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Starting From Scratch


Through inventive programs, contests and recipes, manufacturers and retailers aim to coax consumers back into the kitchen to create their own baked goods.

If a recent survey conducted for Wilton Enterprises, a Woodridge, Ill-based food-crafting company is to be believed, baking is back in a big way

According to Wilton's “Celebration Report on How America Bakes, Decorates and Celebrates,” almost 75 percent of respondents said they were baking the same amount or more than in past years. “In fact, 28 percent said they are baking even more than before, especially those with kids under 18 years old,” noted Wilton VP of consumer affairs Nancy Siler.

Other key findings of the biannual report were that one in four respondents describe themselves as regular bakers, saying that they bake at least once a week, with more than half (56 percent) baking twice monthly or more; 38 percent said they preferred to bake from scratch, while 37 percent tweak existing mixes and just 26 percent used a mix or ready-to-bake product without embellishments; and cookies were the most often baked treat, cited by 82 percent of respondents, with cakes, brownies and cupcakes all posting double-digit rises in popularity.

So what are manufacturers and retailers doing to capitalize on this greater interest in baking? Plenty, as it turns out. For instance, many grocers offer cooking classes to help their customers feel more comfortable in the kitchen generally, and particularly when baking. A standout example is the Apron's Cooking School offering from Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets Inc. One recent class, “Italian Easter Specialties,” held by pastry cook and noted cookbook author Nick Malgieri, included guidance on how to prepare such traditional seasonal treats as Cassata al Forno, an “Italian cheesecake” with a sweet crust and ricotta filling; Torta Caprese, a Neapolitan chocolate walnut cake; Taralli Dolci di Pasqua, cakelike ring cookies with lemon icing; and Taralli Napoletani, crisp savory Easter biscuits flavored with fennel seeds and black pepper.

“We offer our customers the opportunity to explore new tastes and recipes through our Apron's Simple Meals [recipes] and our Publix Apron's Cooking Schools,” affirms Maria Brous, Publix's director of media and community relations. For those shoppers who've already learned how to whip up their own desserts, she adds, the company provides “many opportunities to purchase their favorite items through BOGO — buy-one-get-one-free specials. In addition, especially throughout the major holidays, we offer extremely low pricing on essential baking items.”

According to Brous, the grocer's top seller in the baking aisle is the Publix 5-pound bag of sugar, with brownie and cake mixes both doing “extremely well.”

Another incentive to bake is a contest like the one held this past holiday season by Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper, in which six finalists, chosen from 85 entries and representing each the six states in which the grocer has stores, prepared original holiday cookie recipes at the Price Chopper Headquarters Studio Kitchen for a panel of judges featuring Ruth Fantasia, food editor of the Albany, N.Y., Times Union newspaper. Rated according to taste, ease of preparation, practicality of preparation, and creative appeal, the cookie recipes included such inventive creations as Twisted Snickerdoodles, Cherry Chip Meringues and Elegant Pumpkin Bars.

The ultimate big winner of the Chopper Shopper Bake-Off (the very name an echo of the famed Pillsbury Bake-Off), Jennifer Gill of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., received prizes worth $500 for her Jen's Holiday Delights, while runners-up and honorable mentions got goodies valued at $300, $200 and $100, respectively. All of the finalists' recipes appeared on Price Chopper's website, enabling customers to try them out.

In addition to grocers' efforts, there's been no shortage of clever promotions — particularly in the form of Bake-Off-style contests that give participants a chance to shine — and tasty recipe ideas from manufacturers hoping to inspire more shoppers to roll up their sleeves and start baking.

A key resource for innovative ingredient pairings is Hunt Valley, Md.-based spice provider McCormick & Co., whose influential Flavor Forecasts pinpoint emerging culinary trends, including those in the baking arena. Recipes for baked goods featured on the company's web-site include Cayenne Cherry-Studded Corn Muffins and Anise-Orange Scones.

