Inspiration springs from box mixes

Debbie Arrington
The Sacramento Bee (TNS)

Hayley Parker found her ooey-gooey sweet spot in a box mix.

With an adventurous flair and a serious love of desserts, Parker doesn’t stick to directions on the back of the box. Instead, she uses pre-made mixes as ingredients for other amazing creations that are all her own.

Her knack for turning basic baking mixes into exceptionally pretty — and tasty — desserts has made the young Rocklin, California, woman a published cookbook author while her friends are still in school or just starting first jobs.

Featured on the QVC channel, “Out of the Box Desserts: Simply Spectacular, Semi-Homemade Sweets” (The Countryman Press, 210 pages, $24.95) became an almost-instant hit with fans, too, when it was released earlier this summer. The 25-year-old baking blogger is working on a second cookbook.

“I want to inspire people to think beyond the box,” Parker said in her kitchen. “Obviously, you can use a box mix to bake a cake or cupcakes, but you can also use it to make cookies, brownies and a lot of other desserts.”

Saving up for her own house, Parker lives at home with her parents, siblings and three dogs. Meanwhile, she’s devoted to recipe creation and writing.

“I’m very excited — and shocked — to be able to do this every single day and get paid for it,” Parker said with a laugh. “I really wanted to be a writer, then I started baking.”

In between classes at American River College, she started blogging about her baking on the immensely popular The Domestic Rebel. Born in 2011, the blog immediately found its recipe for success, turning ordinary box mixes into extraordinary desserts.

It took a little longer to find its audience. “For the longest time, my only readers were myself and my mom,” Parker said. “Then, cliche as it all sounds, everything changed overnight.”

Her online recipes were discovered — and shared — by such outlets as the Huffington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal and “Good Morning America.” Parker’s blog now averages between 500,000 and 600,000 unique visitors a month.

“With the blog, I was able to write,” Parker said. “That was my goal all along. But I thought I’d write a novel first — not a cookbook!”

With more than 2,000 original recipes, The Domestic Rebel attracted the attention of cookbook publishers as well as home cooks.

“The Countryman Press reached out to me to do a review of a cookbook they had just published,” Parker recalled. “So, I pitched them on (a cookbook idea) and they really liked it. It was really surreal — and cool.”

Then came crunch time. TV network QVC wanted to feature the cookbook, a huge boon to a first-time author. But because of QVC’s deadline needs, it also meant she had to turn in her finished manuscript in just 10 weeks.

“I can’t even count the number of (mix) boxes I went through,” she said. “I spent a lot of time brainstorming, mixing and matching mixes and testing recipes.”

“Out of the Box Desserts” reads — and looks — like a companion to Parker’s blog. Every recipe comes with an anecdote. As she does for her website, Parker did all her own food styling and photography.

“This is totally my aesthetic — using ordinary everyday ingredients to create awesome desserts,” she said. “It’s something for new cooks and beginning bakers to use. I was a beginner, too. I taught myself.”

Her experience is hands-on.

“I make dinner for my family every single night,” she said. “I want to inspire other people to start baking. It’s really easy. There’s no shame in using a box mix as an ingredient; it’s an easy, smart shortcut.”

With her family and friends as taste testers, Parker developed more than 100 new recipes for the cookbook. That put a lot of pressure — and pounds — on her family, too.

“It’s not easy to live in a bakery,” said Dan Parker, her dad, as he patted his stomach. “I never remember tasting something and not liking it. I like it all. I just can’t eat it all.”

His favorites: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Brownie Bombs and Salted Caramel Crispy Treats.

The hardest part is keeping hands off until the photos are finished, he noted. “Until she’s taken her photos, we’re not allowed to touch.”

A teacher at Whitney High School, Dan Parker regularly takes his daughter’s creations to school to share with staff and students.

“I think it’s great that she’s accomplished so much at such a young age,” said sister Chloe Parker, another frequent taster. “This started as just a blog. It shows you really can love what you do and do what you love.”

Cake Batter Gooey Butter Cookies

Adapted from “Out of the Box Desserts” by Hayley Parker (The Countryman Press, 210 pages, $24.95)

Note: Yellow or white cake mix can be substituted for Funfetti cake mix. The difference is in the sprinkles.

Makes: About 20 to 24 cookies

1 box Funfetti cake mix

One 8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon butter extract

1 egg

1 cup powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine cake mix, cream cheese, butter, vanilla extract, butter extract and egg with an electric mixer until a soft dough forms, about 1 minute.

Scoop rounded tablespoons of dough out, using a cookie dough scoop or two spoons. Roll the cookie dough ball into powdered sugar and place on baking sheets, spaced about 2 inches apart.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, rotating pans halfway through the baking time. Cool completely before serving.

