These are dark times. In so many areas of life, things have taken a turn for the unbelievably bad, and rarely has there been such universal agreement on the abject suckiness of an era. I have, however, recently identified one sliver of the world in which things are not only good but oddly enough the best they’ve ever been, and possibly only getting better: We are at this very moment living through the golden age of single-serving packaged microwaveable mug cakes.
Yes, mug cakes: They’ve been on the rise for a minute now. Bookstores have been carrying cookbooks full of mug cake recipes for several years (not to be confused with the very appetizing-sounding dump cakes). I was ambiently aware of the concept and understood on some level that making a mug cake involved baking a portion of cake batter in a mug rather than a cake pan, a clever option for those of us who are bedeviled by portion control, but one that I assumed nonetheless still required eggs and butter and enough ingredients that it wasn’t, on balance, worth the hassle. It turns out, though, that those of us who live vagabond empty-fridge-and-pantry lifestyles can still enjoy mug cakes of the just-add-water variety, and we now have more ways than ever to conveniently do so. There are plenty of no-perishables-needed mug cake recipes that can be found online, but today I have come to speak in praise of the pre-portioned, single-serving mug cake mix currently sweeping grocery store aisles nationwide, the most convenient baked good since, well, you know.
I first encountered a pack of mug cake mix in the wild at Starbucks last year, when the chain started selling Foodstirs packets in some of its stores. FoodNavigator, a trade publication for the food industry, described Foodstirs as “an organic baking mix brand wooing Millennials,” but this leaves out the all-important fact that Foodstirs was co-founded by Sarah Michelle Gellar—i.e., watch your back, Jessica Alba, you’re not the only ’90s television vixen who’s riding the organic wave all the way to the bank. I bought a packet of the Celebration Confetti mix, added water, and before long was digging into my very own cake, in the comfort of my own home, heated up in my easy-going, no-frills microwave, rather than the high-maintenance hearth of laboriousness that is the oven. And before you ask, yes, I do acknowledge that smaller portions of cake are widely available in the form of cupcakes, but it can sometimes be difficult to find somewhere to buy a single cupcake. Also, sometimes one simply wants to eat one’s cake in a nice, warm mug.
For a while, I kept stopping by Starbucks to pick up more Foodstirs packets, which I know is weird, but if people go in there every day to earn rewards, please leave me to purchase mug cake packets in peace. But then, I made an even better discovery: You can buy mug cake mix packets at the grocery store. Just about every baking brand has introduced their own version over the past year or two: Betty Crocker has a line of Mug Treats, and not to be outdone, Duncan Hines markets an array of “Perfect Size for 1” cake mixes. Dr. Oetker makes a version, Trader Joe’s recently entered the fray, and Ghirardelli sells a bunch of brownie ones, which sets up an equivalency relationship between cake and brownies that I am not at this moment prepared to grapple with.
Miss Jones Baking Co.’s Desserts in a Cup and Kodiak Cakes’ Minute Muffins differ slightly from the aforementioned consumer mug cakes in how they are packaged. For each, instead of a packet, the mix comes in a cup, which doubles as a vessel for your mug cake: They’re the coffee-table book that is also a coffee table of mug cakes. But I prefer to make my mug cakes in actual mugs, mostly because of the name.
The thing you’ve no doubt been waiting for me to address, the elephant in the room, wherein the room is not a room but a mug, is whether mug cakes taste good. Well … pregnant pause. They aren’t as good as normal cake, it’s safe to say. But I will offer that anything that I can make by just adding water and nuking it in the microwave for a minute that winds up tasting decent is an achievement in itself. And they really do taste decent and enough like cake that I’m pretty impressed. They are exactly as much like real cake as Easy Mac is like real mac and cheese. I understand that some people might think adding water to powder to make cake is “disgusting” and “not food,” but to me, it is a tribute to human ingenuity and neat in the same way astronaut food is neat. (Perhaps my tolerance for trash is higher than normal, it’s worth mentioning.) I also think the mug cake achieves its goal, which is to be an attractive alternative to eating too much real cake. What the Washington Post calls “existentially sad,” I call meal planning. Still, one of the most concerning aspects of mug cakes is that some of the “recipes,” such as they are, say that you can add milk or water to the mix before you cook them, either one, it doesn’t matter which. What kind of food is so far gone that whether milk or water is added to it makes no discernable difference at all? This kind, apparently. And, Foodstirs told FoodNavigator, you can also customize them with protein powder!
Something else I find slightly unnerving is the following quote from Greg Fleishman, one of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s organic baking comrades in arms at Foodstirs: “It started about five years ago when some legacy brands tried to a launch a version of a mugcake and consumers weren’t there yet, but in the last couple of years it’s really taken off. Duncan Hines launched a mug cake mix and in 18 months they turned it into a $35m business.” Putting aside the $35 million mug-cake economy, which is simply too bizarre to contemplate right now, what does it mean that the American populace wasn’t “there yet” for mug cakes about five years ago but is now host to a hotbed of mug cake enthusiasm? Why did the world have to get so bad for us to embrace mug cakes? What if the ascendance of mug cakes truly is the symbol of the end times? Wouldn’t I rather be eating real cake when the world ends? I mean, yeah. But if I only have a minute, I’ll settle for a mug cake.