The top choice will shock you.
I did something stupid last weekend, but I did it for you.
It’s been a long year, obviously. My last post on this wandering blog was *checks watch* April, and now we’re about to face what is likely to be the most important election of our lifetimes. If you’re anything like me, cooking, let alone baking, has become more of chore in recents weeks than it has ever been before. I find myself standing in my kitchen, staring at uncut beets and bags of rice like they have just dropped from outer space. Anyone who knows me well will attest to my notorious contempt for box-mixed anything, especially desserts, and that’s how you should know how far I’ve fallen.
Folks, last weekend I spent roughly the equivalent of a workday mixing, microwaving, and taste-testing all of the store-bought mug cake mixes I could get my hands on. Yes, mug cakes. The cozy mini-desserts that wizards manage to post great pictures of on Pinterest. The things you always think are a time-saver until you actually have to make them, from scratch, in the midst of global health crisis and a political system on the verge of collapse. In a world where even one of us, let alone all of us, has to listen to Donald Drumpf belch into a microphone for two minutes straight, the time it takes to assemble the ingredients for a mug cake is just too long.
So, in light of our collective exhaustion and lowered standards, I’ve compiled for you a list of eight mug cake mixes that were available at my local Target (and probably will be at yours, too) that you may stock up on before next week happens to us. Trust me, you will need them.
I’ve ranked the cakes out of a top score of 15, with 5 points going to Texture, Taste, and Ease. Yes, I deducted points for any kind of finagling other than add liquid/mix/microwave. We simply do not have the bandwidth. I also, as a general rule, followed the maker’s “special” instructions if they suggested milk, coffee, cream, etc. as a replacement for water, because that’s baking/cooking 101 and the steps to the fridge are the same as those to the sink in my house. Price is somewhat of a factor in my ranking as well, but it’s applied vaguely and arbitrarily in much the same way that our current government applies things like “rules” and “morals.” I am the Majority Leader of this blog, and I wield my power with reckless abandon.
Without further ado, here are your mug cakes.
8. Duncan Hines Keto Birthday Cake – 4/15
Alex and I did the Keto thing for a while. It’s nice if you are a big fan of meats and cheese and butter and mayonnaise and other fatty things (which I am, Alex not so much), and with a little thought you can put together a satisfactory dessert with almond flour, cream cheese, peanut butter, etc.
The thing about this mug cake, though, is that there was seemingly no thought put into its creation. I neglected to photograph the ingredients list for you, but the flavor and texture combo indicated that the makers thought it sufficient to toss almond flour with a bit of Stevia and baking powder, add a few droplets of food coloring, leave the addition of the butter to you, and call it a day. For the size of the cup there was almost no rise. The cake was dry and mildly, generically sweet, and for a product advertised with sprinkles all over the container, there was no crunch from actual sprinkles.
If you’re Keto and need a mug cake, you’re probably better off putting in a bit more effort (sorry!) and making your own. Here are a couple that look good.
7. Duncan Hines Confetti – 5/15
As you can see from the photo, a few things went wrong here. As I warned you, I took “make it better” suggestions seriously, and in this case Ducan Hines made two.
I should have known to question their judgment when the first suggestion was to mix fresh strawberries into the batter, because anyone who has ever had the displeasure of microwaving a strawberry knows what kind of soggy mess awaits them at the end of that journey. Still (and for lack of fresh strawberries) I went with their second suggestion, which was to add 5 tablespoons of heavy cream instead of the typical 3 tablespoons of water, milk, etc. The batter came out very thick and clumpy and I knew I should have added more cream or a thinner liquid, but I stuck to my principles and stuck the thing in the microwave as directed.
What emerged, unsurprisingly, was a supremely dense cake with (still!) no sprinkle crunch. The flavor wasn’t bad, but eating the cake felt like slogging through the muck of the ocean floor at low tide. Not to mention the frosting, which drug up pieces of the cake as I tried to spread it until I gave up and left it in an undignified heap in the center. Mug cakes aren’t required to be pretty, but it was clear from looking at this one that something had gone wrong. Maybe it was my fault, maybe it was theirs, but there was still no sprinkle crunch. Ergo, 7th place and strike two for Duncan Hines.
6. Betty Crocker Chocolate Brownie – 12/15
Things were already looking up for this option because of the word brownie. Despite the title of this post, the reality is that the dense, deeply chocolate concoction that will absorb your anxieties is not the definition of cake. If you think about it, the light, springy, simplistic nature of cake is disappointing when you want to drown your sorrows in dessert. Assuming that a mug cake is the traditional 2-part structure of cake (the dry part and the frosting) and not a Milk Bar-esque discovery voyage into What Dessert Could Be, a mug cake, in principle, will be disappointing. That’s why you need a mug brownie.
This option was straightforward, easy to mix, and expectedly didn’t rise as much as a cake mix would. The fudge icing was easy to put on and had a pleasing shine. The texture was suitably dense and the chocolate was intense, but that’s where it began to lose points. Rich chocolate is a good thing, but it was clear that it wasn’t the chocolate that was rich here. It was the sugar content, which left a cloying, sickeningly sweet aftertaste in my mouth. Even if I had been insane enough to eat any of these mugs whole, I would have stopped halfway at this one.
In short, it’ll do in a pinch, but you’ll probably regret the taste for a good while after.
5. Duncan Hines Chocolate Cake – 13/15
We’re back to an officially-named cake for two reasons: texture and price.
