Cake Mix Hack: Gluten-Free “Oreo” Surprise Cupcakes with Cookies & Cream Frosting

I hope everyone had a great Labor Day weekend!  We jumped down to North Carolina for an overnight, to see our friends.  It was great to catch up with all of them and we had breakfast at the Saxapahaw General Store before heading back.  I’ve gushed about my love for this tiny strip of town before, and each year, it gets a little better and a little crunchier–in the best of ways. 😉  Now, in addition to the General Store, the cute industrial apartments, and performing space + Coffee Shop by day/Bar by night venue, Saxapahaw has added a butcher’s shop and a shared-space work studio.  I love this focus on community and local goods!  As for breakfast, M got the usual Coconut-Braised Pork Sandwich (which is still on my list to properly recreate at home!) and I had the brunch special: Eggs Salmon Florentine.  The staff assured me that if was gluten-free, so I was expecting a lighter version of Eggs Benedict Florentine.  You know, some kind of bread, layers of spinach and salmon topped with an egg and their “lemon and caper sauce”.  Instead, in this dish, there wasn’t any bread at all.  The spinach and over-medium eggs were resting on top of a salmon fillet!  It was delicious, and way more protein than I expected.

As for Monday, I had a meeting in the afternoon, so I missed what may have been the highlight of the summer: taking Punc to our community’s “Pool Pawty”.  Each year, the day before they close up the pool, our apartment complex allows the neighborhood to bring their dogs in to swim and play.  Our complex is great at these kind of parties, so M came back with a ton a gift bags full of dog treats, bones, tennis balls, and other swag.  It was pretty awesome!  While she didn’t enjoy the water, Punc did get a doggie massage and a pupcake.  Best of all, she got along with all of the other dogs!

M wasn’t able to take her hiking as often this summer, since it was so hot.  Our area has set a new record for the number of 90+ degree days in July and August.  Ugh.  I am definitely ready for the cooler Fall weather!  So it’s been nice to have this Pool Pawty and playdates with our friends’ dogs to fill in that exercise gap for Punc.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this weekend is our last heatwave, so we can start to settle into Fall.  I know M is itching to hike again, as well.


Today, I am back with another cake mix hack!  They served me so well throughout the summer, being fairly quick and far less fussy than baking a cake from scratch.  I’m still on the search for my “one” cake flour mix.  But, I’m also starting to lean more towards the less sweet pound cake styles.  You know, not quite a quick bread, but not quite a cake.  So maybe I’ll keep my cake mix hacks in my back pocket for occasions that call for frosting and wrappers and all that jazz; and stay content with my simpler options for “everyday” cakes.  These cookies and cream cupcakes have a tasty surprise when you unwrap them: a whole “oreo” cookie at the bottom of each cupcake!  The chocolate cakes are even more fun, because the cake really hides the cookie until you take a bite of the cupcake.


“Oreo” Surprise Cupcakes with Cookies & Cream Frosting

Serves 12

For the Cupcake

  • 1 box Gluten-free yellow or chocolate cake mix + additional ingredients listed on the back of the package*
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 12 (1/2 of a box) “oreo” style gluten-free chocolate wafer, creme-filled cookies**
  • Optional: the filling from 6 additional cookies (save the chocolate cookies for decoration)

For the Frosting

  • 4 oz (half a package) of cream cheese, softened
  • 4 Tbsp (half a stick) of butter, softened
  • 2-3 c. confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 c. crushed “oreo” style cookies (about 10-12 cookies)
  • Optional: 12 individual chocolate cookies leftover from the creme removed for the cupcake batter, for decoration

*I used Aldi’s GFree yellow cake brand, which calls for 3 eggs, 2/3 c. milk, and 1/2 c. oil per box

**I used Trader Joe’s Gluten-Free Jo-Jo cookies

Make the cupcakes

Preheat the oven to the temperature listed on the Cake Mix box.  Fill a cupcake pan with paper cupcake cups and drop one whole “oreo”-style cookie into the bottom of each paper liner.

