Potluck Perfection: Pillsbury’s Key Lime Cupcakes


We see them in the grocery stores; the brightly colored seasonal boxes with cakes and cupcakes that make your mouth water. For some of us there’s a voice in our head that says, “But it’s a box mix!” and that means artificial flavor and color, and therefore a lack of quality that we might have become accustomed to. And then there’s the rest of us who say, “OMG those would be perfect for that picnic, cookout, or potluck we’re going to this summer!” knowing that the summer months are going to be busy and we just need something easy.

I’m a mixture of both. As much as I crave a nice, gourmet quality cupcake, I haven’t outgrown my roots in boxed cake mixes. So, succumbing to the bright summer colors, I bought Pillsbury’s Key Lime cake mix and frosting (as well as their Pink Lemonade, which is still in my pantry  you may remember that we also tried their Orange Creamsicle earlier this season).

I battled with the urge to doctor up the cake and frosting, to customize them in some way. I originally wanted to pipe the frosting, but knew that I wouldn’t have enough in the tub for two dozen, and it wouldn’t set properly. And I really wanted to be able to give you an honest review of what you get straight from the box.

My solution? To make a homemade white chocolate ganache filling.


For the filling I used white chocolate chips and, instead of butter (which can discolor the white chocolate) or heavy cream (which I just didn’t have), I used 2% milk. I had to let the ganache cool first because it was too runny when warm, but it worked beautifully even with milk.

I kept the decoration simple and the frosting minimal since it’s so sweet. Topped with some shaved white chocolate pieces, I was pleasantly surprised with how pretty they were in the end!


The cake and frosting were both tangy, but there was definitely an unmistakable “fake-ness” to the key lime flavor. It actually made my tongue tingle a little (like when you eat too many Pixie Sticks or sour candies…I know I’m not alone here, right?!). But the cake was super moist and fluffy, one of the reasons I come back to box mixes time and time again. The white chocolate was the PERFECT pairing for this cupcake. It brought down the artificial tang (and tingle), and added that custom, high-end quality I was looking for.

I brought the cupcakes to my calligraphy guild’s pre-summer social. There were so many treats, all homemade of course. My cupcakes looked amazing, but the real test was: How would they stand-up to these people who clearly appreciate family recipes? Well, people literally gawked when I told them it was a box mix. So, they either agreed with me and the white chocolate ganache added the needed pizazz, or they just aren’t as picky as I worried they might be. Either way, if you are in a bind and need a quick dessert this summer, I think you’ll be safe picking up this box mix.

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Jenn (Westminster, MD)


A Baking Adventure: Orange Chocolate Cupcakes

A few weeks ago I needed to bring a dessert to an event. It was fairly last minute, so I thought, “What do I have in the house that I can make?” Well, of course that means cupcakes. I always have cake mixes and and tub frosting (from my former life where I didn’t making my own frosting). I had a chocolate mix that made 12 cupcakes, which would be perfect. I didn’t have any fun frosting flavors, and the buttercream is always so sweet, so I thought, “What can I add to this that will go with chocolate?” Browsing the fridge, I saw an orange. Perfect!

I added chocolate chips to the cake batter because the coloring seemed light and I was worried about how chocolaty it would be, especially since it wasn’t a brand name. After getting the batter together and in the oven, I zested the orange and added that to the tub frosting.

The citrus really helped cut down on the sweetness of the frosting. Then, to keep it simple, I spread the frosting on top (instead of piping) and topped it with some chocolate sprinkles.

The cupcakes were a huge hit at the cook-out. No one was surprised to see that I brought cupcakes and after having tasted my cupcakes before, from our bake sale, they went fast! I really loved one young girl’s method of licking of the frosting off and then removing all the chocolate chips from the cake to eat those before finishing the cake. Guess it’s a good thing I added those!

Although I usually try to challenge myself in these baking adventures, this was a really good experience in taking things I already had on hand and modifying them to make the results a little more special.

We’d love to hear about easy additions you make to recipes to bring them up a notch!