Chocolate Peanut Candy Cupcakes

Adapted from “Out of the Box Desserts” by Hayley Parker (The Countryman Press, $24.95, 210 pages)

Makes: 18 cupcakes

1 box chocolate fudge cake mix

1/2 cup cooking oil

1 cup water

3 eggs

One 3.4-ounce box instant chocolate pudding mix

For frosting

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 to 4 cups powdered sugar

Heavy cream or milk as needed

For topping

Half a 12-ounce jar caramel sauce

8 to 10 fun-size Snickers bars, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 18 muffin tin cups with paper liners. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together the chocolate fudge cake mix, oil, water, eggs and dry pudding mix with an electric mixer for about 2 minutes or until combined. Distribute evenly among the muffin cups, filling until about 3/4 full.

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with moist, not wet, crumbs. Cool completely.

Make the frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together butter, peanut butter and vanilla until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add in powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, until frosting is light and fluffy. If too thick, add a little cream or milk, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Spoon frosting into a disposable piping bag with an open-star tip. Pipe the frosting onto the cooled cupcakes. Drizzle the tops with caramel sauce, then top with a few pieces of chopped Snickers bars. Serve.

Salted Butterscotch Cookies

Adapted from “Out of the Box Desserts” by Hayley Parker (The Countryman Press, 210 pages, $24.95)

Makes: About 18 cookies

One 14- to 17.5-ounce package sugar cookie mix

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature

1 egg

2 tablespoons heavy cream or milk

One 3.4-ounce box instant butterscotch pudding mix

3/4 cup butterscotch chips

Sea salt, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together sugar cookie mix, butter, egg, cream or milk and dry pudding mix until a soft dough forms. Fold in the butterscotch chips.

Drop heaping tablespoons of cookie dough onto baking sheets, about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle top of each dough ball with a healthy pinch of sea salt.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until cookies appear set, rotating pans halfway through baking time. Cookies may look soft; don’t overbake. Cool completely on the baking sheets.

Gooey Lemon Bars

Adapted from “Out of the Box Desserts” by Hayley Parker (The Countryman Press, 210 pages, $24.95)

Makes: 24 lemon bars

1 box lemon cake mix

1 egg

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

For filling

One 8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature

3 eggs

One 16-ounce box powdered sugar plus more for dusting

1/4 cup butter, melted

1/4 cup lemon juice

Zest of 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with foil, extending the foil over the edges of the pan. Spray the foil liberally with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, combine the cake mix, 1 egg and 1/2 cup melted butter until a soft dough forms. Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared pan. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in another large bowl, beat the cream cheese, 3 eggs and powdered sugar together on LOW speed for 1 minute or until combined. Stream in the 1/4 cup melted butter, lemon juice and lemon zest; beat to combine. Mixture will be thick. Pour the mixture on top of the crust layer in the pan.

Bake for approximately 35 to 40 minutes or until the top is light golden brown and the center is just about set. It will be a little wiggly — that’s OK. Don’t overbake; they’re called gooey bars for a reason.

Cool the bars completely, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours or until set. Then, cut into squares. Just before serving, dust with additional powdered sugar.

Mixed Berry Mini Cheesecakes

Adapted from “Out of the Box Desserts” by Hayley Parker (The Countryman Press, 210 pages, $24.95)

Makes: 18 mini cheesecakes

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted

For filling

Two 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature

2/3 cup sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/3 cup sour cream

For topping

2 cups mixed berry pie filling, divided

Whipped cream

11/2 cups fresh mixed berries

Mint leaves for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 18 muffin tin cups with paper liners. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, brown sugar and melted butter together until moistened. Drop a rounded teaspoon of crumb mixture into each muffin cup, pressing with the back of a measuring spoon to create a compact crust. Bake 5 to 7 minutes or until golden. Remove from oven and let cool.

While crusts bake, prepare your filling. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the cream cheese and sugar until soft, about 2 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla, beating to incorporate. Lastly, beat in the sour cream until smooth.

Distribute the cheesecake filling evenly among the muffin cups, filling until about 3/4 full. Top with a tablespoon of mixed berry pie filling and use a clean butter knife to swirl the cheesecake and berry filling together.

Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes or until the cheesecake appears set and puffy. Cool completely, then refrigerate at least 2 hours.

To serve, top each miniature cheesecake with a dollop of whipped cream and spoon a heaping tablespoon of berry pie filling on top. Top with fresh berries and garnish with mint leaves. Serve immediately or store in refrigerator until served.