Remove the inside filling from six cookies, being careful to keep the chocolate wafers intact.  Heat briefly in the microwave to soften, then mix with the liquids called for on the package–if a liquid fat (like oil or melted butter) is called for, this is the best ingredient to mix with the creme filling.  Mix the dry and wet ingredients as instructed on the packaging.  Be sure to include the extra vanilla extract as you mix in the wet ingredient.  Scoop the prepared batter over the cookies in each cup, filling about 3/4 full.  Bake as directed on the packaging.  Allow the cupcakes to cool completely before frosting.

Make the frosting

Leave the cream cheese and butter on the counter as the cupcakes bake and cool, to allow both to soften.  Whip the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla extract on low speed until the mixture is uniform and soft.  Slowly add the confectioner’s sugar, one half-cup at a time, whipping until fully incorporated.  After adding 2 cups of confectioner’s sugar, add in the crushed cookies and mix well.  If the mixture is still soft, continue to add in the additional confectioner’s sugar in 1/2 cup measures.  When the mixing blade or whisk is removed, the frosting should be almost at a stiff peak–the mixture stands straight up from where the whisk was pulled away (if the very tip of the peak falls, that is okay, but the whole peak shouldn’t slump).  Spread or pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes.  Favor a higher pile in the middle, which allows you to sink on of the reserved chocolate wafers upright into the frosting as garnish.

Cake Mix Hack: Mocha Cupcakes

cupcake plate 2

Hello Cupcake!  Want a cupcake?

cupcake line 2

They’re gluten-free!  And super simple (and fairly easy to make dairy-free, as well–just swap in a butter substitute!) A moist chocolate cake enriched with a deep coffee flavor, topped with cool coffee icing and a bite of caramel (or a chocolate covered espresso bean). A few simple additions to Betty Crocker Gluten Free Devil’s Food Cake mix is all that it takes!

cupcake pan close

When I started to become interest in baking and cooking (pre-GF, high school years) it was always to make desserts and sweets (except for the occasional pan of Chicken Fajitas).  I think desserts were a bit more special than daily meals, took a little more creativity.  Nowadays, creating gluten-free breakfast, lunch, and dinner is enough to keep me on my toes.  My sweet tooth certainly hasn’t diminished, but I have noticed that I make less sweet treats than before.  Especially this spring, with the move and with both of my jobs at hectic points, quick and simple recipes are a must.  And when I only have the time for cooking the meal or making a special dessert, dinner is going to win out every time.  But when I did have an evening to spare and I wanted something a little bit sweet (and a lot chocolate) I looked back to options with gluten free, store-bought cake mix.  I have yet to try my hand at many homemade gluten-free cakes.  But I have tried several brand of gluten-free cake mix, and most are good enough.  But with a couple of simple twists, these cake mixes go from “Good-For-Gluten-Free” to “Delicious”!  These cupcakes really do provide a lot of bang for your buck.  They’d be perfect to bring along to a birthday, party, or potluck.  I bet no one would guess that they are gluten-free!

cupcake scape

For these cupcakes, I had a box of Betty Crocker gluten free mix that called for water, eggs, and butter to be added to the dry mix.  Substituting the water for strong-brewed coffee and vanilla extract really ups the flavor of the cake.  A simple brushing with coffee and chocolate post-baking soaks into the cake, keeping it moist and giving it a rich, decadent mouthfeel.  Finally, a coffee-flavored buttercream frosting brings the flavor to the forefront and provided the perfect cushion for a cute little bite of chocolate-covered caramel.

cupcake cut close

Mocha Cupcakes (from a cake mix)

Serves: 14-18 

  • 1 package Betty Crocker GF Devil’s Food Chocolate Cake mix
  • Wet ingredient called for on the package (eggs, butter, water*)
  • Ground coffee for brewing the water into coffee
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. instant espresso granules (optional)
  • 1/4 c. (additional) brewed coffee
  • 1 Tbsp. chocolate syrup or 1 Tbsp cocoa powder + 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 batch coffee buttercream frosting (recipe below)
  • 14-18 mini chocolate-covered caramel bites (or chocolate covered espresso beans)

Preheat oven according to package directions.

