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Just what the doctor ordered for Valentine's Day

Yikes! Valentine's Day is Sunday and you haven't given the first thought about how to celebrate.

Not to worry. Homemade - or semihomemade - treats always come from the heart, and with ideas from The Cake Mix Doctor, Anne Byrn, they can be easy to make, too.

Byrn will be in Columbia on Saturday to sign copies of her latest book, "The Cake Mix Doctor Returns," and we chatted with her recently about the book, her favorites recipes and sweet treats for your valentine. Byrn's previous cookbooks include "The Cake Mix Doctor," "Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor," "The Dinner Doctor" and "What Can I Bring?"

What recipes in "The Cake Mix Doctor Returns" would you recommend for Valentine's Day?

For a layer cake, the Best Red Velvet Cake is a classic, Byrn said. If you want something a bit more chocolatey, try the Chocolate Raspberry Cake (recipe listed). For a bundt cake, Byrn recommended the Chocolate Espresso Pound Cake, and for something lighter, she suggested Lemon Lover's Layer Cake - emphasis on the lover's - and A Lighter Stacy's Chocolate Chip Cake. Cupcakes and brownies are good choices, too, she said. "The Red Velvet Peppermint Cupcakes are a lot of fun," as are Tiramisu Brownies (recipe listed), which dress up a store-bought brownie mix with a tiramisu topping made of whipping cream, instant coffee, vanilla, mascarpone cheese and cream sherry.

How do you answer cooks who aren't convinced cooking with a cake mix is as good as baking from scratch?

"Ten years ago when the first cookbook came out, there were definitely two camps: people who liked the convenience of cake mixes and those who would only bake from scratch. Ten years later, those lines are blurred. There are people who bake from scratch but now also appreciate the convenience of a cake mix (for a quick weeknight dessert or cupcakes for their child's class)," Byrn said. "Also, a lot of people like my books because I only use homemade frostings. It's OK these days to bake both ways. . . . I still prefer my mom's banana bread from scratch, but there are some recipes I've tried to make from scratch that don't turn out as well."

Byrn also said that desserts made using cake mixes are "convenient, foolproof and surprisingly light (in texture)."

What are some of your favorite flavor add-ins?

"Number one and number two are fresh orange and fresh lemon, and you have them in the kitchen. If you want to up the flavor in a yellow cake mix, add a little citrus," Byrn said.

Byrn also likes to add extra vanilla, a little bit of coffee (instant or brewed), peanut butter, sour cream and buttermilk. "I also keep a drawer with add-ins like mini chocolate chips, chopped pecans, dried cherries, dried cranberries, anything I can stir in."

What are your favorite recipes in this book?

"I have so many. This book has more bundt cakes and sheet cakes because that's what readers told me they wanted. They're easier because you don't have to frost them. . . . I like all of the bundts. I really do." (Two of her favorites: Nancy's Cinnamon Swirl Coffee Cake and Chocolate Chip Cappuccino Coffee Cake.)

Since Nashville (where Byrn lives) and Columbia are both in SEC country, we asked her for good cakes for tailgating.

"Bundt cakes and sheet cakes travel well," she said. She suggested the Apple Cider Cake with Cider Glaze ("use the best cider you can get"), Stacy's Chocolate Chip Cake, Hot Lemon Poke Cake and - for an early game - Nancy's Cinnamon Swirl Coffee Cake.

"There's also Hummingbird Cake, a Southern favorite that people like any time of year." This rich banana and pineapple treat is usually baked as a layer cake with cream cheese frosting, but Byrn includes a sheet cake version that can be frosted and put in the refrigerator until you head to the game.

Who taught you to cook?

"My mom Bebe. She was a great cook, a very Southern cook. I grew up in Nashville, and our meals were meat and three, and she always had a dessert."

How do you keep coming up with new ideas?

"I listen to readers. For all of the pitfalls of the Internet . . . the good part is that readers are able to keep in touch. . . . I've had a 10-year dialog with my readers." Byrn said the idea for "The Dinner Doctor" and "What Can I Bring?" (potluck recipes) both came from paying attention to what her readers want, and this book has more bundt cakes and sheet cakes because readers wanted something easier.

What's next?

Byrn said she plans to have a gluten-free cookbook out in the fall with recipes using the new gluten-free cakes mixes now available.

"It is challenging because we're spoiled with what wheat flour does (in cooking). Gluten-free mixes are based on rice flour, which doesn't absorb liquids as well and can be gritty. . . . (But) I've heard from so many readers who ask if I will please do a gluten-free book or adapt one of their favorite recipes."

IF YOU GO

Book signing

Who: Anne Byrn, author of "The Cake Mix Doctor Returns"

When: This event has been canceled because of inclement weather

Where: Books A Million, 164 Forum Drive, Village at Sandhill

Also: Byrn also will speak and answer questions and serve cake.

RECIPES

Chocolate raspberry cake

For the cake:

vegetable oil spray, for misting the pans

flour, for dusting the pans

1 package (10 ounces) frozen raspberries packed in syrup, thawed (see note)

1 package (18.25 ounces) chocolate cake mix with pudding

1 cup reduced-fat sour cream

1/2 cup vegetable oil

3 large eggs

1 cup (6 ounces) miniature semisweet chocolate chip pieces

Chocolate ganache

For the garnish:

about 1 cup fresh raspberries (enough to cover the top)

2 teaspoons confectioners' sugar, for dusting

fresh mint sprig, optional

- Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly mist three 9-inch round cake pans with vegetable oil spray; then dust them with flour. Shake out the excess flour and set the pan aside.

