January 8, 2019 | Posted by Stephanie Banyas
I love baking from scratch. In fact, the last time that I probably used a boxed mix was when I was in college (many moons ago.) It was a brownie mix and I ate those brownies while still piping hot directly out of the pan with a spoon. They were delicious. Then again, that was almost 30 years ago...
Lately, though, I have noticed an onslaught of high-end boxed/bag mixes on my grocery store shelves, in specialty markets such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and in upscale kitchen supply stores like King Arthur Flour, Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table that have piqued my interest. The labels list high quality ingredients such as pure cane sugar, Dutch processed cocoa, bittersweet chocolate and real vanilla extract. Even the old school brands such as Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker have up’d their game and now feature gourmet versions such as Red Velvet, Triple Chocolate Fudge, Butter Pecan, Rainbow Chip and Tres Leches.
The directions are easy: Add eggs, fat (oil or butter) and water and mix and viola, in less than an hour, you can have warm delicious cookies or quick breads or muffins, brownies, cakes and cupcakes. No chopping or creaming or folding needed and no fancy equipment or mixer required. If you own a mixing bowl, a measuring cup, a whisk or a mixing spoon, you are pretty much good to go.
I think that these mixes are really kind of perfect for the person who has limited baking experience or simply doesn’t like baking (umm, hello our boss Bobby Flay.) They can also serve a purpose for the busy man or woman who loves having a freshly made “homemade” dessert at the end of their meal or for the Mom or Dad who wants to bring something a step-above store bought for their kids bake sale at school but doesn’t have the time to make it from scratch. So, being the curious person that I am and more importantly, being a lover of all things baked and sweet, I decided to try some of the different mixes in stores today.
In the past few months, I have tested high-end versions (ranging from around $12 up to $25 a box.) and also more affordable, easier to find versions (ranging from about $3 to $8 a box.) I have tested cookies, biscuits, muffins, quick breads and cakes and in the coming months I will share my results along with a recipe that I have created by using the mix as a base.
Since a new Trader Joes’ just opened on my block in Manhattan (lucky me!) I decided to give a few of their boxed baking mixes a try first. I started with their banana bread. I love a quick bread and one of my all-time favorites is banana. I have a killer recipe for homemade Brown Butter Banana Bread (given to me by a dear friend by the name of Susie Vu) that is pretty much perfect. I knew that this (box) version had no chances of living up to that (homemade) version but that isn’t the point of this post. Here is what I wanted to know: Does it taste good? Does the banana flavor come through? Is the texture dense or light as air? Is it moist? Is it worth the money? Does it taste good enough to serve to a good friend?
The bread comes together easily: Pour the dry mix into a bowl, add eggs, oil and water. Whisk until just smooth then pour into a loaf pan and bake (the box says for 40 minutes) however, our office test kitchen oven baked it in about 30 minutes. I took it out when a toothpick inserted into the center came out with a few moist crumbs attached. It had a lovely golden brown color and a moist, slightly dense crumb. What it did not have was the smell or taste of banana. The ingredient list does contain banana flakes which I am assuming are dehydrated bananas processed into flakes. As a banana bread, I did not love it and it did not pass my test but I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet!
The next day, I decided to do a version of the recipe listed on the back of the box for Caramelized Banana-Upside Down Cake. Since this recipe included bananas (for the topping,) I knew at least this version would taste of banana. But how would the bread mix itself stand up as a cake?
The first thing that I did was swap out good old H2O for strongly brewed coffee (adding a flavored liquid in place of water in these mixes is one of the best tips for increasing the flavor.) The coffee flavor is not in your face, it really just rounds out the banana and adds a deep toasty flavor that I love. I also added a good dose of pure vanilla extract (because vanilla is like salt in that it brings out flavor in things that don’t really have any flavor) and a good dash of ground cinnamon (for that Bananas Foster thing) I kept the oil in the mix because the topping was very buttery and because oil, in my opinion, will always yield a moister cake than butter.
The recipe on the box called for making your own caramel by combining butter and brown sugar in a pot…I had some leftover dulce de leche in the refrigerator from a milkshake recipe that I had tested for Bobby’s Burger Palace a few weeks ago so I combined that and unsalted butter and a good pinch of sea salt in a pan and cooked it until melted and bubbly. I transferred the topping to a well-sprayed 9-inch square cake pan and then topped the caramel with sliced, very ripe, banana (important for flavor). I spread the batter over the topping and baked until golden brown and a few moist crumbs on the toothpick. The box suggested 55 to 65 minutes, once again, my office oven baked it in about 40 minutes.
I let the cake rest on a baking rack for about 10 minutes to allow the caramel topping to set slightly then I carefully inverted it onto a platter. Not being able to wait just like with those brownies all those years ago, I ate it while it was still very warm. The verdict? It was delicious and I would be happy to serve it at my next brunch or dinner party and yes, even to a good friend. Give it a try and let me know what you think by sending your reviews or questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yields: 6 to 9 slices
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup prepared dulce de leche
3 large ripe bananas, peeled and sliced crosswise into thin rounds
2 large eggs
1/3 cup neutral oil (such as vegetable or safflower)
¾ cup brewed coffee, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 15 ounce box Trader Joe’s Banana Bread Mix
1.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray the bottom and sides a 9-inch square pan (can use round too) with nonstick spray. Set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat, add the dulce de leche, bring to a simmer and whisk until smooth. Pour the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan, let sit for 5 minutes. Place the bananas evenly over the top of the caramel.
3. Whisk together the eggs, oil, coffee, vanilla and cinnamon in a medium bowl until smooth. Add the banana bread mix and whisk until smooth. Scrape the batter evenly over the topping. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry, about 35 minutes. Remove the pan to a baking rack and let sit 10 minutes.
4. Run a butter knife around the edges to loosen. Invert onto a serving platter.