The Grand Prize in the first Pillsbury Bake-Off contest held in December, 1949, (then called the Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest) and hosted in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City — was $50,000. The only required ingredient in the early contests was Pillsbury’s BEST Flour. (FYI- that $50,000 winning recipe was called No-Knead Rising Twists and it was submitted by Mrs. Ralph Smafield of Detroit, Michigan).
In the Second Pillsbury Baking contest (not yet referred to as a “Bake-Off) was also held in New York City. (In 1957 the competition left New York for the first time and headed for Los Angeles. Since then, Bake-Off contests have been held in Washington, D.C. Florida, Texas and California.) The 1st Prize Winner in that Second Grand National Contest was Mrs. Peter Wuebel of Redwood City, California for her Orange-Kiss-Me Cake. Her first prize was $25,000.
Since 1996, the Grand Prize has been $1 million. The first $1 million prize was won by a man (Kurt Wait of Redwood City, CA), and that year 14 of the 100 finalists were men. Kurt’s million dollar recipe was Macadamia Fudge Torte.
Until 2002, CBS televised the event. Hosts have included Arthur Godfrey (1949–1950s), Art Linkletter (1960’s), Bob Barker (1970’s), Gary Collins (1980’s), Willard Scott (1990–1994), Alex Trebek (1996–1998), Phylicia Rashad (2000), and Marie Osmond (2002). In 2010, the winner was announced live on The Oprah Windfrey Show. The 2004, 2006, and 2008 contests were not televised. The television airings were produced by Mark Goodson Productions. Bob Barker was the first host to have a male category champ in 1978. Willard Scott & Marie Osmond also had male category champs (1990 & 1992 for Willard) while Alex Trebek had the pleasure to witness history when Kurt Wait won the 1996 Bake-Off with his million dollar recipe.
A lot of us collect the Bake-Off cookbooklets, which originally sold for twenty-five cents. (Curiously, the FIRST Bake Off cookbooklet doesn’t have a price on it anywhere. The Second Bake Off cookbooklet is priced at 25 cents). The price for the 13th Grand National Bake Off cookbook was 35 cents and the price went up to 50 cents when the 16th Grand National Bake Off booklet was published. The recently published 45th Bake Off cookbooklet was $4.99.
The FIRST bake off cookbooklet gives no indication that it was going to be the first of a series – I don’t think Pillsbury realized yet what they had on their hands. It’s the most elusive booklet of all to find and yet – I found mine at a flea market in Palm Springs and paid a dollar for it. I’ve heard of people paying $75 for one. I buy extra bake off booklets anytime I find them—just in case I find someone who needs one.
You know, if you have collected Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbooks for any length of time, how sometimes a Bake-Off recipe becomes really famous. A good early example is the Tunnel of Fudge cake recipe. The original Tunnel of Fudge Cake, created by Texan Ella Helfrich, didn’t even win the grand prize—it came in second place! (Even so, the tunnel of Fudge cake recipe is featured on the cover of the 17th Bake-Off Cookbook collection).
Two unexpected events occurred at that 17th annual Bake-Off Event; one, a famous new dessert was born, and two, the people at Nordic-Ware, the creators of the Bundt Pan, discovered they had a hot selling item on their hands.
Many of us have had the vague impression that Bundt pans—or something very much like them—had European origins and have been around for ages. Didn’t our grandmothers have something sort of similar? Actually, they did.
Food writer, Marcy Goldman, writing for the Washington Post, a few years ago, explained that the Bundt pan, as we know it, was actually designed in 1949 in Minneapolis—but, she says, the story of the Bundt pan is made no less interesting by its recent origin.
Writes Goldman “It was in 1946 that a young engineer, H. David Dalquist, Sr., returned to Minneapolis from his World War II duties, and with his brother started a small company, Northland Aluminum Products, in the family basement, to cast aluminum into industrial products” (One can imagine that products made of aluminum would have been a hot commodity now that aluminum was no longer rationed after the end of the war.)
As Dalquist developed his expertise in aluminum casting, he began to branch out into a few consumer products, including cake pans that he sold by mail order through advertisements in decorating magazines.
As Dalquist himself told the story, one day in 1949, a trio of “very nice ladies” from the local Hadassah chapter of Minneapolis approached him. They described a handmade ceramic baking mold that the chapter’s president had inherited from her European grandmother. The ladies explained that it was used to make bundkuchens, party or ‘gathering’ cakes. It was round and scrolled and like several other European baking pans, had a tube running up the center of the mold…they wanted to know if Dalquist could make them such a thing in metal. Dalquist could and he did. The ladies of Hadassah were happy and Dalquist was pleased enough to add the pan to his “Nordic Ware” line. The cake pan did well right from the beginning, say the people at Nordic Ware, mostly because women’s magazine used the pan for pretty cake photos.
Gerry Schremp, author of KITCHEN CULTURE/FIFTY YEARS OF FOOD FADS, says that sales were slow until the 1960 Good Housekeeping cookbook featured a color picture of a pound cake made in a Bundt pan. Twenty years later, sales took off even more when a lighter-weight Bundt pan was created.
Nordic Ware today is no longer being created in someone’s basement; they have a 270,000 square foot state of the art manufacturing facility with 14 molding pressers, 16 metal forming presses and six high production coating lines.
