Product Review: Pillsbury Purely Simple Cake and Frosting

Who wants cake?! Mmmmm cake. Okay, I admit it, this one was a total impulse buy. Sheer curiosity got the best of me.

Let’s pause for one brief moment. Let’s address the question that may be forming in your mind, something to the tune of, “Wait. She runs a wellness blog. What in the Sam Hill is she doing promoting cake mix?!” I know. I feel a little twitchy doing it, but there is good reason. Let me hereby establish the Five Self-Evident Truths of This Blog Post:

  1. People like love to eat cake.
  2. People make cakes. For themselves, for events, for their kids.
  3. People use box cake mixes. Not everyone, but many people do. This post is for you, box cake people.
  4. Box cake mixes, traditionally, are utter garbage. (Refer to ingredients list of regular products below.)
  5. My blog is about making better choices. I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone is going to start making cakes from scratch. There are plenty of reasons why they may not, and I’m not here to judge.  Sure, that’s the best option, but it’s not always feasible. I’m not advocating boxed over made-from-scratch. I’m not advocating that cake is healthy, or that you should start eating more cake because of Purely Simple. I’m advocating a better choice, for the times you do make a cake, whenever that may be.

Capiche? Good. Let’s head back to it.

Ah yes, so I stumbled on these little guys by accident, on sale for $2.50 each (reg.price $3.29 each). FYI, people online report finding them way cheaper, especially at Target?! So you may want to scout out the best deal. Supposedly there are coupons floating around too.

As you can see in the main photo, the packages for both Purely Simple products proudly boast,”Simply no colors, preservatives, or artificial flavors,” which had me intrigued. (Though I also think it’s pathetic that companies act heroic for removing crap from a product that should never be in there anyways, but I digress.) I flipped them over for an inspection of the ingredients, and was pleased to see that the lists are short and sweet (pun intended):

Purely Simple White Cake Mix:  Wheat flour, sugar, canola oil, leavening (calcium phosphate, baking soda), cornstarch, salt, xanthan gum, natural flavor

Purely Simple Buttercream Frosting Mix: Sugar, cornstarch, buttermilk

My thoughts? First off, yes, it’s still processed cake/frosting mix. So let’s address the elephant that, as we well know, this definitely is not the same as making cake from scratch. Serious bakers are usually morally opposed to box mixes. As one reviewer wrote, you’re basically “paying Pillsbury to measure for you,” which is pretty true. Of course, making a cake from scratch and controlling the ingredients (and using high-quality ones) is the healthiest option for making cake.

And yes, because this is still a processed mix (albeit with less, better ingredients) it still includes a few ingredients I’d like to change or omit – even the “natural flavor”, because that can mean/hide a variety of things.

The way I look at it though, it’s cake mix, for goodness sake. Adults (should) know that cake isn’t a health food and should be eaten in moderation no matter what. Is this Purely Simple mix perfect? No. But it’s worlds better than using any other boxed cake mix! This mix is a great compromise especially for those of us who rarely bake cakes, but are prone to reaching for a mix when we do. 

And in terms of the frosting, that’s where you’re really doing better – have you seen the ingredients in normal processed frosting lately? Ugh. Not to mention that the average frosting from a can has a terrible reputation for being pretty high in trans fats.

For comparison, here is the ingredient listing for “regular” products:

Pillsbury Moist Supreme White Cake Mix: ENRICHED BLEACHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), SUGAR, LEAVENING (BAKING SODA, CALCIUM PHOSPHATE, SODIUM ALUMINUM PHOSPHATE), WHEAT STARCH, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: CANOLA OIL, DEXTROSE, SALT, CELLULOSE, PROPYLENE GLYCOL, ESTERS OF FATTY ACIDS, CORN STARCH, DISTILLED MONOGLYCERIDES, XANTHAN GUM, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, CELLULOSE GUM, SODIUM STEAROYL-2-LACTYLATE, SOY LECITHIN, WHEY, SODIUM CASEINATE, PALM KERNEL OIL, CITRIC ACID AND BHT (ANTIOXIDANTS). [Ed. note: BHT is not an antioxidant in terms of one that’s good for your body! In this usage, “antioxidant” means preservative – and a dangerous, man-made chemical one at that!]

