While Mandy Merriman’s husband was spending long days in law school, she was busy working and caring for their young son. She wanted a way to add some fun and creativity to her day and realized she really enjoyed decorating cakes. So, she started using store-bought cake mixes to save prep time and get to the fun part faster: “As a beginner baker, I really loved the ease of using a boxed cake mix.”
By using the box mix as a premeasured dry ingredient packet, she could focus on adding other ingredients to elevate her recipes to taste just like they were from scratch — or even better. She played around with additions like sour cream and substitutions like swapping buttermilk for water. The ability to improvise gave her a baking confidence that she now hopes to instill in others.
Today, Merriman, 35, is a mother of two and the successful baking influencer behind the Baking with Blondie blog and the Instagram page @bakingwithblondie. She encourages others to have baking confidence by sharing her breathtaking cake creations and weekly tutorials. Her first cookbook, Cake Confidence (March 2019) showed bakers how to enhance and elevate box cake mixes to taste better than some from-scratch recipes.
Bake With Mandy
Merriman shared three recipes from I’ll Bring the Cake for AARP members to try:
With a fresh blueberry cake baked right onto a shortbread crust, a fresh blueberry filling, blueberry buttercream and a shortbread crumble on top, you might already be headed out the door to find as many blueberries as you can.
Stripes of thick whipped peanut butter and cocoa buttercreams envelop this chocolate cake.
This cake, with a strong almond and white chocolate flavor throughout and pink and white exterior, tastes and looks just like circus animal cookies.
Her newest book, I’ll Bring the Cake: Recipes for Every Season and Every Occasion (April 2023), shares her favorite recipes and decorating tips to create playful designs and over-the-top creations. “I wanted to build off of that first cookbook, with people still having that confidence to be the ‘caker’ in their community, their family or their household,” Merriman says. Her inspiration came from family gatherings, when she often found herself bringing dessert — typically cake. “I always had leftover cake slices from recipe testing,” she recalls. “And my family was always eager, excited and willing to take those cake slices off my hands!”
Merriman points out that, even as a veteran baker, she’s still learning and improving her craft. And she advises others to spend time in the kitchen with loved ones and pass down those beloved family recipes. “There's something of value in those nostalgic bakes from your childhood,” she says, noting they create memories attached to those generational recipes.
Some of Merriman’s treasured memories include watching her Grandma June bake in the kitchen. “I have a recipe in my new cookbook that’s based off of her molasses cookies with buttercream,” she recalls. “What’s fun is, I get to make those in my kitchen now, and it helps me feel close to her.”
Merriman has no formal culinary training. She graduated from Provo’s Brigham Young University with a bachelor's degree in music performance playing saxophone. “I recently saw my music professor at his retirement concert,” she recalls. “We both had a chuckle. He was like, ‘We spent all this time on music, and you switched over to baking?’” Merriman credits the diligence, work ethic and persistence required to earn that degree for equipping her for her current career. “It’s taught me that whatever is bringing you joy, that’s a great place to pour a lot of your time and energy,” she says.
For those looking to improve their own baking skills, Merriman says to first cut yourself some slack — you learn something new from every cake you make. “I have failed so many times in the kitchen!” she says. “But it doesn't make me a bad baker. It means I get to learn something. Having that mindset really sets you up for success.”
Merriman offers these tips to avoid common baking mistakes:
- Don’t overmix the cake batter. Mix until dry ingredients are just incorporated, which will keep the cake from sinking and ensure it’s moist.
- Don’t use old ingredients. Baking soda and baking powder, in particular, should be recently purchased. If you only bake once a year using old ingredients, your cakes will probably sink and your cookies might not rise.
- Don’t expect perfection the first time. Manage expectations. Don’t expect that your cake will look like an Instagram photo, especially if it’s your first time making it.
Most importantly, find joy in the process, even if the cake doesn’t look like you expected. “It’s still going to taste good, no matter what it looks like,” Merriman says.
With Merriman’s expert guidance — and a box mix as a base — you can transform cakes into stunning creations. “I love the artistic element of decorating cakes just as much as I enjoy eating them,” she says. “I want the cake to be as beautiful as it tastes. We always eat with our eyes first.”
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