Vanilla Cake Mix Competition

There are a lot of vanilla cake mixes on the shelves of your local grocery store. You probably see them every time you go to the store and walk past them or grab a box without thinking too much of it. But if you’re looking for the best vanilla cake mix and frosting for guaranteed delicious cakes and cupcakes every time, you should definitely consider which mix you get.

I tested three of the most common mixes on the shelves of the local grocery store to see how they compare in terms of instructions, ingredients, and outcomes. I also tested their frosting counterparts to see how they compare. Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, and Pillsbury are all household names that have similar mixes for easy quality comparison. It’s really hard to find “vanilla” cake mixes (they tend to be yellow or white, even though the flavor on both is actually vanilla), so I went with the classic white cake for all three. Most of the time, a white cake is a vanilla cake that is made with egg whites, while a yellow cake is a vanilla cake made with whole eggs. With cake mixes that line is blurred some because white cakes are extra white and yellow cakes are super yellow and the directions often allow for the use of either whole eggs or egg whites. For the purposes of this post, we’ll call the white cake a vanilla cake, since that’s what flavor it really is. I made the mixes with whole eggs, except for the Duncan Hines because the directions specifically called for egg whites and I wanted to ensure that the results were as accurate as possible. I also used the same size ice cream scoop to portion the batter, so any differences in size of the cupcakes were due to the way the batter rose, rather than differences in the amount of batter used.

So what’s the result? In terms of frosting, get whichever is cheapest. I could not detect a significant difference in taste or texture of any of the frostings. I even left the frosted cupcakes outside on a hot day for 15 minutes to see if any of them held up better than others and…nothing. They are virtually identical. For the cakes, my vote for the best all-around is Betty Crocker. I was actually surprised by this because the batter was really runny and I was afraid the cupcakes would be too flat. However, they had a good shape for a basic cupcake.

The main differences between the mixes is the proportions of eggs, oil, and water. The Duncan Hines cupcakes turned out the driest, with a crumbly texture. They also didn’t have as much flavor as the others. This is to be expected because the total liquid was less than the other 2 mixes, and only egg whites were used instead of the whole egg. Whole eggs help add moisture and depth of flavor to a recipe. The cupcakes had fairly flat tops. The Pillsbury recipe was the most domed of the three, so if that’s the look you’re going for, this is the mix for you.

Overall, the mixes turned out fairly similar in taste, so you should be pretty safe picking from any of the three. If you want a good, standard cupcake Betty Crocker is my pick. If you really need a flat or domed cupcake, Duncan Hines and Pillsbury would be your best respective options.

Cookie Dough Wars

I have a very special relationship with refrigerated chocolate chip cookie dough and I am not ashamed to admit it. As some of you know, refrigerated cookie dough got me started on this path to sharing my love of baking and sweets with the world. It was junior year of college, my friend and I had a package of cookie dough and decided not to eat ALL of it raw, so we made cookies in the college dorm kitchen. It sparked an impromptu gathering that really struck me. I was amazed by how the smell of cookies brought people who normally didn’t hang out together into one room, sharing their lives.

So I have absolutely nothing against pre-made cookie dough. Sometimes you just don’t want to wait for butter to soften, get out the mixer, wash dishes, etc. Sometimes you just want a chunk of cookie dough and some cookies. If you don’t have cookie dough in the freezer already, cookie dough from the refrigerated section at the grocery store may be the way to go. At one point, it was rare to find many options besides Nestle Toll House chocolate chip, but things have changed. Now there are lots of options with different kinds of cookie to different brands. Since I want you to have the best of all things, I tested out all of the options available at my local Kroger so you can pick the best for you. I’ve always been a fan of Nestle Tollhouse, so I used this as my benchmark for all the others.

Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough

The Nestle cookie tasted great, like Nestle always does. I like the balance of flavors, with the brown sugar, vanilla, and chocolate chips working together to create a sweet, melt-in-your-mouth cookie. It also cooks nicely with a soft center and crisp edges. However, the dough spreads a little too much, so it’s not the most attractive cookie in the world. It would be nice if it held its shape just a little more.