Pillsbury Creamy Supreme Buttercream Frosting: SUGAR, PALM OIL, WATER, CORN SYRUP, CORN STARCH, CANOLA OIL, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF: SALT, MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, ARTIFICIAL COLOR (INCLUDING YELLOW 5, RED 40, YELLOW 6), MODIFIED CORN STARCH, POLYSORBATE 60, POTASSIUM SORBATE (PRESERVATIVE), SOY LECITHIN, XANTHAN GUM, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, ANTIOXIDANTS (ASCORBYL PALMITATE, MIXED TOCOPHEROLS, CHAMOMILE AND ROSEMARY EXTRACTS).

So, when you look at it that way,  it’s totally clear that Purely Simple is a way better bet if you’re grabbing a boxed cake mix! In the past, 100% of the time if I was making a cake or cupcakes, I grabbed a mix. That’s not to say that I’m averse to trying a nice homemade recipe like this one though! Not at all. In fact, I think I’m more likely now than I’ve ever been!

What about nutrition? For one thing, I dislike that one serving contains 15% of your daily sodium intake – highly unnecessary. Get that out of there, Pillsbury! It would also be great to see these mixes improved by lowering the sugar quantities as well. One cake serving = 17 g sugar, which is only 1 g less than the regular Moist Supreme cake. [To be fair, a homemade, 12-serving cake made with one cup (225 g) of sugar would be in this neighborhood too – 19 g sugar per serving.] One serving of the frosting contains, well, who knows – the package says 22 g sugar per 3 Tbs dry mix. I don’t know what 3 Tbs dry translates to, once hydrated. (Regular Pillsbury Supreme Buttercream frosting contains 20 g per each 2 Tbs serving, for reference.)

All that being said, let’s move onward to the making and, of course, the tasting!

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These recipes truly are very simple in terms of ingredients found in the mix and in terms of what you need in addition, but I felt there was room for improvement to make the ingredients you add healthier, so here is what I did:

CAKE MIX

  • Recipe calls for: 1 stick (1/2 cup) of butter + 1 cup milk + 3 eggs.
  • What I used instead: 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce + 1 cup almond milk + 1 whole egg + 2 egg whites.
  • Also, per the recommendation on the box, I added in 1/2 teaspoon each of pure almond extract and pure vanilla extract!

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FROSTING MIX

  • Recipe calls for: 1/2 cup butter + 1/4 cup water.
  • What I used instead: 1/4 cup (unsalted) organic butter + 1/4 cup EVOO + 1/4 cup water. (You may be able to further reduce or eliminate butter altogether and just use all EVOO to be even more heart-healthy, but that would be some serious trial and error that I’m not sure I recommend – see my commentary below.)
  • Also, I decided to add a splash of pure vanilla extract to the frosting as well. The package recommends almond, but I went vanilla.

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Overall, the prep for making the cake and the frosting was very quick and easy, just plenty of mixing done with my hand mixer. Me busting that thing out is a rarity (I’m a gal who will mix by hand whenever possible), but in this instance, using a hand mixer is 100% necessary, especially for the frosting.

The resulting cake batter is exactly what you’d expect from any other cake mix in terms of consistency and pour-ability, and it bakes up nice and fluffy just the way it should.

I admit, in terms of buttercream frosting, I’m not very well-versed. I’ve sure eaten it, but never made it. To me, the final product here looks and behaves like any frosting, but is a texture that’s somewhere in between regular can frosting and a superbly-made, fluffy buttercream from scratch. (Remember, I substituted half oil/half butter instead of all butter, so this seems to be why mine came out a bit heavier). Quantity-wise, what you end up with in your mixing bowl will go a lot further than you’d expect. On average, my frosting layer was about 1/4″ thick, but some areas even thicker – no shortage here.