After Ella Helfrich created Tunnel of Fudge Cake—which has gone through a number of revisions since the original 1966 creation—every woman in America had to have a Bundt pan—and the people at Pillsbury were no slouches; Dalquist began entertaining the big wigs at Pillsbury…serving, of course, elegant Bundt cakes for dessert, and a deal was cooked…er, baked up.
If you browse through your old Bake-Off cookbooks, starting with the 16th Bake off contest, you will find American ingenuity at work, as contest finalists created a myriad of Bundt cakes, from Hideaway Chocolate Cake, in the 17th edition, to Fudge Brown Ring Cake, in the 24th. On the cover of Bake Off #23 is a prize winning photo of Butterscotch rum Ripple Cake and, of course, it was baked in a Bundt pan.
Gerry Schremp says that, by 1972, eleven of the top hundred winners in the Bake-Off contest had recipes which called for a Bundt pan; the grand prize THAT year was a Bundt Streusel Spice Cake.
The Pillsbury people have always been ever-vigilant when a good thing comes along. In 1974, they published PILLSBURY’S BEST BUNDT RECIPES, 100 delicious bread and cake recipes to make in your new fluted tube pan. Then in 1977, Pillsbury came out with 100 NEW BUNDT IDEAS, which manages to incorporate recipes for main dishes, salads, breads, desserts, and cakes—all made with the versatile Bundt cake pan. As I leafed through these two booklets, I discovered a wealth of exciting recipes including recipes for “scratch cakes” – you know, those cakes some of us still make without using a mix.
With the advent of Issue #26 of the Bake Off books, another creative cook produced chocolate toffee crescent bars, made with crescent dinner rolls and a whole flurry of new recipes were created with crescent dinner rolls as the basic ingredient—but that’s another story we’ll have to pursue another time.
However, the upshot of the 1966 Tunnel of Fudge Cake recipe was that Pillsbury created an entire line of Bundt Cake mixes, and offered the housewives of America a sweet deal – Nordic Ware Cake pans together with its cake mix.
Dalquist said that no matter how many pans Pillsbury ordered, the amount was underestimated. For about 18 months in the 1970s, in a kind of Bundt-mix-mania, Nordic Ware was working to capacity, manufacturing 30,000 Bundt Pans daily to keep up with the demand. (By the early 90s, more than 40 million of the pans had been manufactured).
Eventually, Pillsbury took the Bundt cake mixes out of the product line. However, instructions for making a Bundt cake can still be found on the boxes of cake mixes and most of us still have a Bundt cake pan or two on our pantry shelves. (Actually, I think I have half a dozen including my Angel Food cake tube pans—in more recent years Nordic Ware began manufacturing some brand-new wonderfully designed Bundt pans). For those of us who still want to make Bundt cakes from scratch or have a myriad of Bundt cake mixes in our recipe files, Nordic Ware put out a Bundt cookbook which was available directly from Nordic Ware.
Some of us still have the little Nordic Ware recipe booklet that came with our original Bundt pan; it contains quite a few Bundt cake recipes, including one for Tunnel of Fudge cake..although my booklet offers the original recipe and you can no longer buy Creamy double Dutch Frosting Mix (an essential ingredient in making the original Tunnel of Fudge cake).
Some time ago, I mentioned a Bundt cake to my daughter in law, Keara, who had no idea what I was talking about. I gave her an extra Bundt cake pan that I had (still in its original box) along with a fistful of recipes to try. She was enchanted with the cake pan – Pillsbury people take note – there’s a whole new generation of prospective cake bakers coming along—but she was especially pleased to discover its other possibilities. She called me one day, excitedly, to say “This Bundt pan makes a great Jello mold!”
Meanwhile, time marches on. The theme for the 38th Bake-Off contest held in Orlando Florida was “Quick & Easy”. The winning one-million dollar recipe was Salsa Couscous Chicken. You don’t need a Bundt cake pan or a package of Crescent rolls to make it.
The $1 million Grand Prize recipe for the 43rd Pillsbury Bake-off contest was, Double-Delight Peanut Butter Cookies, created by Carolyn Gurtz of Gaithersburg, Maryland
Now fast forward to the 45th Bake-Off contest which features, on its cover, a Carrot Cake Tart. That is not the million dollar first prize winner. THAT went to the person who created Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream. You don’t need a Bundt cake pan or a package of crescent rolls to make it. I miss the good old days.
And if you want to try your hand at making the not-tunnel-of-fudge-cake but a close imitation, try the following which I came across somewhere in my travels. It’s from as newspaper clipping:
ALMOST LIKE A TUNNEL OF FUDGE CAKE
- 1 3/4 cups margarine, softened
- 1 3/4 cups white sugar
- 6 eggs
- 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 cups chopped walnuts
- 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 tablespoons milk
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 10 inch Bundt pan.
- In a large bowl, cream together the butter and white sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Gradually blend in 2 cups confectioners’ sugar. Beat in the flour and 3/4 cup cocoa powder. Stir in the chopped walnuts. Pour batter into prepared pan.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 60 to 65 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool in pan for 1 hour, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely.
- For the glaze: In a small bowl, combine 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar and 1/4 cup cocoa. Stir in milk, a tablespoon at a time, until desired drizzling consistency is achieved. Spoon over cake.
I have been collecting the Bake Off cookbooklets for years – and consequently, have duplicates of quite a few. Write to me if there is a particular bake off booklet you are looking for! I’ll see if I have it!
–Sandra Lee Smith