Kroger Break ‘n Bake Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough

The cookie most similar to Nestle in taste was the Kroger cookie. The taste was almost indistinguishable from the Nestle cookie, and the Kroger cookie held its shape better. However, I would recommend checking it a little earlier than the package states because it was just a smidge too crunchy when baked at the stated cook time. I think if you took it out of the oven just 30 seconds to 1 minute shy of the recommended cook time the cookie would be just a little softer with better texture.

Immaculate Gluten Free Chocolate Chunk Cookie Dough

This is actually a pretty good cookie dough for anyone who needs to eat gluten-free. In the past, many gluten free baked goods had a weird texture or were bland, but these were nice and soft, held their shape, and tasted like chocolate chip cookies should. You can tell they’re a little different from a standard chocolate chip cookie (maybe the dough is a little sweeter?) but the difference wasn’t super obvious.

Annie’s Organic Chocolate Chunk Bake & Share Dough

The special thing about the Annie’s cookie is that it’s organic. If all organic ingredients are not important to you, I really don’t recommend these. The cookie browned unevenly and was crispier than I prefer. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the taste. It wasn’t terrible but it definitely wasn’t great.

Sweet Loren’s Chocolate Chunk Place & Bake Cookie Dough


This was probably my least favorite cookie, even though I really wanted to like it. It tasted like raisins, which I cannot stand. The whole grain dough was better than I thought it would be. The cookies had a good texture, with crispiness on the edges and chewy on the inside. However, these were not good at all with milk, which is a deal breaker for me.

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Wine Insiders- Great Wines, Awesome Value

I am a total sucker for good wine at a great price. I mean, what’s better? High quality wine that doesn’t break the bank? Sign me up! Unfortunately, this means that I totally fall for any advertising that promises me that. Which means I sign up for wine clubs. Lots of wine clubs. These offers always seem to arrive in my mailbox around the same time, which leads to me ordering WAY too much wine. One time I received 3 cases of wine within 3 days of each other. Plus I was in a monthly wine club and had been receiving two bottles of wine each month for several months. Some had to be stored in my closet. It just wasn’t good. I’m learning to say no to wine club offers now.

Wine clubs aren’t all bad, though. One thing I like about wine clubs is that they can introduce you to brands and grapes you haven’t tried before and may fall in love with. When I first started drinking wine, this helped me get familiar with some of the more popular varieties and decide how I felt about them without making a huge investment (as long as I remembered to cancel future shipments). Wine clubs quite often provide a great value on the wines as well. However, it can sometimes be a pain to constantly receive shipments, have to remember to cancel them if you don’t need them, and remember to drink them before the wine turns to vinegar (not all wine should be kept for years and years). Plus, you may not always like the types of wines they send you, even if they are good quality.

Wine Insiders is kind of cool in that they do offer a wine club, but you are not required to join it to take advantage of deep discounts on some really good wine. I was introduced to Wine Insiders a year or two ago through a random piece of mail promising me 12 award winning wines for just $79.99 (or something like that). Of course I opened that envelope- it was a steal! I was fully aware that there was a decent chance the wines would stink and it would all be a waste. However, a few things made me feel more comfortable trying this one over some of the other offers I received:

  1. They offer a guarantee that you will like every wine or they will send a replacement or issue a refund. You can’t get that type of guarantee on wines you pick up at the grocery store.
  2. They have a tasting panel that tries all of their wines and they only accept ones the panel rates 93 points or higher. A number of the wines they sell have also received awards at U.S. and international wine competitions.

Since that first shipment of wine, I have ordered from Wine Insiders a few more times, most recently last month. I received an offer for great food wines, so I thought I would give it a shot. The wines I received in the past were good quality, after all. There have been some I didn’t love, but that was because I just didn’t like that kind, not because the wine was poorly made. I also really like that Wine Insiders tells you what you will receive before you order. It’s not just a generic “12 great whites from top winemakers.” You actually know the specific wine you will receive, so you don’t accidentally get 3 bottles of something you hate. In this case, I had actually tried a few of the wines in the case, but I liked them so I was happy to get some more. There were also several wines I hadn’t tried before, including a Vermentino that I had never heard of.

