Break out the pan. It's time to reminisce -- and bake.
Thank goodness for CBS. Cable television serendipity struck again a few weeks ago when I picked up the remote control and shazam: One of my favorite scenes from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" popped up.
It's the moment when Toula and Ian's different-as-night-and-day parents meet for the first time. The mother of the groom-to-be (Fiona Reid, a paragon of Midwestern reserve) is bearing a baked good for her earthy Greek immigrant hostess (the supremely splendid Lainie Kazan), who looks at the brown blob on a plate in wonder.
"Thank you," asks Kazan. "What is it?"
"It's a Bundt," says Reid, matter-of-factly, signaling a linguistic volley.
"A boon?" Kazan asks, feeling her way through an unfamiliar word.
"Bundt," replies Reid, a bit put off. Who hasn't heard of the Most Famous Cake in America?
"Bu-bunk?" says Kazan, growing more puzzled.
"Bundt," counters Reid.
"Bun-teh," replies Kazan.
The confusion continues until Kazan finally clues in. "It's a cake, I know," she exclaims, and the culture-clash tension dissipates. Then Kazan turns away from Reid and whispers, scandalized, "There's a hole in this cake."
Gets me, every time. That lazy afternoon of channel surfing proved to be a fortuitous catalyst, because I suddenly began seeing Bundts everywhere. They were filling coffeehouse pastry cases. Friends were serving them at parties. Co-workers were bringing them to the office. Then author Susanna Short's helpful "Bundt Cake Bliss" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $16.95) showed up in bookstores, and its pages began to taunt me, like a little paperback siren song, calling me to haul out my Bundt pan.
So I did. In no time at all I had an orange-cranberry beauty. An apple butter version was even better. I was on a roll.
In the back of my mind I knew that it was only a matter of time before I tackled the recipe that catapulted the Bundt pan into the cupboards of millions of American kitchens: the Tunnel of Fudge Cake.
Tale of the tunnel
Its backstory has the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster. Forty-two years ago this month in the ballroom at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel, 49-year-old Ella Rita Helfrich of Houston was about to embark upon a lifetime dream and ascend to the home-cooking Mount Olympus: the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
For her brownie-like chocolate cake, Helfrich relied upon a few secret weapons. One was pecans; a cherished pecan tree was her back yard's centerpiece. Another was Pillsbury's Two Layer Double-Dutch Fudge Buttercream Frosting mix, a product being emphasized at that year's competition. Finally, there was a novelty known as a Bundt pan, a fluted and scalloped aluminum tube pan modeled on a ceramic European "bund" cake pan. It was manufactured in 1950 by an enterprising Minnesotan, H. David Dalquist, a chemical engineer and founder of Nordic Ware of St. Louis Park. Dalquist added the "t" and wisely trademarked the word "Bundt."
The Bake-Off, which got its start in 1949, had mushroomed into an extremely effective recipe launch pad. Helfrich was about to take off like a rocket headed for the moon. "Sensational Tunnel of Fudge Cake $5,000 Busy Lady Bake-Off Winner" read the ads in Pillsbury's subsequent promotional blitz. Within a week, Pillsbury was inundated with 200,000 requests from consumers -- a vast number in that pre-Internet age -- asking where to find the baking pan with the peculiar name.
Nordic Ware, which had been quietly making the pans for 16 years, unexpectedly found itself with a monster hit on its hands. To date, the company has sold more than 50 million original-model Bundt pans. Pillsbury jumped on the Bundt bandwagon, too; for most of the 1970s, the company cranked out a line of boxed Bundt cake mixes.
The Tunnel of Fudge Cake didn't walk away with the 17th Bake-Off's blue ribbon. The $25,000 grand prize went to Mari Petrelli from Las Vegas for her Golden Gate Snack Bread. Helfrich didn't profit from her recipe the way Nordic Ware and Pillsbury did, although her $5,000 runner-up prize wasn't exactly chump change; in 2007 dollars, its value would be around $32,000.
Helfrich's daughter, Patricia Gullo of Houston, loves her Bundt pans ("I own several different shapes, although I like the original the best," she said), but she doesn't sugarcoat it when it comes to the bakeware company and her mother's role in its enormous success.
"Nordic Ware didn't do a lot for her," Gullo said. "Over the years, they sent her two or three pans." In 1999, Pillsbury had the good grace to include Helfrich as one of the first 10 inductees in the Bake-Off's Hall of Fame.
Helfrich, now 91, lives with her daughter and is recovering from a bad fall a few months ago. In the years following her brush with fame, Helfrich continued to submit recipes to the Bake-Off, although lightning never struck twice.
But this is a story with a sweet footnote. Back in 1966, when Gullo was 19, she accompanied her mother to the Bake-Off. Eight years ago, the roles were reversed, with Gullo as the Bake-Off finalist and Helfrich as the escort. Gullo's Parmesan Spinach Roll-Up didn't win, but she got to bring her 83-year-old mom back to the event -- coincidentally also held in San Francisco -- that made her sort of famous. "I tried for four or five years to get in, just so I could get her back, and I finally made it," said Gullo. "It was an awesome experience. She got more attention than anyone else."
And the Bundt pan? It went on to be displayed at the Smithsonian.
Back to the test kitchen
Isn't that the kind of story that makes you want to test-drive the Tunnel of Fudge Cake, just to see what the fuss is about? So I did. In a word: disappointment. The problem is that the Pillsbury frosting mix, a key ingredient in Helfrich's brilliant 1966 formula, is no longer in production. The company rejiggered Helfrich's recipe (available at www.pillsbury.com/recipes/) to get around the dropped mix, but I found the results to be a dud, more boring brownie than the splendidly gooey and magically fudgy-centered wonder I recalled from my childhood. "Without that frosting mix, it's just not the same cake," said Gullo. She's right. So here's where serendipity steps in once again. A few weeks ago, in search of an idea for dinner, I was thumbing through a recent issue of Cook's Country magazine. Wouldn't you know it: The "Lost Recipes" section was devoted to restoring the luster to Helfrich's fabled-but-tarnished legacy.
Cook's Country deputy editor Bridget Lancaster also was unhappy with the revised Pillsbury recipe and its pallid chocolate flavor and distinct absence of fudgy tunnel. So she got to work, and after two dozen failures she came up with a winner. While Lancaster's process is more involved than Helfrich's 15-minute recipe, the results are definitely worth baking. It's a real heavyweight, with a richly flavored, super-moist cake and a gooey, truly fudgy filling.
My one complaint lies in the oh-so-important chocolate glaze. Lancaster's recipe calls for corn syrup, an ingredient I try to avoid. So I turned to my baking guru, cookbook author Dorie Greenspan, for an answer; as always, she didn't let me down. Now I use her recipe for Chocolate Ganache Glaze, and it works like a charm. I think Helfrich would be pleased.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757
Poll: What's your favorite of the top 10 pizza toppings (according to a recent survey)?