personal essay

My Mom Hacked Cake Mix to Make the Best Birthday Cake Ever

updated Jul 14, 2020
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the author and her mom with a birthday cake
Credit: Kelsey Ogletree

Birthdays were always big deal in our house when I was growing up. And, with my two brothers and I all celebrating within a few weeks of each other, we ate a lot of cake in March and April. It was always the same cake, Mom’s secret recipe, but we didn’t mind, because this cake was out of this world. It had even non-dessert lovers asking for a second piece, and it only got better with time. Mom baked it at night after we’d gone to bed; in the morning, we’d wake up to find the windows behind the kitchen table decorated with balloons and a homemade “Happy Birthday” sign, and a beautiful cake tucked into the fridge.

As I grew older and developed a love for baking myself, I tried lots of my mom’s recipes, but never the cake. It felt sacrilegious in some way, to ask her to spill her secret. Then, at my bridal shower, my mom gave me the most special gift: A handwritten book of all our favorite family recipes, including, to my surprise, the birthday cake.

The even greater surprise? It was essentially doctored-up cake mix. All this time, we’d been thinking she made this legendary confection entirely from scratch. In fact, discovering the secret to mom’s cake inspired me even more. It demonstrated how my mom was able to make something amazing from the humblest ingredients. (That’s actually a metaphor for nearly everything my mom does.)

Credit: Kelsey Ogletree

How to Make My Mom’s Legendary Birthday Cake with Cake Mix

Start with one box of cake mix. When it comes to the cake mix, you should use whatever brand you prefer, whether that’s Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, or something else. The key here is to pick one that doesn’t already have pudding in it, because you’re adding your own pudding mix.

And one small box of instant pudding mix. My mom and I prefer to use the Jell-O brand of pudding because it comes in so many flavors: banana cream, butterscotch, vanilla, white chocolate, cheesecake, chocolate fudge and more. You can mix and match your cake and pudding mix flavors to come up with something to suit your tastes. White cake mix and white chocolate pudding are an excellent combination, for example; but chocolate and chocolate, yellow and lemon, or Funfetti and vanilla also pair nicely.

Skip the oil. To make this birthday cake, add one box cake mix, one small box of instant pudding mix, 2 cups of milk and two eggs to the bowl of a large stand mixer. Beat all ingredients together, starting slow then ramping up the speed until the batter has lots of air incorporated and looks fluffy. Do not add the oil as directed on the back of the cake mix box.

Rest the batter. After you’re done mixing, let the batter sit for about 10 minutes. This helps the milk and pudding to work their magic, creating a thicker batter that will result in that moist, dense crumb that makes this cake so tasty. Depending on whether you want a two-layer rectangular cake or a three-layer round one, prep one 9-by-13-inch pan or three 8-inch round pans with cooking spray. Pour batter into the pan or pans and bake according to the directions on the back of the cake mix box.

Chill the cake layers. Cool cakes for about 15 minutes in the pans, then transfer to a cooling rack. My mom has found the most success achieving the ideal cake texture by freezing the layers ahead of frosting the cake, so it’s worth trying if you have the time. The layers can be refrigerated or frozen with wax paper in between and tightly covered in plastic wrap. Simply defrost them in the refrigerator for a few hours before assembling and frosting your cake.

Credit: Kelsey Ogletree

Make the frosting. Is a cake without frosting really even a cake? You can’t go wrong with my mom’s brownie frosting: In a small saucepan, melt 1/4 cup butter then stir in 1 cup sugar and 1/4 cup milk. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently; boil while stirring for one minute. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, 1/2 cup mini marshmallows and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir until smooth and all ingredients are melted and incorporated.

Cool the frosting. This frosting will thicken while it cools. Let it sit for about five minutes as you’re preparing your layers to frost — just don’t wait too long, as it will become too thick to spread if it cools to room temperature.

Just add sprinkles. For the finishing touch, you can get as fancy as you want with a piping bag — but the way my family has come to love this cake is simply doused in tons of colorful sprinkles. Again, the frosting sets up quickly, so have your sprinkles at the ready to quickly add to the top (and sides, if you wish) so they’ll stick.

If you make this cake, I hope you’ll love it as much as my family does. This year, I’ll be celebrating my birthday many states apart from my mom due to the current quarantine. It’s a comfort to be able to make my mom’s special cake, but it never turns out quite the same. As cheesy as it sounds, her real secret ingredient, I think, is love.