The case arrived within a week and a half of me placing the order online. Inside the box was the wine (obviously), along with a letter from Director about Wine Insiders’ guarantee, quality, etc.; a packing list, a $100 voucher for more wine (here we go again…I may need to rent storage), and a coupon for Hello Fresh (something new to try!).

Since I’ve never had vermentino before, I was pretty excited to try the Cala de Poeti Vermentino. The wine is light, slightly floral, with just a little touch of oiliness on the tongue. Overall, a really good wine that I may reorder to have on hand. This is what I love about Wine Insiders- you can get old favorites and find new ones!

Are you a wine club fan? Have you found any favorites through a wine club?

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Crazy for Cupcakes

Cupcakes. They have been the trendy dessert for years, despite annual predictions that something, anything is going will displace them. There are entire bakeries devoted to them, you can get them from vending machines, watch competitions devoted to them, and buy countless home decorations and clothes related to them.

Although the ongoing trendiness shows that cupcakes are lovely little pieces of happiness, there are plenty of baaaaaaaad examples out there. Cake and frosting together are the perfect treat but they can easily be ruined by poor execution. Don’t worry, though. I have some tips to ensure you always make the perfect cupcake, as well as my top 5 spots for cupcakes in the Houston area.

Let’s start with the cake. This MUST be moist. Dry cupcakes are the worst. Even raw cupcakes are better than dry ones because the batter is so delicious (side note- don’t eat raw batter. It’s bad for you). It’s really important to pay attention to both the cooking time in the recipe and your oven temperature. If your oven runs hot, make sure to reduce the cooking time. If your oven is spot-on temperature-wise, still be careful about the time. You never know if the recipe maker’s oven temperature was exact or not. When I bake cupcakes, I almost always start checking on them a couple minutes early, or at least at the earlier side of the cooking time range. If a recipe says 20-24 minutes, I’ll check at 18. You don’t want to open and close your oven a ton (it releases heat) but do take a peek at the cupcakes and see if they’re starting to brown or look firm on the top. If so, stick a toothpick in one. If it comes out with batter on it or looks really sticky, leave the cupcakes in the oven for a few more minutes. If there are some crumbs sticking to it but no batter, they’re ready to come out.

Now let’s talk about fillings. They’re not required but they can make a good cupcake phenomenal. You want a nice, complementary flavor to balance or enhance the flavors in the cake and frosting. You can use anything for the filling, including chocolate ganache, jam, whipped cream, lemon curd, or pureed fruit. I even used cookie dough once. Holy moly, was that good! To get the center out of the cupcake, you can use a knife or a spoon, or you can use a tool specially made to core cupcakes. A friend gave me one several years ago and it honestly changed the way I made cupcakes. Most of my cupcakes are now filled and it’s a really fun challenge to come up with new, exciting flavors.

Frosting is literally the icing on the cake and my absolute favorite part of making cupcakes. A good frosting should complement the cake and the filling without drowning them in sweetness. There needs to be a good ratio of cake to frosting, too. Personally, I like about 3 times as much frosting as a normal person, but a good rule of thumb is enough frosting so you have a little with every bite of cake. Texture is also super important with frosting. You need to make sure your butter and powdered sugar are well-mixed and that the frosting isn’t overly oily. Some people really like all shortening frostings because they hold their shape in the heat. The issue is, they’re super oily and often leave a greasy feeling in your mouth that I find super off-putting. Butter tastes amazing and has a great texture for frosting, but it can get a little melty in the heat. Some people like to do a combination of the two to get the benefits of shortening and the flavor and texture of butter. Personally, I just use butter and keep the cupcakes inside when it’s hot (which is pretty much all the time here).

