Spoiler alert: Betty Crocker, arguably the most recognized Minnesotan of the past century, isn't a real person. Still, Cathy Swanson Wheaton is making sure that the 100th birthday of General Mills' fictitious spokesperson is not going unnoticed.
Wheaton is executive editor of the Golden Valley-based company's cookbooks, overseeing recipe development, photography and manuscript writing.
For her latest project, Wheaton has compiled a collector's edition of recipes into "Betty Crocker Best 100: Favorite Recipes From America's Most Trusted Cook" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), ranging from tried-and-true standards like banana bread and Swedish meatballs to classics-in-the-making along the lines of spiced pumpkin cupcakes and gluten-free tuna-noodle casserole.
In a recent phone conversation, Wheaton discussed Betty's beginnings, the vagaries of memory and the appeal of easy-to-make chicken pot pies.
Q: How did you go about narrowing what had to be a mountain of archived recipes?
A: It was daunting. I lost a lot of sleep. How am I to know what are the 100 top recipes? I ended up looking at the data that we had. Bettycrocker.com has 12 million visits each month — it's one of the largest food websites out there — and selecting the most popular recipes there was a good way to choose. We have a large and robust consumer relations department. They receive a million questions each year, and I pored over their recipe requests. A lot came from the nearly 400 cookbooks that General Mills has published since Betty was born, and also recipes that we've given clever new twists.
Q: Such as?
A: Fruitcake. It got a bad rap as being a good doorstop. But there's a recipe on bettycrocker.com for fruitcake bars that take 20 minutes to prepare, and people rave about them.
We never changed for change's sake. There was always a purpose. We tried to keep the essence of the recipe — we did take some favorites and made them gluten-free — but in some cases, ingredients and methods have changed and improved over time. For example, it didn't make sense to share the old recipe for stuffed peppers, because you boiled them for 30 minutes. That's when people cooked vegetables to death. Now, we stick them in the microwave with 2 tablespoons of water, and they're done in three minutes.
Q: How many recipes did you consider before whittling the list down to a hundred?
A: There were hundreds, easily. Every night, I'd be pulling back my memories, asking myself, "What did I have 30 years ago?" and "What did I have 20 years ago?"
Q: Memory can be tricky, right?
A: We've learned that while we may have our memories, our taste buds have moved on. If you taste the mac-and-cheese you remembered from your childhood, you'd probably think, "This doesn't have much flavor." We expect more flavor combinations these days, which is why we updated the mac-and-cheese recipe with dry mustard and Worcestershire sauce. They enhance the cheese flavor, and match today's expectations for the tongue.
Q: First on my to-do list is going to be making those single-serving chicken pot pies. Why did you include them?
A: That recipe is very much comfort food; it says "fall" to me. We recognize that people have busy lives. We don't want cooking to be daunting — we want people to be successful at it, and to be proud to serve what they're making to their family and friends. With those pot pies, it's so easy to place the crust over the top, it doesn't have to form beautiful edges. People aren't looking for perfection, they're looking for things that taste good and are easy to make.
Q: The Star Tribune has an annual holiday cookie recipe contest. Which one of the book's 16 cookie and bar cookie recipes would you submit for our competition?
A: The Brownie Cookies. Chocolate is always going to be a favorite. The recipe is a twist on brownies, and with the pecans, it delivers so much flavor and texture.
Q: You produce three or four cookbooks a year. Was this a fun project to take on?
A: Oh, my gosh, yes. It was so exciting when we realized, a few years ago, that the 100th birthday was coming up. We had to do a book. It helps consumers see that she's still relevant. She's not your grandmother's Betty Crocker. She has that history, but she's still going forward and still has great ideas. She trends with the times, she's not ahead of the times. Poring through old books, finding original sources and seeing how recipes have touched our lives and continue to touch our lives, that was a lot of fun. My blood runs Betty red, and so I'm super-honored that I can keep up the traditions.
Q: We're talking about a fictitious character as if she were a living, breathing person. Is that standard operating procedure in your workplace?
A: It's definitely part of the culture of General Mills. As a writer, it's a little odd to talk about her in the first person as much as I did in the book. But it is about her birthday, and she lives in the hearts of all of us who represent her.
Q: Can you shorthand Betty's origin story?