Brew a pot of very strong coffee with your preferred coffee blend.  *Measure out the coffee to the amount of water called for on the cake mix box.  Reserve at let cool.  Mix in instant espresso granules, if using.  Empty package of cake mix into a large bowl, add eggs, butter, and water-turned-coffee according to the package directions.  Stir in vanilla extract.  Pour into lined baking cup and bake according to package directions.

Remove cupcakes from oven.  Allow to cool for five minutes. Prick the top of cupcakes with a toothpick or the prongs of a fork.

Mix chocolate syrup or cocoa+sugar mixture into 1/4 c. of brewed coffee until thoroughly dissolved.  Brush mixture onto warm cupcakes.  Allow cupcakes to cool completely while mixing the frosting.

Frost cupcakes and top with single caramel candy/espresso bean.

Refrigerate up to one week.  Return to room temperature or warm slightly before serving.

Coffee Buttercream Frosting

  • 3 Tbsp. brewed coffee (warm)
  • 1 tsp. instant espresso granules
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter
  • 2 c. confectioner’s (powdered) sugar

Mix warm coffee, espresso granules, and vanilla extract in a small bowl.  Set aside.  Beat softened butter in the bowl of a stand mixer for 1-2 minutes at low-medium, until fluffy.  Slowly add confectioner’s sugar, combining thoroughly.  Mix on medium speed for three minutes.  Add coffee mixture, and stir on low speed until incorporated.  Increase to medium speed and beat for 3-4 more minutes, until fluffy.

cupcake alone

Better Than ___________ Cupcakes

When I was in the prime of my childhood (i.e. grades K-7 when it was still fun to play outside all day, every day), there were 37 children living in our cul-de-sac.  Not the block, not the sprawling network of a ‘neighborhood’, but the 19-house stub of a street.  It tumbled out 37 bodies under the age of 15 every Saturday morning.  Nowadays, with my–ahem–broader view of the world and especially of the area where I live, I realize how lucky we were to have our house on that street.  We were two turns away from the busiest street to the north, with a generous network of neighborhood to the south.  A similar cul-de-sac was across the street, and, of course, our ended in a wide circle that we were never tempted to stray from.  Parents in the neighborhood drew a line: “Don’t go past the corner”.  And 99% of the time, we didn’t.  My mother got a large, old copper whistle to call us home for dinner.  The shrill notes stretched just long enough to reach our ears at the top of the street.

There was more than enough to do on our little street.  Summer evenings turned our circular end of the street into a milling sea of bicycles, without a care for traffic.  One lucky summer, an ice cream truck came every other night for two weeks straight.  We climbed trees, built forts, collected seed pods. Endless hours were spent on our trampoline, in the neighbor’s clubhouse, and playing some sort of jumping game most akin to reverse limbo with more dangerous results.  Whoever jumps over the stick held at the highest place, wins.  The losers are those who catch the stick with an ankle and careen face-first into the ground.

We thought it was fun.

While the children of the cul-de-sac whiled away our hours in constant contact, the adults were friendly, but didn’t push the neighborly relationship much beyond sidewalk conversations as they collected their progeny, and the occasional stroll-and-chat through a neighbor’s yard sale.  (It does make me laugh, as the new generation on the street have young, 10-and-under children, and the parents seem much more social than our parents ever did.)  Once, we decided to try to change that.  I must have been on the older end of the spectrum, and all of the kids decided that we wanted a barbecue.  We made flyers and stuck them in everyone’s mailboxes after pleading with our parents.  Feeling especially kind, we even put flyers in those houses of families without children (in our tiny world, I doubt we’d ever met some of those households).  And then we got to planning, pre-facebook.  We took polls as to who would bring what kind of food, who could drag their grill down into the street.