Much like the ill-fated Duncan Hines Rainbow Chip, this DH chocolate cake is slightly cheaper than most of the other options. The instruction to replace water with coffee was far more effective than the heavy cream debacle, and the frosting was smoother and easier to spread. Add to that the fact that the mix was dotted with chocolate chips, and I was (somewhat) sold. It’s the little things that matter these days, and Mama loves a texture contrast.
That said, I ran into a similar problem as the Betty Crocker Chocolate Brownie in that the chocolate taste, while pleasant at first, quickly morphs into something like sweet gasoline being poured down your throat. These are flavors that are familiar to the American palate, to be fair, but we’re talking 2020 Election Soothe Foods here. No standard is too high unless it makes you turn on the actual oven.
4. Betty Crocker Rainbow Chip – 13/15
The price on the Betty Crocker Rainbow Chip Cake is slightly higher than anything from Duncan Hines, but it’s higher on the list out of the goodness of my heart. I feel a responsibility to bring value to my dedicated Funfetti people. I’m a chocolate devotee myself and would have stuck all the Funfettis at the bottom just because they weren’t chocolate, but I’m too benevolent to rule like that. This is the best Funfetti (excuse me, “rainbow chip”) cake I tried, and I’m putting it at #4 just for you, Sprinkle Kittens.
Much like the other BC option, this was easy to put together. Add milk. Stir. Heat. Frost. The rise on this cake is what most impressed me, filling up the entirety of the ramekin with a cake that was close to the texture of angel food, but dotted with sprinkles that actually crunched!
The frosting, too, was mixed with a good helping of sprinkles that stayed entirely intact and added to the satisfying texture of the whole thing. My main complaint is that the instructions suggested I frost the cake while it was hot (to be fair, who is going to wait for a mug cake to cool?) so the pretty frosting job I’d done melted into a puddle before I got to take a picture.
Still, if you’re a Funfetti fanatic, this is the cake for you. Go wild.
3. Udi’s Gluten Free Brownie – 14/15
Gluten-free friends won’t be surprised that buying this Udi’s number comes with the sacrifice of your firstborn child, or around $5 for a package of 4 mix packets. You choose.
Still, the price could well be worth it even to gluten-lovers because this, my friends, is where we get to the real mug
cakes brownies. When I originally prepared it during my side-by-side taste test, I followed the instructions to the letter and got a heavy, clumpy batter and an accordingly dense (yet still dry?) cake. The chocolate flavor was good, so I had put this one squarely in the “not great, not horrible” middle.
Then, a couple of days later, my husband wanted to try one. I made a mug for each of us and, frustrated by the thick batter again, added more milk than the prescribed 3 tablespoons until I got two batters that drizzled off the spoons easily. What I ended up with were two rich, pleasantly moist, deeply chocolate brownies that stuck to the spoon and the mug in the best way, where you end up nibbling gooey brownie bits off the tip of your spoon for half an hour after you’ve finished the actual mug. With a scoop of ice cream, they’d be heaven.
So I broke my own rules and bumped the Udi’s mug up to #3 because it was that good. Your firstborn children will write to you, I’m sure.
2. Ghirardelli Brownie – 14/15
It should come as a surprise to no one that the brand known for chocolates that make you feel vaguely fancy when you are objectively not would do a bang up job making the humble mug cake into something rich and indulgent. With minimal effort (there’s a 30-second resting period after you first mix the batter for some reason) you get a brownie that is ultra-moist with a round, deep chocolate taste and melty chocolate chips that give the whole thing the impression of a lava cake.
If you have a sensitive palate or are mostly averse to sweet things, I will warn you that the Ghirardelli Brownie is very sweet. Between the mix and the chocolate chips it’s going to satiate your sugar craving, possibly too much, though it doesn’t have the same unpleasant aftertaste as other selections on this list. While you’re well within your rights to dump a boatload of ice cream on this mug and devour it with unblinking eyes as you watch the world collapse, my topping of preference would probably be a whipped cream that’s lightly sweetened, if at all, and maybe a strawberry if you have it. Keep it classy with the Ghirardelli, ya know?
1. Kodiak Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownie – 15/15
I told y’all I held the power in this corner of the internet and I intended to wield it. I warned you.
There was a period of days between side-by-side testing and writing of this post when Ghirardelli was #1.
“Most people will like that one,” I said. “I’ll do it for the people.”
But at the end of the day, I did this for you, but also did it for me. And me really, really, really loves dark chocolate and peanut butter. If I can have those things and feel a modicum of peace that what I’m eating has health benefits, there’s no turning back. No fighting it. The Kodiak Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownie is my top recommendation for a 2020 election soothing snack and you’re all going to have to live with that.
The preparation is straightforward. ¼ cup of water or milk (use milk), mixed into the cup itself and stuck in the microwave for 1 minute and 10-15 seconds. What results is a dark chocolate, somewhat chewy but moist, satisfying brownie dotted with partly-crunchy, partly melty peanut butter chocolate chips. It’s not overly sweet and has a roasted peanut flavor in the background that I find perfectly suited for fall and for being a spectator in the decline of democracy. It would be divine with a caramel ice cream or just paired with a cup of coffee. Come Election Night I’ll probably have both.
In conclusion, a few rules:
- Price does make a difference. If you can cough up a little more, you’ll get a better mug cake.
- If the mug is chocolate and the directions say to use water, use coffee.
- The mix should always be loose but not watery. Add more liquid than they tell you to if it’s clumpy.
- Keep your own sprinkles on hand if you’re a sprinkle fiend.
- Don’t microwave strawberries.
- Vote if you haven’t already voted. Go. Do it. Now.
- Be safe and don’t give up. I love you.