Once we finished sampling some new products at the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens, the bloggers from General Mill’s Eat n’ Greet event headed over to the General Mills photo studios. This was the part of the event that Cooking with Amy, Cookie Madness and I were all excited to get to. The photo studios are not only where General Mills shoots its cookbooks and web photos, it is also where the food packaging photos are taken. They probably take hundreds of thounsands of photos inside the studio, from everyday snaps of a new brownie recipe to the photo of a bowl full of Cheerios that adorns the box for the next decade. And how often do you get the chance to meet a bunch of professional food photographers?
It was difficult to tell exactly how large the studios were, but they were spacious to say the least. There were cameras set up in front of light boxes, near windows with adjustable screens and in full-sized kitchens. There were also computers and flat-screen displays everywhere because the studio is in the process of going paperless. All of the printing is done in-house, where the printers are calibrated to the colors seen on screen after each photo is taken. The overall process went something like this: make the food, take the photos, view photos, retake photos as many times as necessary, print photos or send out for publication. Did you notice the first step? They make all of the food inside the photography studio’s kitchens so that it is fresh and so that the photographers have a good sense of the ingredients and composition of the food.
When you picture the kitchens for big companies, companies that test out recipes for books and magazines, or companies that develop packaged baking products, you probably picture a huge professional kitchen: stainless steel everywhere, convection ovens, huge noisy hoods over the cooktops and people in white chefs’ coats. This might be the atmosphere at some test kitchens, but not at the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens, which are some of the busiest kitchens in the country. The test kitchens have been around since 1921, developing recipes for home cooks. Today, not only do they develop recipes there, but they extensively test the various packaged products produced by General Mills that come out under the Betty Crocker name (they test other GM products there, as well). Along with Cooking with Amy, Cookie Madness, Bakerella and Picky Palate, I was able to take a little behind the scenes tour of the test kitchens last week at an event hosted by General Mills called the Eat n’ Greet.
The kitchens are just that – multiple kitchen setups in one very large and well lit room. There are 19 complete kitchens and over 7,000-square feet of space. Having 19 kitchens means that there are actually 19 cooktops, but there are actually 50 ovens in the space. I can’t imagine even trying to fill that many ovens, although there are days when it certainly would be nice to have access to that many at once! More than 2,000 recipes are developed for various publications, packaging and the web every year. The facility is a new one, so it’s not surprising that everything looks sparkling clean. Despite the huge size of the kitchens, only about a dozen people work down there on a regular basis. I suspect that lots of people manage to wander by for snacks during the day.
The kitchens are set up like home kitchens because all the recipes developed here are for home bakers in home kitchens, not professional chefs. Even though those who work in the kitchen are pros, they try to keep everything to the same equipment and same circumstances that we might find in our own kitchens to ensure that the recipes work when you’re dealing with regular ovens and regular pans.
After a fun day at the 43rd Annual Pillsbury Bake-Off, I couldn’t wait until I got to the awards ceremony this morning to see who had won. Fortunately, the ceremony started at 7:30 am central time and I didn’t have to wait for long until the master of ceremonies (and semi-homemade cooking) Sandra Lee took the stage and started to read the winners.
Prizes were announced for each of the five categories: Breakfast & Brunches, Pizza Creations, Entertaining Appetizers, Old El Paso Mexican Favorites and Sweet Treats. The grand prize winner was selected from the category winners, each of whom also won $5,000.
I’m not going to keep anyone in suspense here. The winner of the $1 million dollard grand prize was Carolyn Gurtz (pictured above) with her Sweet Treats recipe for Double-Delight Peanut Butter Cookies. The cookies use refrigerated peanut butter cookie dough and shape it around a ball of what is essentially peanut butter candy. The overall effect is a good one, although I admit that I would try the filling with one of my regular peanut butter cookie dough recipes, refrigerating the dough and using it in place of a store-bought version. (Update: I made a homemade version of the winning recipe!) Carolyn also won the sponsor award for best use of Jif Peanut Butter, bringing her total prize money to $1,010,000!
Picture a huge ballroom with 100 individual work areas, a couple hundred people, a overwhelming air of anticipation and the air conditioning cranked up high. And stick a 6-ft tall, costumed Pillsbury Doughboy in the corner of the room. This is pretty much the setting for the 43rd annual Pillsbury Bake Off right before the 100 finalists come in to bake their potentially million-dollar dishes. The room is cold because as soon as those 100 ranges turn on and people start working, it gets pretty warm.
The Bake-Off is the biggest and most famous baking contest in the country. The first one was held in 1949 and was changed to a biannual event from an annual one when the Pillsbury company was so overwhelmed with entries that it took them more than a few months to comb through all of them. Opinions are mixed about the contest because participants had to have their entries meet some specific criteria and use some specific ingredients. When the contest started, the categories were things like pie, cookies and yeast breads. These days, they’re more often appetizers, sweet treats and pizzas (they change every year). Flour, butter, sugar and eggs have always been eligible ingredients, but some of Pillsbury’s best-selling refrigerated products – biscuits, crescent rolls and pie crusts, for instance – are now acceptable. To some, these convenience ingredients represent some kind of baking shortcomings, but it is important to keep in mind that the Bake Off is not a contest to find the best baker in the US. It is a contest to use given ingredients in the most creative and original way possible.
The participants in the Bake-Off are a very diverse group, and I don’t just mean that they come from different areas of the country, are of varying ages (27-72) and are from different cultural backgrounds. I mean that they are all cooks and bakers, most of whom were prompted to enter the contest to challenge their creativity and vie for the million-dollar grand prize, not because they necessarily have a great passion for using all the sponsored products. Some have organic gardens and grow most of their own fruits and veggies. Others regular work with their homemade sourdough starters. Most of the recipes here are semi-homemade with some convenience ingredients (although many took quite some time to prepare anyway), but only because that is the challenge of the contest. I saw plenty of top notch ingredients, from good proscuitto to Scharffenberger chocolate, on contestant tables when I walked around the contest floor this morning.