Three of the most classic and popular flavors are vanilla, chocolate, and red velvet. There are a tons of recipes online and in cookbooks for these, ranging from meh to amazing. Here are a few of the recipes I us over and over:

  • Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake– The cake is super moist, which is awesome, but it does create problems for super detailed decorating. I like to just do a nice, basic swirl to keep the cake from sticking to the frosting.
  • Williams-Sonoma Vanilla Cupcakes– You can use this recipe as a jumping off point for lots of flavor varieties by changing the extract used or adding juice or citrus zest, just be careful not to overbake because they do lean toward dryness.
  • Southern Red Velvet Cake– I always add extra chocolate to punch up the flavor a little. Try doubling it to start and then adjust as needed for your preferences.

Don’t feel like making your own cupcakes? That’s okay; I have you covered there, too. I took on the oh, so difficult task of scouting for the best cupcakes in the Houston area. It was tough job, but someone had to do it. These are my top 5 (in alphabetical order):

Crave
I totally want to hang out and work at Crave. I went to the store in The Woodlands and it’s bright, open, and filled with delicious smells. The employees are friendly and ready to help you choose just the perfect flavor and you can take them to go or hang out at one of their tables and maybe get a coffee to sip while you eat your cupcake. I tried their top 2 flavors- red velvet and double chocolate. Both were really good, but my favorite was the double chocolate. It was super rich and moist without being too dense.

Oooh La La Elite
Tucked into a corner of a shopping center, Oooh La La Elite Cupcakes is a hidden treasure. They have a large, open store with plenty of tables and lots of cupcakes. I got a little crazy here because it was really hard to choose a flavor, so I got three. All were super moist with good flavor. The boyfriend’s favorite was the red velvet, because the frosting wasn’t as sweet as others he’s tried. My favorite was the strawberry shortcake because the cake was moist, the strawberry filling was super flavorful, and the cream cheese frosting was rich without overpowering the cake and filling. I also had a really good wedding cake cupcake, which is one of their most popular flavors. It’s made with vanilla and almond flavoring. I don’t love almond, but if you do you will absolutely love this one.

Photo courtesy of Oooh La La Elite Cupcakes

Petite Sweets
Petite Sweets is exactly what it’s name suggests- a cozy sweet shop that serves up small (delicious) desserts. They don’t specialize in cupcakes, but they serve mini cupcakes that are just fantastic. They’re little bites of heaven with big flavors. I had the cookies n cream, which had a little cookie at the bottom and a light frosting reminiscent of Oreo filling, and the salty caramel that was rich, caramely, and gooey in the middle and made me crave more.

Photo courtesy of Petite Sweets

Sprinkles
If I’m being perfectly honest, I was a little nervous about trying Sprinkles because I have had some bad experiences with chains. I feel like it’s hard for them to maintain their attention to detail when trying to mass produce cupcakes. However, I was proven wrong by Sprinkles. I got a vanilla cupcake from their ATM (how fun is that?!) outside the store in Houston on Westheimer. The cupcake was moist and super vanilla-y, which is really important with such a simple flavor. I am definitely interested in going again and trying some of their more unique flavors. They have a long list on their menu, with different flavors available by the day and month.

Photo courtesy of Sprinkles

Treat
Treat is a super cute shop in Tomball with big cupcake flavors. I loved the atmosphere inside and had a really hard time choosing. Once again I had a red velvet, which is their #1. I think my favorite part about it was the frosting- creamy, rich, with a really nice amount of cream cheese flavoring. I also went out on a limb and tried the Italian cream, which is not one of my usual favorite flavors. This one really sent me through the roof with the flavors and textures.

Do you have any great cupcake making tricks or favorite places to get a sweet treat?

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Private Preserve- A Serious Game Changer in Preserving Wine

This post contains affiliate links and The Sugar Vine may earn a commission if you purchase something after clicking on them. I will never recommend a product that I do not truly like.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I drink a LOT of different kinds of wine. At any given time, I might have up to 10 bottles open so I can try a lot of options and pick out the best one to pair with a dessert. That’s a ton of wine open and I’m the only one in my house who drinks it. So what happens to all that wine?

