In high school I owned my own cupcake business along with a friend of mine. We loved baking for fun and figured we might as well get paid for it. Therefore, I'm going to give you some simple advice, coming from my professional experience. Some of these will be obvious, but a simple change can make a big difference.
1. Have a recipe you trust.
The most important thing when making any food, is having a recipe you trust. For instance, Paula Dean is known for her southern fried comfort food, so a recipe from her on kale chips might not be the best idea, while her mac and cheese recipe is probably stellar. This is especially important if you've never made the food before as you'll likely have no idea what anything should look like as you go. A good recipe is your guide through the unmapped wilderness of cooking and baking.
2. What are you aiming for?
It's good to know how you want the food to turn out. With cookies, for example, some people like crunchy while others like soft, this won't be as big of a deal with cupcakes, but depending on what you add, your cupcakes/cake could be dry or moist, dense or light, and compacted or crumbly. Recipes will usually give you an idea of how they will turn out and if you are looking online, reviews will also give you a sense of how everything ends up. (This can also be helpful if you know something generally comes out dry, you can then try adding a bit more liquid to the recipe to see if it keeps it more moist.)
3. Use a cake box mix.
If you're baking a cake or cupcakes for a casual event and want to save time, then I would recommend using a box mix, especially on a basic chocolate or vanilla recipe. However, I would also suggest adding in a packet of instant pudding to the mix. (You add it to the dry mix at the beginning and don't need to change anything else in the recipe.) It makes cake mixes richer and more moist, as well as keeping them from tasting exactly like a cake mix. This can also give you more flavor variety, by adding different flavors of instant pudding to different mixes. Some people even make soft cookies with cake mixes.
While I will say baking from scratch is generally preferable, saving time and energy is also important. Let’s work smarter, not harder.
4. Read the recipe before starting anything.
Mix or not, there is nothing worse than getting halfway through a recipe you're excited about and realizing you don't have pumpkin puree or a food processor, and that it's going to take three hours to cook. Make sure you're prepared.
5. Sample the goods.
Sometimes desserts look perfect but taste horrible because you forgot half the sugar or the inside is under cooked. I always bake a small separate piece, so I can sample without messing up the finished product. You can also usually find a few willing taste testers if needed to help you decide if you’re on the right track. :)
If it didn’t turn out how you wanted, that’s ok! You still tried something new and that’s always a step in the right direction. Even after several years of baking professionally, I still have weird batches of cupcakes every now and then, so don’t ever let that discourage you! Just trust me, it’s better to know if your food needs to be redone in the privacy of your kitchen instead of at the event with everyone there.
6. Make the dessert the same day as the event.
The closer to the event you can bake your dessert, the closer it will be to the desired taste and texture. This isn't always an option, but if you can work it so you're baked goods are done 30 minutes before you have to leave for the event, they will be richer and more moist than if they've waited overnight.
7. Store everything properly.
Whether you had to bake a day ahead or have extras left over, as a general rule of thumb, use plastic containers to keep the food soft and glass to keep them crisp/crunchy.
8. Never skimp on the icing!
While boxed cake mixes are generally fine, canned icing is not. Homemade icing can be as simple as pouring powdered sugar and milk into a mixing bowl until it's the consistency you want but will taste so much better. Making your own icing takes any dessert to the next level.
9. Always make fudgy brownies.
If they wanted cake, they would have eaten cake.
10. Have fun!
Baking is really just about trying new things and bringing joy. Don't get too upset if it doesn't turn out how you hoped; it's just a part of the process. Worst case you can always buy something to replace the food, but you can't replace the memories and smiles. :)
Until next time,