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Jenn (Westminster, MD)

Baking & Decorating Experiment: Hummingbird Cupcakes

On my mom’s recent visit to Maryland, she wanted Stacy and I to take her to a couple of our favorite cupcake places. One of those places was Kupcakes & Co., which we ranked number 1 in our Top 5 outside Baltimore City. While there, I tried their hummingbird cupcake for the first time. It was described as banana, pineapple, pecans, a little spice, and topped with cream cheese frosting, kind of like a spring-summer carrot cake. At the time, I thought this was a unique creation, but then I started seeing other places promoting their hummingbird cupcakes. I guess I’m still an amateur at this!

Having loved Kupcakes & Co.’s hummingbird cupcake, I decided that for my spring-into-summer recipe I wanted this to be the cake. I also wanted to dabble with decorating cupcakes differently, to practice some techniques. After researching the cake, I wasn’t sure if it would be sacrilegious to top a cupcake, based off a traditional southern recipe, with a springtime explosion. But these are my cupcakes after all! I found out that some recipes call for including coconut on top and thought this would be perfect for “grass.” I also wanted to practice piping flowers and hard royal icing decorations, so I did it all!

Since I knew I’d be spending time on the decorations, I wanted the cake to be easy. I scoured the internet for a recipe that used a box mix to start, but had more trouble finding one than I anticipated. I discovered that the cake was a standard yellow cake, so just when I thought I would have to wing it, I finally found Duncan Hine’s recipe (now I know to just start at their website)! The recipe calls for the addition of Maraschino cherries, but since I hadn’t found that in other recipes, or in Kupcakes & Co.’s version, I decided to leave them out. I also added a whole banana, instead of just half, and substituted walnuts for pecans. That was a last minute decision, after seeing how much more pecans cost versus walnuts. I had no idea!

(Cake ingredients)

(I love texture in cake. Look at all of those yummy walnuts!)

The cake part was really easy. I did make my own cream cheese frosting and after debating on which to go with, choose one from SlashFood. The reviews were good and it seemed similar to some of the other frostings I’ve made that start with a cream cheese base. I added extra confectioner’s sugar to get the consistency right, but I think that’s because I choose to do this on a warm day. I used to think making frosting was complicated, but not anymore (or at least not the recipes I use)!

(Four simple ingredients to the cream cheese frosting.)

Starting the decorating process, I dyed shredded coconut using green food color. I had read about adding the dye to a little water first, but it just made the coconut almost too wet to work with. In the future, I will just put the dye right in, shake it up, and see what happens. After the coconut was green, I took my frosted cupcakes and dipped them into the coconut to completely cover the tops.

(Since you don’t have to worry about what the frosting looks like, I just used a butter knife to slather it on.)

(I didn’t think so much of the frosting would show through the green coconut.)

Prior to getting the decorating started, I experimented with the royal icing. I knew a form of royal icing is used in gingerbread houses as the “glue.” I thought it was just water and confectioner’s sugar and found recipes that only called for that, but it wasn’t setting up the way I planned. More research led me to discover that in order for it to get really hard, you have to add Meringue Powder. Who knew?! I learn something knew every time…

Since I wouldn’t be able to go out until the next day, I tried creating some piped flowers. After trial and error, I now realize that 1) it was just too warm in the house to get buttercream to cooperate and 2) I need more piping tips to choose from.

After a trip out the next day, with my cupcakes only half decorated (and some with failed flower attempts), I was finally able to get the royal icing decorations done. The consistency still wasn’t where I wanted it, even after adding more water than called for (maybe this is why sifting first is so important?), but I worked with it anyway and I’m pretty pleased with how they turned out!

(Before piping, I sketched a couple of flowers and hummingbirds. Then I covered the sketches with wax paper, to use as a template.)

In the end, I had 3 versions of decorated cupcakes:

(I still wanted to make some traditional looking. I love the minimalistic look and I wanted to taste the cupcakes without the coconut, to see which I preferred.)

(My attempt at piping flowers. From far away, and at the right angle, they don’t look too bad…)

(Maybe not a traditional look, but I think they look great for a spring party!)

Flavor wise, the cake turned out great (but still not as good as Kupcakes & Co.)! I like the coconut on top because the cream cheese frosting turned out a little sweeter than I prefer, so the coconut toned it down.