And there, in our family’s own search for picnic food, we found a recipe on the back of a Carnation sweetened, condensed milk can.  Or perhaps a box of cake mix.  All the same, the title was alluring (Better Than Anything Cake) and the ingredient list was even more so (anything containing toffee with always get my vote).  This was pre-gluten-free, and the height of my childhood meant the hieght of my mother’s quick-fix dishes.  The recipe was simple enough.

Mix up a batch of chocolate cake (preferably Devil’s Food) according to package directions.

Bake the cake in a sheet pan (I chose cupcakes for portability).

Poke holes throughout the top of the cake with the handle of a spoon (or a fork, for cupcakes).

Pour one can of sweetened, condensed milk and one bottle of caramel sauce all over the top.

Let sit overnight so the sauces can be fully absorbed into the cake.

Spread top with one tub of Cool Whip and sprinkle with one bag of Heath toffee bits.

The ultimate 90’s recipe.  Quick, easy, all prepackaged, no measuring required.  And let me tell you, it was delicious.  This was serve-with-a-spoon cake.  It couldn’t stand up to being sliced, so soaked with caramel, but that wasn’t too much of a problem.  Needless to say, we took home a pan and some crumbs at the end of the night.  I’m positive that someone at the barbecue let my mother in on the other name for this cake: Better Than Sex Cake.  Either way, years later as I began to stumble through the world of online recipes, when I encountered “Better Than Sex Cake”, I knew what it was.  I’ve seen it with a variety of names (Better Than Sex Cake, Almost Better Than Sex Cake, Better Than Almost Anything Cake…), take your pick.  The ingredient list and the assembly have always been the same.

Recently, when a friend and I planned dinner while compiling a lesson plan, I was charged with dessert.  It had to be easy to make  the morning off, be transportable, and delicious for those eating gluten-free or not.  And, I had a bag of Gluten-Free chocolate cake mix wallowing in my pantry.  Cupcakes.  Cupcakes were a must.  The dessert would have to survive coming to work with me, a stint in the work fridge, and the drive to my friends. Cupcakes offered the portion-ability and portability that would be perfect.  I didn’t quite prep well for this recipe.  At the grocery store, I grabbed some cream cheese, heavy cream, and whipped cream, deciding to figure out frosting later.  I grabbed the toffee, we had the caramel and condensed milk at home.  I forgot cupcake liners.

By lucky chance, M’s mum had huge cupcake liners at home.  It worried me since they fit strangely in our muffin tin, but this turned into a stroke of pure luck.  With these cupcakes, the taller the liner, the better.  I scaled back the condensed milk and the caramel (only used about 6 Tablespoons of each), since I didn’t have the time for these to soak up the sauce overnight.  If you are able to give these cupcakes the time to rest, I highly recommend it.

I also did not want to take a chance with pure whipping cream as frosting.  Inevitably, in our long journey, it would melt.  Ultimately, I ended up compromising with a whipped cream cheese frosting I’ve seen on a few sites that is phenomenal and entirely stable.  In my cream-cheese-loving-opinion, this frosting only makes these cupcakes better, but for you BTSCake purists, perhaps investigate whipping cream stabilizers?  I’ve never used them before.  Either way, with very little effort, you can have delicious  cupcakes that people will be talking about all week (my co-workers can attest to that!)  You don’t even have to share our little secret about the cake mix…

Better Than ____________ Cupcakes

For the Cupcakes

  • 1 package gluten free chocolate cake mix + ingredients listed on package for making cupcakes (or use your favorite homemade chocolate cake recipe, prepared to batter stage)
  • 1/2 cup miniature chocolate chips
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar, packed
  • 6-8 Tbsp (or more) sweetened condensed milk (low-fat/non-fat is fine)
  • 6-8 Tbsp (or more) prepared caramel syrup/sauce
  • 1 cup Heath toffee bits

For the Whipped Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 8 oz (1 package) cream cream (low-fat is fine, non-fat is not)
  • 1 cup white granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • Pinch of salt

Prepare your cake batter as directed on the package, or according to your usual recipe, adding the tablespoon of brown sugar with the dry ingredients or with the other sugars in recipe.  Once the batter is thoroughly mixed, stir in chocolate chips by hand.  Spoon into cupcake liners and bake according to directions for cupcakes.

