful vanilla bean cupcakes, these were too subtle. I had to eat an entire Jumbo muffin pan-sized cupcake to really get the chocolate taste.
Vanilla Butter Cream Frosting:
Given that the whole point of this frosting is that it's all natural and doesn't contain hydrogenated oils, I was surprised by the greasy texture and film it left on my tongue. I was also expecting a more authentic vanilla flavor. The cupcakes seemed to genuinely derive flavor from vanilla beans, while this pretty much resembled any other vanilla frosting in a can. I don't necessarily mind that taste, but I do when it's costing me $20 a jar.
Verdict: A good boxed mix hits a balance between price, ease of assembly, and taste. I appreciate that Williams Sonoma is trying to go all-natural, but with the high price tag and complicated directions, I'd rather just buy an equally overpriced cupcake and call it a day.