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Taste verdict? Fluffy, moist, and flavorful – on par with (and even a bit better than) what I’ve been getting from box mixes all my life. It’s even (dare I say it?) capable of standing on its own sans frosting, if you’d like. I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I think I nailed the cake ingredients perfectly in my tinkering. You always worry as you’re subbing things that you’re screwing up your final product, but I was relieved to see that my cake came out almost perfectly. It baked for about 42-ish minutes, but our oven is strong, and ever-so-slightly overdid the edge pieces. So, next time I may shorten baking to 38 minutes (the shortest recommended time).

The frosting came out well too, even with the substitutions I made, and you definitely notice a taste difference simply from it not being chemical-filled. It’s very basic, just a super sweet vanilla. During the prep, I had put in a few drops of pure vanilla extract, which kind of over-did the vanilla-ness a tad. Next time, I want to try pure almond extract instead (which is actually what the package recommends).

Note: I did have a frosting-related misstep. After I finished frosting the fully-cooled cake, I was left with a dilemma – to refrigerate or not to refrigerate? I’d never refrigerated my cakes before, but there wasn’t anything “real” in the frosting to spoil.
Since this had butter in it, I put it in the fridge to be safe. But then I worried that it would stale the cake too fast! I Googled, “Do I need to refrigerate buttercream frosted cake” and found an almost 100% unanimous “No”, as long as it’s out for just a few days at reasonable room temperatures. So, I pulled the cake back out and put it on the counter – MISTAKE. By the next day, the oil separated out of the frosting and parts of the frosting slid off. It was a mess. I don’t think that it went bad, per se, just separated. But still, I erred on the side of caution and scraped it off my pieces. (My husband ate it and was fine, but he has the digestive abilities of an alley cat, so that doesn’t necessarily prove one way or the other!)
I can’t help but wonder if this would’ve played out differently had I used all butter, no oil. Hmm. My advice if, like me, you choose to use any oil? If you’re making a cake for an event and must frost it all at once, refrigerate the leftovers. If you’re making the cake for your own home enjoyment, keep everything separate until ready to eat: keep the frosting in a covered bowl in the fridge (for up to 2 weeks, per the package), keep the cake on the counter, and frost pieces as needed. I’ll definitely try that next time, if I decide to once again go 50-50 on oil and butter.

 
OVERALL VERDICT: All things said and done, would I buy this cake mix again? Would I recommend it? Yes and yes! High marks for ease of prep, taste, quality, and value. Would I buy/recommend the icing? Yes, to try again. I want to see if: A) almond extract instead of vanilla extract improves it, and B) I can have less icing-related drama this time. I’d recommend it any day over regular frosting, of course, but not because I absolutely adore it – more so just as a better, healthier quick option.

Last but not least, the Purely Simple line has quite a few other offerings:

  • Chocolate cake/cupcake mix
  • Chocolate buttercream frosting
  • Chocolate chunk brownie mix
  • Sugar cookie mix
  • Chocolate chip cookie mix

Not that I make cookies often, but I already have a recipe for homemade sugar and choc. chip cookies, so honestly, I probably won’t be trying Purely Simple’s. However, I’d be very interested to see how the chocolate cake/frosting are especially, in hopes that maybe we like the chocolate frosting better than the vanilla.

Enjoy! Please feel free to ask any questions or share your own experiences with Purely Simply in the comments!