A: Our parent company, the Washburn-Crosby Co., had a contest. A lot of the responses included cooking questions, and the marketing people realized that they needed more food-related people to answer them. They decided to create a persona for all of the home economists working at the company. They chose "Betty" because it was popular, and warm, and friendly, and "Crocker" because it was the last name of a retiring executive.
Q: It's great that the book includes reproductions of the famous eight Betty Crocker portraits. The last one was created 25 years ago. Will there ever be another one?
A: I would hope so, but it's hard for me to say. I know they've toyed with the idea, and about how they would represent her today. But everyone can be Betty Crocker. It's about being a maker. Your gender and your race don't matter. The whole idea behind Betty is to give you the creativity and the tools to help you make what you want to make in the kitchen.
Q: Do you do a lot of cooking at home?
A: I love to share food with family and friends. I had an Italian grandmother who made great big feasts and then watched everyone eat, and enjoy, and laugh. Food has such an impact on our lives, it's such a connector. It's the centerpiece of our celebrations, it creates memories. Why not have good food when you have those gatherings?
Individual Chicken Pot Pies
Note: For an easy dinner later in the week, prepare pot pies as directed. Let cool at room temperature 30 minutes after baking. Cover loosely and refrigerate for up to 3 days. When ready to serve, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place pot pies on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until a table knife inserted in the center feels hot when touched with a finger, about 20 to 30 minutes. From "Betty Crocker Best 100."
• 1/3 c. (5 tbsp. plus 1 tsp.) butter, plus extra for ramekins (or cooking spray for ramekins)
• 1/3 c. flour
• 1/3 c. chopped onion
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 1 3/4 c. chicken broth
• 2/3 c. milk
• 3 c. cut-up cooked chicken (or turkey)
• 2 c. frozen peas and carrots
• 2 c. plus 2 tbsp. flour, plus extra for rolling dough
• 1 tsp. salt
• 2/3 c. cold shortening
• 3 to 5 tbsp. ice-cold water
To prepare filling: In a 2-quart saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in flour, onion, salt and pepper. Cook and stir until mixture is bubbly, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in chicken broth and milk. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and stir for 1 minute. Stir in chicken (or turkey) and peas and carrots, and remove from heat.
To prepare crust: In a medium bowl, mix flour and salt. Using a pastry blender (or a fork), cut in shortening, until mixture forms coarse crumbs the size of small peas. Sprinkle with water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and toss with a fork until all flour is moistened and pastry almost leaves the side of the bowl (1 to 2 teaspoons more water can be added if necessary). Gather pastry into a ball. On a lightly floured work surface, divide pastry in half and shape into 2 rounds.
To prepare pot pies: Preheat oven to 425 degrees and lightly coat 6 (10-ounce) ramekins or custard cups with butter (or cooking spray) and place prepared ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet.
On a lightly floured work surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll one round of pastry into a 16-inch circle. Using one of the ramekins as a guide, cut pastry with a sharp knife at least 1 inch around the dish to make 3 pastry circles (about 5 1/2 inches in diameter), rerolling pastry if necessary. Repeat with second pastry round to make a total of 6 pastry circles.
Evenly divide chicken mixture among ramekins. Top each ramekin with a pastry circle, gently pressing sides down the ramekin. Make a slit in the top of each circle. Bake until golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes.
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen cookies.
Note: To toast pecans, spread in an ungreased rimmed baking sheet. Bake, uncovered, in a 350-degree oven for 6 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until light brown. Remove from oven, transfer pecans to a heatproof plate and set aside. From "Betty Crocker Best 100."
• 2 c. chopped pecans, toasted if desired (see Note)
• 3 c. (18 oz.) semisweet chocolate chips, divided
• 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, cut into pieces
• 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
• 1 1/2 c. flour
• 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 1/2 c. sugar
• 2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 4 eggs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a heavy 3-quart saucepan over low heat, combine 1 1/2 cups of the chocolate chips, the butter and the unsweetened chocolate and cook, stirring constantly, until butter and chocolates are melted. Remove from heat and cool.
In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat sugar, vanilla extract and eggs until well blended. Reduce speed to low and gradually add in flour mixture. Add chocolate mixture; beat well. Stir in pecans and remaining 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips.
Drop dough by 2 tablespoonfuls on prepared baking sheets, spacing about 1 inch apart. Bake 10 minutes. Remove cookies from oven and cool for 2 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.