As far as Norwich, Vt.-based King Arthur Flour — the oldest flour company in the United States, having been founded in 1790 — is concerned, baking has not only never gone out of style, it's also taken on even more importance today. “With growing consumer concern about what's in their food and how it's been handled, baking from scratch is the only surefire way to know that you're eating baked goods made with wholesome, natural ingredients,” notes the company's media relations manager, Allison Furbish. “It's generally less expensive than buying baked goods in a supermarket or bakery — a major consideration for most folks these days — and often much more delicious. The added benefit is that you can customize your home-baked goods to suit your tastes.”

Furbish points out that the company “know[s] people are still baking — and many new people are coming to the practice — because we hear it from our customers, students who attend our on-site or traveling classes, and home bakers who call our Baking Hotline for advice as they learn to bake for the first time, or the first time in years.”

To further facilitate such culinary adventures, King Arthur at the end of July 2010 introduced an online baking community where enthusiasts can swap and discuss challenges, tips and recipes with fellow fans. The Baking Circle at offers user-generated discussions, recipes and photos, along with blogs, videos, events and company news.

All of this support, coupled with consumer trends, has contributed to higher sales for King Arthur, notes Furbish. “Our SKUs are growing, even in flour categories that overall are declining,” she points out. Among the company's most recent new product rollouts is a line of gluten-free and baking mixes retailing for a suggested retail price range of $4.99 to $6.99.

To capitalize on the current popularity of pies, Crisco, a brand of The J.M. Smucker Co. of Orrville, Ohio, is marking a century of helping home cooks create yummy baked goods by unveiling a “Crisco Innovation” category for pie makers at the 17th Annual American Pie Council (APC) Crisco National Pie Championships taking place this month in Orlando, Fla. The new category enables amateurs and pros alike to show off their pie-making skills through a dazzling combination of tradition and originality. Participating bakers must use at least a half-cup of any variety of Crisco All-Vegetable Shortening in their recipes.

First-place winners in the amateur and professional divisions will each receive $2,000, a gift basket packed with Crisco baking products, and a special trophy.

Crisco is additionally sponsoring the 2011 Great American Pie Festival in Celebration, Fla. The 10-year-old event, which also occurs this month, will showcase pies from a range of purveyors, among them Publix and Krögers Private Selection, and standout features include the Never-Ending Pie Buffet; the Crisco Kids Creation Station, where children can make their own pies; and a pie-eating contest.

Another recent contest had entrants coming up with scrumptious chocolate cupcakes, courtesy of Hershey Co. brand Scharffen Berger Chocolate and gourmand website The Fourth Annual Chocolate Adventure Contest — Cupcake Edition 2010 — invited bakers to develop an original cupcake recipe using Scharffen Berger chocolate and one or more of 14 “adventure ingredients,” including almond flour, fresh beets, fresh or whole dried chili peppers, molasses, ricotta, and saffron. The unanimous choice of a star-studded panel for the $10,000 grand prize was “You Make Me Want To Stout” by Elaine Barbee, which featured stout beer as the sole adventure ingredient, used in four different ways.

And for those with baking skills not quite up to scratch, but who still feel a creative itch in the kitchen, Hungry Jack, another Smucker Co. brand, hosted the second annual Hungry Jack Use Up the Box Recipe Contest. In partnership with Adam Gertler, host of Food Network's “Kid in a Candy Store,” the brand challenged Americans to devise unique recipes using ingredients typically found in their pantries, including Hungry Jack products. One of the three winners delivered an ingenious baked treat: Pumpkin Layer Cake from the Pancake Mix. The prize was a year's worth of free groceries.

Despite clever shortcuts, the joy many derive from creating something out of a few basic ingredients is here to stay. “We have no indication that it's going to face a serious decline,” says King Arthur's Furbish. “There are economic and social factors that continue to make scratch baking important — knowing where your food comes from and what's in it, a movement toward more self-reliance, a return to simplicity —and to draw more and more people, including many young people, toward the practice of home baking. And with the retirement of baby boomers, we'll have the largest number of Americans ever with free time, and perhaps the last generation that remembers having home-baked goods at home growing up. These things bode well for the future of home baking.”

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