Remove cupcakes from oven and allow to cool.  Meanwhile, mix caramel syrup and sweetened, condensed milk.  Poke a dozen or so holes into the top of cooled cupcakes with a fork or a toothpick.  Drizzle a spoonful or so over each cupcake (more of the syrup mixture can be added depending on how much time you can allow the cupcakes to set.  Up to a tablespoon per cake if they can sit overnight).  Allow cupcakes to set as long as possible: at least one hour and up to overnight in the refrigerator.

Make your frosting: in medium bowl, whip heavy cream until stiff peaks form (watch carefully at end to see that you do not over-whip the cream.  If you see it starting to separate, stop!  The next stage after stiff peaks is butter!).  In large bowl, combine softened cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and salt.  Beat until smooth.  Fold in whipped cream.  Remove cupcakes from fridge, sprinkle with toffee bits.  Spoon frosting into piping bag, or a Ziploc bag with the corner snipped off and pipe onto cooled, set cupcakes (or simply spread with a knife).  Top with additional toffee bits.

Catching Up (Link Love)

I know, I know, it’s been weeks. I’m sorry.  I got very busy between graduations, weddings, new cars, internship applications, resumes, dead laptops, new laptops, river trips, Doctor Who, and catching up with friends, to name a few.  There was a fair amount of cooking in between, but only about half were photographed.  I need to get better at that.  I never have my camera around, though I do have my phone, so we’re settling for  poor-quality images of end products at the moment.  Usually my hands are too covered for me to stop for a snapshot.  But, here are the last few weeks, a la android phone:

My new (and first) car!  Her name is Tabitha and I love her.  And yes, I went through all of college without a car.  It was barely possible and generally depressing.  No more, though!

I painted a bench to look like bricks. In the middle of a June afternoon.  Talk about alumni spirit…(though the bench is pretty epic, I must say).

My mother and brother drove down to North Carolina to look at his college, and came back with more flours than I could imagine!  It was all very exciting! (And if you look in the  upper corner, there are my new copies of Shauna Ahern’s and Karen Morgan’s cookbooks, courtesy of friend who tried giving up gluten, only to later find she was lactose-intolerant.  She kindly handed off the cookbooks to me and I’ve been ravenously reading ever since.)

Mexican for dinner: Chicken Enchiladas made from the recipe on the back of the Philidelphia Cooking Creme-Santa Fe Style.  This recipe was fantastic!  (And yes, these cremes are gluten-free!)  Absolutely delicious and really easy to put together.  Of course, I used corn tortillas instead of flour, but just by layering two (think Venn diagrams), they wrapped around the filling.  Also my sister’s Two Bean Salad which is incredibly simple.  Sometime, I’ll post the recipe, which is barely a recipe, as its all pretty much to taste.  This salad is great by itself, but it makes a large batch and we use it throughout the rest of the week on tacos or rice; I’ve even cooked some into an omelet.  The final bowl is queso, from a recipe that was not a favorite.  I won’t be making it again.

Baked eggs with smoked gouda and tarragon and GF bread.  Its one of the first recipes in Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef: simple, comforting, and most importantly, in my book: an egg dish!  I love eggs with an unhealthy passion.  While I lived on campus, all of our late-night food options made a weak attempt at diner fare with burgers, pizza, and breakfast dishes, and all I ever ordered was eggs.  I can and will eat eggs at anytime of day or night, and am always looking for new ways to cook them.

Blueberry pancakes.  These were made with GF Bisquik, which makes the most phenomenal pancakes. I like them better than any traditional wheat pancake.  I followed the recipe on the back of the box and dropped in a handful of blueberry right before I flipped the cakes, while the top batter was still soft.