Aside from having some great tasting cupcakes, I learned some new things. My favorite technique is the royal icing decorations. I feel like the possibilities for custom cupcake toppers are now endless!

What are some favorite things you’ve learned by challenging yourself in the kitchen?

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Jenn (Westminster, MD)

“Love is Like a Box of…” Cake Mix!

I knew I wanted to do something special for my sweetheart on Valentine’s Day. He’s come to love cupcakes as much as I do and might as well be an honorary Crusader with all the tours and tastings he’s helped out with. So when I starting seeing all the great Valentine cupcakes being created by our favorite bakeries, I thought I’d just pick up something from one of them. However, while I was out running errands I saw some Valentine’s Day cupcake decorations and decided that I could just make my own cupcakes. I found liners and toppers for under $2! Then, while thinking about what cupcakes I would make, I passed by the Pillsbury Valentine’s Day Funfetti mix and coordinating icing with sprinkles. These were each under $2 as well! After some debate I decided that with the time constraints of having an infant at home, a boxed mix was the way to go. And $6 for two-dozen cupcakes was too good to pass up! Luckily my husband is easy to please when it comes to sweets.

So last Friday, I pulled my holiday cupcake paraphernalia out of hiding to bake cupcakes ready for the weekend…a sort of pre-Valentine’s Day treat.

I added a dash of pure vanilla extract to the cake mix, because the batter seemed to be lacking in flavor versus other cake mixes I’m used to. I would have liked to pipe the icing on all of the cupcakes, however there would not have been enough if I had. So instead I compromised and just did a few. In the end, I’m happy with the results!

Do you have any special baking plans for Valentine’s Day? We’d love to hear about them!

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Jenn (Westminster, MD)

Red Velvet from a Box? Maybe not.

We are so happy to be posting our first review from Cupcake Crusader, Jenn. For those who don’t know, Jenn recently had a little sweet bundle of joy which has kept her from participating in all of the cupcake crusades, so we are so excited to her her review a recent experience with a box mix that maybe didn’t go so well… Even though she’s been missed on recent cupcake adventures, this little cutie is totally worth it:

After eating a delicious red velvet cupcake from Nostalgia Bakery in Annapolis, MD, my husband declared that he really likes red velvet cake and ended up bringing home a Duncan Hines red velvet boxed cake mix from the grocery store. Now, I’m all for box cake mix. Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker have been doing it for years, so why try to compete with that? Or at least that’s what I always say. But, red velvet? A cake that very few can pull off successfully? I envisioned a cake that tasted more like red dye than a wonderful sweet treat, which is typically why I don’t like red velvet cake and why I am always impressed when it is done well. After watching “Tough Cookies” on the Food Network, I learned that red velvet cake isn’t suppose to have any dye in it because the red color comes from a reaction with the cocoa. After sharing my skepticism with my husband, he proceeds to read the ingredients and finds that the mix does have red dye in it. But my curiosity was still sparked. Could a boxed cake mix pull off red velvet?

So on Thursday night, craving a cakey dessert, I decided to try it out. I was particularly curious about what the batter mix looked like prior to adding wet ingredients. When I pulled it from the box, I was surprised to see what looked like chocolate cake mix (I was expecting red). After adding wet ingredients, the batter immediately began to change to a bright red. I tasted the batter, which after avoiding raw batter for the 9 months I was pregnant tasted perfectly delicious. Not like red dye at all, just like chocolate cake but not as rich.

After baking, the cake had become a dark red. My husband had selected a buttercream icing to go along with the cake, since he is not a fan of cream cheese icing (I prefer cream cheese icing for red velvet). As with most store bought icings, this one was very sweet. I tried to keep that in mind when icing the cupcakes.

My final thoughts on these cupcakes? The icing was too sweet and the mild tasting cake couldn’t stand up to it. Even after tasting the cake separate from the icing, it just didn’t taste like much. Not red dye. Not really chocolately. But not really anything. So I don’t think I’ll be purchasing red velvet from a box again. However, that didn’t stop me from eating two cupcakes in a row! And my husband’s thoughts? He really likes them. I guess that’s all that really matters!

– Review by Cupcake Crusader, Jenn (Westminster, MD)