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14 thoughts on “Product Review: Pillsbury Purely Simple Cake and Frosting

  1. Fun article to read, although I haven’t used a cake mix in ages. From all the reading and research I’ve done, butter, if it’s grass-fed, provides lots of good health benefits….if it’s raw and organic, too, all the better. So I would use all butter or butter and organic raw coconut oil, which has multiple health benefits and seems like it would compliment a dessert-y thing/recipe more than EVOO. But then that’s just me. 🙂

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    1. You’re 100% right that the absolute best bet is to go for grass-fed, if one plans to use butter. Grass-fed does seem to yield better nutritional values and lower health risk. One big thing I have to consider though, is that many readers won’t be doing that, and the butter they’ll use is their Country Crock or whatever other low-quality, chemically butter they’ve been raised with. Even if I were to recommend that they should be reaching for grass-fed butter (or even organic butter), most will not, either out of habit, cost, or ease of access. I myself haven’t yet bought grass-fed butter; I have organic unsalted in my fridge at the moment, which I got on sale luckily for cheaper than regular butter. So I guess in my book, presenting the idea to replace the butter with applesauce for the cake mix, and sub out EVOO for some of the butter in the frosting, is a good start and a step of improvement. But I really do like your idea of trying coconut oil instead of the EVOO in the frosting – that could be a real winner! Next time I will definitely do that. If I find that it works, I’ll update the post accordingly.

      Ahh but butter itself is a great debate, and I’m finding that it’s gotten to be like religion and politics in that it’s a “discuss carefully” topic! LOL. My personal lean is to avoid using it as much as possible, and when I do, use it very sparingly. Although I’m not vegan, I absolutely see the merit of an animal product-free lifestyle. From a health standpoint, avoiding the cholesterol found in butter (grass-fed or not) is a bonus in my book, as is avoiding dairy in general. We now do the vast majority of our cooking with EVOO or coconut oil, depending what we’re cooking. This is a good read: http://www.nwedible.com/grassfed-vs-organic-butter-and-which-one-will-kill-you-faster/ I never realized Kerrygold was grass-fed, but in the future if I do decide to buy butter once my stash is gone, I would consider buying it. Though like I said, I really try to avoid dairy as much as I can these days, and all the uncertainty that comes with wondering if your dairy product is *really* not treated with rBST or rBGH, and *really* fed organic feed, or *really* grass-fed just gives me more reason to avoid the whole mess altogether.

      This is relatively off-topic I know, but I recently learned that in terms of beef, grass-fed and grass-FINISHED are two entirely different things. So one could be buying grass-fed beef thinking it never gets fed feed, but in reality, it does end its days on feed. A grass-finished cow, by comparison, gets grass the entire way through. Unfortunately, the use of such terminology is so highly unregulated that anyone can literally say anything and their packaging, and none is the wiser. I don’t eat beef, but I can understand why those who do are very upset about misleading and inconsistent labeling! It’s just like the “cage-free” vs. “free-range” egg issue. Urgh!

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      1. HA! Yes, it’s almost like it’s better to not know some of this stuff because healthy eating these days can really get complicated, especially since they’re even finding that a number of organic things are laden w/ certain toxins and heavy metals. As for butter, to each his own. More and more of the research I’ve been finding has been pointing to raw, grass-fed butter being a treasure trove of health benefits and the kind of cholesterol that the body needs (sort of like how eggs were given such a bad rap and then recent findings have proven much of the assumptions were wrong). The Weston A Price Foundation would have you think it’s manna from heaven, even. 🙂

        Anyway, let me know how using coconut oil in the frosting works. I think it will be a winner. And I so appreciate that you are doing what you can to help people make better informed choices about what they eat and how they cook. Sometimes people just need to be made aware of certain things to make them want to change.

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  2. I was super excited when I found Pillsbury made cake and frosting-yes I do make it from scratch but some days I’m lazy, like anyone 🙂 I made the buttercream frosting and found it to be super sweet :/ I guess I’ve changed my taste buds and I don’t know what to do with the frosting 😦 Lesson learned!

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    1. Totally agree – even for those who normally do some scratch baking, it’s nice to have this option!