- Place the thawed raspberries with their liquid in a fine mesh sieve set over a large mixing bowl. Using a small rubber spatula, press the raspberries through the sieve. Keep pressing until the juice and pulp have been pressed into the bowl and only the seeds remain in the sieve. Discard the seeds.

- Place the cake mix, sour cream, oil and eggs in the bowl with the raspberry puree and beat with an electric mixer on low speed until the ingredients are incorporated, 30 seconds. Stop the machine and scrape down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 11/2 to 2 minutes longer, scraping down the side of the bowl again if needed. The batter should look well blended.

- Fold in the miniature chocolate chips. Divide the cake batter evenly among the three prepared cake pans, smoothing the tops with the rubber spatula. Place the pans in the oven. If your oven is not large enough to hold 3 pans on the center rack, place 2 pans on that rack and one in the center of the rack above.

- Bake the cake layers until the tops spring back when lightly pressed with a finger, 23 to 27 minutes. The cake layer on the higher rack may bake faster, so test if for doneness first. Transfer the cake pans to wire racks and let the cake layers cool for 5 minutes. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each cake layer and give the pans a good shake to loosen the cakes. Invert each layer onto a wire rack; then invert it again onto another rack so that the cakes are right side up. Let the layers cool completely, 20 minutes longer.

- Meanwhile, make the chocolate ganache. Let it cool until it is thick and spreadable, 30 minutes.

- To assemble the cake, transfer one layer, right side up, to a cake plate. Spread the top with some of the ganache. Place a second cake layer, right side up, on top of the first and spread some of the ganache over it. Place the third layer, right side up, on top of the second layer and spread the remaining ganache over the top and side of the cake, working with smooth clean strokes.

- Garnish the cake by covering the top with fresh raspberries. Sift the confectioners' sugar over the cake. Place a mint sprig on top for garnish, if desired. To make slicing easier, place the uncovered cake in the refrigerator until the ganache sets, 20 minutes. Store this cake in the refrigerator.

Note: If you cannot find a 10-ounce package of frozen raspberries in syrup, used unsweetened frozen raspberries, and add 1/4 cup sugar to the batter.

Chocolate ganache

Makes 2 cups

8 ounces (1 1/3 cups) semisweet chocolate chips

3/4 cup heavy whipping cream

1 tablespoon liqueur, your choice, or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, optional

- Place chocolate chips in a large stainless steel mixing bowl. Pour the cream into a small heavy saucepan; place over medium heat, and bring to a boil, stirring. Remove the cream from the heat and pout it over the chocolate. Using a wooden spoon, stir until the chocolate is melted. Stir in the liqueur or vanilla, if using. Let the ganache cool at room temperature until spreadable, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Tiramisu brownies

Makes at least 30 bars

For the brownies:

vegetable oil spray, for misting the pan

2 packages (about 20 ounces each) brownie mix

2/3 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup cooled brewed coffee

4 large eggs

2 tablespoons cream sherry or marsala wine

For the tiramisu topping:

1 cup heavy whipping cream or evaporated milk

1/ 4 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon instant coffee granules

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

8 ounces mascarpone cheese

2 tablespoons cream sherry or marsala wine

1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder, for dusting

- Make the brownies: Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly mist a 13-by-9-inch metal baking pan with vegetable oil spray, and set the pan aside.

- Place brownie mix, oil, coffee and eggs in a large mixing bowl and stir with a wooden spoon until the ingredients are incorporated, about 50 strokes, or beat with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds. Transfer the batter to the prepared baking pan, smooth the top with a rubber spatula.

- Place the pan in the oven and bake the brownies until the edges have set and the center is still a little soft (press it lightly with a finger), 45 to 50 minutes. Transfer the baking pan to a wire rack and brush the top of the brownies very lightly with the 2 tablespoon sherry or marsala. Let the brownies cool on the wire rack for 10 minutes; then place them in the refrigerator to cool completely, 30 minutes longer.

- Meanwhile, make the tiramisu topping. Place the cream in a large microwave-safe glass mixing bowl along with the sugar and coffee powder; stir to mix. Microwave on high power for 1 minute. Remove the bowl from the microwave oven and stir until the sugar and coffee powder dissolve. Stir in the vanilla. Place the bowl in the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes.

- When the cream and the brownies have chilled, remove the bowl of cream from the refrigerator and beat it with an electric mixer on high power until nearly stiff peaks form, 2 minutes. Place the mascarpone in a separate bowl, and using the same beaters, beat on low speed until fluffy; then pour in the 2 tablespoons cream sherry or marsala. Continue to beat until smooth. Fold the mascarpone mixture into the whipped cream and beat on medium-high speed until just combined.

- Remove the pan of brownies from the refrigerator and spoon the topping over them, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula. Just before serving, sift the cocoa powder over the top of the brownies; then cut them into bars and serve. Store brownies in the refrigerator.

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