It would be a shame to pour it all down the drain. Not only is that incredibly wasteful, it’s expensive! Fortunately, I have a wine preserver that allows me to open a bottle of wine, pour a glass, and then preserve it so it doesn’t oxidize and spoil.

After a bottle is opened, wine lasts anywhere from 1 day to a month depending on the type, before it starts tasting funky. The average is about 3-5 days- champagne lasts the least amount of time; fortified wines last the longest. The goal of a wine preserver is to slow down oxidation so the wine tastes and looks better longer. Just a cork put securely back in the bottle will help slow the oxidation process, and there are a number of wine preservers on the market that will keep wine fresh for several days. One of the more popular options is a pump that extracts oxygen from the bottle and seals it with a rubber cork. This option is great if you’re going to drink your wine within a week of opening, and the preservers are fairly easy to find.

But what if you don’t plan to drink your wine for several weeks, like often happens to me? In comes the Private Preserve to the rescue. This unassuming, lightweight can of inert gases can keep an open bottle of wine good for weeks, if not longer! Private Preserve dramatically slows the aging process through oxidation by forcing oxygen out of the bottle and replacing it with 3 inert gases- carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon. These gases are part of what we breathe naturally and are not harmful. Since I started using the Private Preserve, I’ve kept a bottle for up to a month and half. I opened it several times during that period and just re-preserved it each time.

Another great thing about the Private Preserve is that it’s inexpensive. You can get 2 bottles on Amazon for $15.99 right now- a total steal when you consider how much you’ll save in wine not poured down the drain. Each can lasts for 120 full uses.

My one and only complaint with the private preserve is the straw used to put the gases in the wine. There are two attached to the side of the can with tape, a set-up that I find a little odd. For one thing, this isn’t very sanitary as the straws are exposed to anything the can is near. Anyone who has dogs or cats knows they will like anything. Do you really want to risk your pet licking your straw? Ew! For another, the straws are easy to lose in this set-up! I wish they were permanently affixed with a mechanism to fold up and down as needed, or had some type of holder attached to the can.

So how do you use the Private Preserve? Simply insert the straw into the opening of the can and place the straw about halfway down the neck of the bottle. Then, set the cork on the straw so you can push it into the bottle as you withdraw the straw. Press the top of the can for one long burst and 3 short ones. Finally, withdraw the straw and insert the cork. It really is that easy! If you have white wine, go ahead and stick it back in the fridge, while red wine should be kept in a dark place so light does not affect it. When you’re ready to drink the wine, just pull out the cork like you normally would and pour yourself a glass! If you don’t want to finish the bottle then, go ahead and re-preserve it. I’ve done it successfully with as little as one glass left in the bottle.

I highly recommend trying this if you ever run into the choice of of having to either drink or trash a bottle of wine. While I was a little skeptical that something this inexpensive could work this well, it really is a serious game changer!

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Schroeder Estate 2015 Malbec

This month’s wine review is the Schroeder Estate 2015 Malbec. The Schroeder Estate is located in Patagonia Argentina and has been around for almost a century. The bottle was a bonus buy in a wine club shipment. Malbec is the flagship grape of Argentina, where you can find the largest Malbec acreage in the world. Malbec tends to be very dark red with a smooth, warm mouthfeel and big fruity flavors. Patagonia is cooler compared to other wine growing regions in Argentina, which helps the ripe black fruit notes shine and makes the wine a little more acidic. As a general rule, you want to drink Malbec within a few years of bottling- some will age well but most are ready to drink pretty quickly.

Wine Notes:

Color- opaque, burgundy with a magenta rim
Smell- strong alcohol smell at first, then ripe blackberry and black cherry
Taste- dry, full bodied, medium acid, smooth on tongue, slight tobacco aftertaste
Notes- grows on you as you drink it; for sure decant or leave open for at least an hour to let the flavors develop
Price- $19.99 from WSJ wine club
Final Rating- 3.5 out of 5 right now; I’d like to try it again in a year or two after the flavors develop a little more

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