      I think our taste buds picked up on the same thing. I’ve never been one for super-sweet sweets, so a frosting this sweet is definitely a rare indulgence for me (and even then I can only tolerate it in pretty small doses). When I made it the first time, I added vanilla extract, which over-did it for me. I did want to try buying it at least one more time, to try making it without the vanilla extract to see if that helped. If not, then I probably wouldn’t buy the frosting again after that.

      I have a pack of the chocolate version in my pantry that I’ve yet to try out yet, but I’m hoping that version might taste a little more balanced. 🙂

      To be honest, the last several times, I’ve been making just the cake and not even frosting it! (On that note, stay tuned because I have a post coming pretty soon where I show two fun ways I’ve customized this cake mix!)

      Another option you might want to look into is doing coconut milk frosting. Check out this recipe: https://nuttykitchen.com/2010/06/01/coconut-whipped-cream/ I’ve yet to try that, but it’s high on my to-do list, and I think it’ll be pretty darn amazing! I imagine if we’re frosting a cake with that, it should definitely be refrigerated, or else it’ll get liquid-y.

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  3. I’m not big on processed food and only buy cake mix/icing once in a blue moon. I read the labels on everything I buy. I’ve learned recently about a global issue called Palm Oil and how it is used in just about everything — and also how it affects the environment, particularly the destruction of the Indonesian Rainforest and the animals who call it home. In my research, I’ve found that palm oil is mainly used in the icing and that Pillsbury and Betty Crocker are brands to steer clear of, while some of Duncan Hines options are palm-oil free. I made a page to help raise awareness. https://awarenesshelps.wordpress.com/palm-oil/

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    1. Great point! Palm oil does show up in unexpected places (peanut butter is guilty of this big-time). Even though many manufacturers say that their palm oil is responsibly-sourced, it’s so hard to know what that even means unless they specifically state what coalition they’re part of. I personally try to avoid palm oil wherever I can, just to be safe! Kudos for raising awareness!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good question! To be honest, I’m not sure! I’m not much of a baker, so I’ve never piped icing before. I’m not sure how this icing would do if you tried to pipe it, in either case of using their exact ingredient specifications or using the ingredient substitutions I suggested (for making it a bit healthier). But, I don’t see why you wouldn’t be able to alter/thicken it somehow to pipe it…but the “how” of that is admittedly beyond me. Sorry!!

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    2. Yes, you can use all butter and whip it with a stand mixer with whisk attachment. If that seems too soft you can add more powdered sugar until it gets thicker. If making the chocolate (like I did) you can add more cocoa powder. As a birthday cake baker, I can tell you to do a thin crumb coat on a refrigerated cake, then refrigerate again before frosting. Frost the cake and refrigerate again before piping. To decorate/pipe put the frosting in the bag and refrigerate before piping. this will help. But if you need really stiff frosting for very detailed piping you can use half or all shortening. I usually don’t eat the decorations anyway. I sometimes use all butter for the base frosting and then at least 50% to all shortening for the piped decorations. You will need to purchase 2 bags of this product for that. And definitely follow the suggestion to add almond extract if there are no nut allergies. Most bakeries use a combination of vanilla & almond flavoring.

      It actually almost as easy and much cheaper to make your own buttercream frosting. This come in real handy when your short on time or somewhere you don’t have measuring tools or don’t want to purchase the ingredients and have those packages to deal with: such as travelling say to a beach cottage. Hope this helps. BTW I bought this a product late summer 2015 and a year latr cannot find it or the cake mix in a retail grocer. Plus it’s no longer listed on Pillsbury’s website.

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      1. Go Abbie! Thanks for such a great answer! 🙂 I feel ya…our stores here have reduced the number of Purely Simple they carry. Publix still carries the most, though they’ve recently cut the chocolate cake from their shelves. Pillsbury re-did their website and split off the bakery stuff to pillsburybaking.com now, which is kind of weird in my book, but there you’ll see all the Purely Simple listed. Still stinks you’re having a tough time finding in store though. They don’t realize how frustrating this sort of thing is to us consumers!

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