Hayley Parker found her ooey-gooey sweet spot in a box mix.
With an adventurous flare 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, totally different, totally 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, Calif., 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 now working on a second cookbook.
“I want to inspire people to think beyond the box,” Parker said in her Rocklin 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 still 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, cliché 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 due to 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.”
MIXED BERRY MINI CHEESECAKES
Makes 18 mini cheesecakes
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
Two 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/3 cup sour cream
2 cups mixed berry pie filling, divided
1 1/2 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.
GOOEY LEMON BARS
Makes 24 lemon bars
1 box lemon cake mix
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
One 8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
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.