Twice Baked Potatoes.  I could easily live off these.  I even cheated and microwaved them for the first part, so, they probably took about 30 minutes total to throw together.  I mixed sour cream, a dollop of cream cheese (would have been amazing with chive, but regular worked fine), bacon, shredded monteray-jack cheese, salt & pepper with the mashed potato innards before scooping it all back into the potato skins.  Sprinkled with more cheese and chopped green onions and popped them into a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes, until everything is bubbly.

The complete (heart-attack) dinner.  We had bacon nearing its expiration, so I was looking for ways to use it up.  Needing to go to the market gave me the sausages (it was that or porkbutt and I did not have that much time).  I’ve been on an asparagus kick lately (seriously, its probably my favorite vegetable these days), and had never tried the bacon-asparagus combo.

I don’t know how I lived before this.


I’ve been wrapping up a single bunch for breakfast, frying it in a pan on the stove and topping it with eggs.  I’ve had it three days in a row.  I might have a problem.  But anyways, the rest of the dinner was rounded out by the leftovers of the bean salad.  Altogether, probably not the healthiest of dinners, but absolutely delicious nonetheless.

Nutella Brownies!  I’ve posted the recipe previously, but let me reiterate: these are perfect!  And, best of all, an entire batch only makes 12 mini muffin cups-worth, so if you have no self-control (like me), you don’t have much chance of going entriely out of control.  Even in a household of 3, you can only snatch a few of these bites before they are gone.

 And here begins my one and only attempt in the past three weeks to document the process of baking, like a proper foodblogger (I won’t start on my feelings of proper/improper food-blogging.  That’ll get its own post one day.)

Dark Chocolate and Peanut Butter Cupcakes from The Blackbird Bakery Cookbook.  Ingredients for the cupcakes themselves.  I forgot to take a picture of the frosting ingredients.  Strike one.

Then I only remembered to take a picture right before I stuck ’em in the oven. Strike two.

And skipped over the frosting making and process entirely.  Strike three.  Ah well, who cares?  They got made and that’s all that matters.   To be honest, the cakes themselves were a tad too dry, though the peanut butter frosting can and will be my sustenance for the rest of my days.  Seriously.  What’s better than peanut butter icing?  Anyways, I kept these in the fridge to keep them fresh, and liked them so much better when cold.  The temperature seemed to excuse the dry cake, and made the PB frosting the texture of fudge.  So good.  Speaking of fudge, I should put up my recipe for 5-minute, 3-ingredient, no-work fudge.  Now that one is to die for…

Berry cobbler!  We had blueberries that were on the brink of spoiling, and strawberries up to our ears, so I chopped them up, macerated for a minute or two in lemon juice and a sprinkle of sugar, and topped with oatmeal crumble topping.  It was especially exciting, because instead of the gluten-filled AP flour in the recipe, I could use oat flour!  (And tapioca starch, to balance things out.)  I’m not sure why, but the ability for pure flavor like that makes me giddy.  And it was amazing.  I pulled it golden and bubbly from the oven and remembered that I had leftover heavy cream from the cupcakes.  Thank you, Magic Bullet Blender–I had whipped cream in seconds.  Which melted entirely when it hit the hot crumble, but boy was it delicious.

And finally, I made Graham Crackers. It’s summer and I wanted s’mores, darn it!  How hard is it to stock GF graham crackers next to the nut-thins and chocolate wafers?  I’ve seen GF grahams, I know they exist.  I used them in the GF version of my mom’s twix bars last Christmas.  But, despite several shopping trips to several stores, I had no luck.  So I stopped whining, put on my big girl pants, and made my own.  And they were good.  Just barely soft, but crunchy, lightly touched with cinnamon and honey. And absolutely perfect for s’mores.  In fact, making these led to meeting up with friends and a fire pit, which led to a weekend filled with s’mores, hammocks, good conversations, river trips, and movies under the stars.  Amazing what one little recipe can start… 🙂