I get embarrassed by box mixes.
I was raised in a household that had a 500 square foot garden and basically lived off of The Moosewood Cookbook. We went an entire year without having white flour in our house — and we’re talking early 80’s wheat bread, people, not this kinder, gentler soft stuff that we have these days. We’re talking bread that you couldn’t eat without some kind of lubrication condiment like butter or jelly or ketchup, because otherwise it was quite possible that you’d be taken out by a well-meaning dry turkey sandwich on wheat. You could shingle houses with the toast made from that bread, or strap slices onto your feet to wear instead of shoes.
So no box mixes when I was a kid. And I always coveted them then, when I’d see totally perfectly normal families with moms making brownies out of their Pillsbury box mix on the television commercials. I swore things would be different.
And now that I’m an adult? We actually don’t cook with them very often, but I still fetishize them a bit. And let’s be real — box mixes are sometimes a facet of life. There’s no judgement here — if a box mix means that you have the chance to make a rice pilaf without spending more than six bucks buying a bunch of different rices you’ll never use up or maybe you can throw together that Shake N Bake that tastes exactly like your grandmother’s short cut Friday night chicken? Then yay for box mixes!
Yet my own personal hang-ups on box mixes are compelling me to preface this particular recipe with a big caveat: I know how to make a damned good cake from scratch. I’ve tried lots and lots of from scratch cakes, vanilla, chocolate, spice, and carrot. And with the exception of the one weird WWII chocolate cake that requires a strange reaction with vinegar to turn it into the moist and lovely tangy concoction, none of them — not a one– is better than the similar flavor available in a box mix. Not a one.
I’m not sure if cake mixes just have better stabilizers or were simply perfected by teams of food scientists while my recipes were maybe tried and true by a handful of cookbook writers and church ladies, or maybe the 70’s just trained me that cake love tastes exactly like the product of a Duncan Hines red box full of mysteriously pre-measured goodness.
What’s more — this cake recipe actually requires a SECOND convenience box — and it’s the secret ingredient. It’s the one that no one will guess but if you leave it out, blammo, these are no longer magic. The secret ingredient: Instant butterscotch pudding. It sounds weird and yet, it’s perfection.
So, that being said, I actually tried to make this recipe from scratch once — with a pumpkin cake recipe that was very well regarded and a bit of butterscotch essence. And… underwhelming. So we stick with the tried and true formula.
I make this only once a year because they are controlled substances. It’s especially handy to use these magical pumpkin cupcakes as peace offerings, apologies, door openers or general karma earners because people will think you are some kind of culinary genius or something.
Usually I use regular canned pumpkin puree (which is actually any kind of winter squash puree, not what we think of as pumpkin, for real) but if you are diligent about putting up some sugar pumpkins from the farmer’s market, like Esteban did last year, you have a freezer full of 8 ounce baggies of roasted sugar pumpkin puree that you should probably use instead.
The original recipe is for a bundt cake and I tended to drizzle a vanilla glaze across the top so that it solidified, kind of like the glaze on a pumpkin crueller, but lately I’ve really been enjoying a classic cream cheese frosting. Sometimes I make it ginger cream cheese and garnish with some crystalized ginger (much to the surprise of my guests, who don’t expect that spicy BLAMMO when they bite into the ginger– I think they suspect it’s simply a gum drop… one way I prepare them for the evil deliciousness that is these cupcakes) but mostly I like to just throw some vanilla bean paste into the mixer while it’s whipping the cream cheese with the butter and powdered sugar. I also used cinnamon as the main flavor profile in a vanilla cupcake once and it was lovely and would likely work really well on pumpkin cupcakes too.
The recipe below makes just exactly enough for one dozen cream-cheese frosted cupcakes (and not an ounce more) so if you enjoy spooning entire ladles of frosting into your piehole (and if so, all hail, you clever person), make a double or a triple batch.
Super Easy Pumpkin Cupcakes
- 1 yellow cake mix
- 1 package instant butterscotch pudding
- 4 large eggs
- 1/4 cup water (you can also use carrot juice to amp up the flavor)
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 2 t “pumpkin pie spice)*
- 1 cup pumpkin puree
Preheat oven to 350. Using a mixer, beat the four eggs in a large bowl. Add the canned pumpkin and mix well, then add dry ingredients and water and oil. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds and then medium speed for at least two minutes, scraping the side of the bowl as needed.
Dish into muffin tins 2/3s of the way to the top and bake at 350 for 19-24 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Don’t overbake.
Let cool for at least ten minutes before inhaling because you can’t wait any longer because it smells like neverland in your kitchen. Wait at least 30 minutes before frosting with cream cheese or buttercream frosting, but a glaze can be done immediately.
*I don’t own “pumpkin pie spice” so I fake this with a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, ground cloves and a few hits of allspice. You can do that too and no one will notice, which is especially handy if you have food sensitivities to one of those things.
World’s Best Cream Cheese Frosting
The best part about this frosting is that if you are like me and already have butter sitting at room temperature in the butter dish on the counter, you don’t have to wait until the cream cheese softens — you can use it right out of the fridge.
This recipe originally was posted on Slashfood but then they removed it for some reason. Luckily I found the original on the WayBack Machine and here it is so that you don’t have to go through similar extremes (or in case they ever take it down). It’s modified by yours truly.
- 8 ounces cold cream cheese
- 5 ounces butter (regular/salted)
- 1 Tsp good vanilla bean paste
- 2 cups powdered sugar, SIFTED
Beat the cream cheese, butter and vanilla bean paste until pretty combined. While beating, add the sifted powdered sugar a spoonful at a time, letting each spoonful disappear completely before adding the next. When 3/4ths of the sugar has been added, start tasting for sweetness — it should not be overly sweet, but also shouldn’t taste like too much cream cheese.
I’ve found that 2 cups is pretty consistently perfect to go with the pumpkin cupcakes, but if you are making a sweeter base cake like chocolate or if you added carrot juice instead of water in this pumpkin cake recipe, you’ll definitely want to consider putting less sugar in the frosting.
Obviously, because this has cream cheese in it, it must be stored in the fridge and all resulting cakes should be stored in the fridge as well. Keeps for about 5 days under wraps.