Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Tunnel of Pudge
The Pillsbury Bake-Off is Serious Business. The prize money is a cool $1 million. It's held every other year, because it takes that long to prepare for it. Entries are due a year in advance. Any entrant worth her salt will test and retest recipes for months. Some people --- great bakers among them --- try for decades to make it to the golden circle of 100 finalists. Many will never succeed.
For America's many competitive cooking addicts, this is the Big Kahuna. The One To Win. Molly O'Neill simply couldn't put together an anthology of American food through the ages without one winning recipe.
These days,the Bake-Off wants "creative," easy-peasy recipes that can be marketed to working women. It helps if you use several General Mills/Pillsbury family products, but you must use at least two. Judges seem to favor recipes that use prepared foods in unexpected ways. The stay-at-home mother (of one school-age child) who won in 2006 made a baked chicken dinner for two with a stuffing made from Pillsbury® Dunkables® frozen homestyle waffle sticks and 1 (9 ounce) box Green Giant® frozen spinach, thawed, drained. It's fairly simple, prep time is just 35 minutes, and, perhaps most appealing of all, it gets parents eating their kids' frozen breakfast "sticks."
When the competition started in 1949, it was about innovative baking. The first winner was No-Knead Water-Rising Twists (made with Pillsbury BEST® All Purpose or Unbleached Flour). Here was a recipe women could use: an unusual preparation that got them out of the kitchen faster, leaving them time to make lots and lots of babies. (The recipe posted now on the Pillsbury website instructs to wrap the dough in greased plastic wrap --- which wasn't invented, apparently, until 1953. Hmmm. I guess Pillsbury's been cookin' the ol' recipes. This looks like an investigation for my --- spoiler alert! --- book.)
Ella Rita Helfrich of Houston won in 1966. Her recipe is all Bake-Off, all Texas, all heart. And a LOT of butter besides.
It's called the Tunnel of Fudge Cake and it's the kind of thing that would take weeks of experimentation --- or one happy accident: a very undercooked Bundt cake that just happened to turn out dee-lish. According to Pillsbury, the cake is "arguably the recipe most closely identified with the Bake-Off® Contest." It's easy to see why: it's different without being, you know, weird. And did I mention it has a helluva lot of butter? (I had to run to the store twice for butter because I couldn't believe I'd really need almost a whole pound. Just look how it holds up the hand-mixer!)
These days, the Tunnel of Fudge cake wouldn't even qualify for the contest. It's made with Pillsbury BEST® All Purpose or Unbleached Flour but all the other ingredients are generic. (I used General Mills Gold Medal flour --- General Mills and Pillsbury were once arch rivals, and their competing mills faced each other from either sides of the Mississippi, very near the site of the I-35 bridge collapse. But then one bought out the other and it's all happy families these days.)
I made the cake for my roommate Jane's 26th birthday party. Sadly, I didn't achieve the proper fudgy tunnel. Instead of a 12-cup Bundt pan, I used a pretty 10-cup "Bavarian" style pan from Martha Stewart's line, a Christmas gift from my wonderful Martha-loving cousin. I reduced the powdered sugar by half mostly because I refused to run to the corner bodega again (and I mean, c'mon: it calls for 2 cups ON TOP OF 1 & 3/4 cups granulated sugar!)
I guess in the smaller pan, it got slightly overcooked. The result was moist, decidedly brownie-like, but not molten lava as in the picture on the Pillsbury site. Still tasted fab, though. All the pretty girls at the party just LOVED it. I did them the favor of not telling them it has 550 calories and 32 grams of fat PER SERVING (and it serves 16). It's true what they say: everything's bigger in Texas.