The making of a mix: A chocolate frosting quest for kids

We had the cake formula just where we wanted it. Easy to make, just the right size, moist and downright yummy. All we had to do was get the frosting right, and this member of the K.A.F. kids’ mix family was ready to go.

Except the frosting had other ideas. And it fell to Andrea to fix it.

Hey, we’re King Arthur, right? We must be swimming in every conceivable recipe you could ever need for baking. But when it comes to creating a mix, there are a lot of spokes on the wheel that have to be perfectly placed for the product to work.

Sue Gray and Andrea Brown are the brain trust behind the heavy lifting in this process. Sue’s command of ingredients is astonishing. She knows exactly which new food products are available, what they’ll do, and how to use them. It’s a lot like watching a painter mixing colors on a palette.

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On any given day, you’re likely to see Sue and Andrea side by side, with little bites of whatever they’re working on, chewing thoughtfully. Andrea will now demonstrate.

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For any mix with the King Arthur name on it, there are a number of requirements.

•It has to be easy to use. And in the case of a mix for kids, even more so: they’re designed to be made with no more equipment than a bowl and a spoon.
•When we make a mix, it has to taste fabulous. Not good enough, not yummy, but turn your head, “Wow, where did you get this?” fabulous.
•It has to be the right size. That means it makes an even number of scones or cupcakes or loaves, and they have to fit in a standard-sized pan.
•The ingredients have to be the highest quality. And available. And not cost so much that nobody (you included) can afford them.
I haven’t even gone near the steps involved in determining packaging, getting the nutritional analysis done, creating all 6 panels of the box and the art it needs, and so on.

But back to Andrea. We wanted kids to have a delicious frosting they could use easily, simply by melting butter, adding the mix, a little water and vanilla, and stirring. Andrea’s first step was to take formula for the kids’s vanilla cake glaze and “chocolatify” it.

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Besides being an unappealing color, it certainly didn’t taste chocolatey enough, so back to the drawing board.

Next try was to go for the familiar butter-cocoa-confectioners’ sugar style frosting to replicate an American-style buttercream. Still sadly lacking in the chocolate zone. As Andrea says, “not luscious.” Not to mention grainy and ugly.
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Meanwhile, as she was wrestling with the frosting, word came down that we should try making the mix with as many organic ingredients as we could.

Prices come in for organic ingredients. They’re close to gold-plated, and availability is sketchy. OK, let’s go again. Now, since Dr. Brown is not only a PhD, but a versatile cook, she was also pursuing a reformulation of a sour cream chocolate fudge glaze around the same time.

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The symbiosis light bulb went on! That particular glaze stays put pretty well once it’s mixed and cooled down. And the method is simple enough to adapt to bowl and spoon technology. What would happen if we re-sized that?

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Ahhh, much closer. A 6-year-old could stir this together and spread it without getting too frustrated. Flavor check? Too salty; it’s getting in the way of the chocolate.

We’re now on our fifth try, but at least we’re getting closer. It took three more tries, adjusting the salt by (I’m not kidding here) ONE TENTH of a gram before finding just the right amount. Eight tries so far.
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By now, we have a glaze that mixes up easily, on the stove or from the microwave. It’s thin at first, but when you dip your cupcakes into it, they come up shiny and taste good. Even if the glaze is used too hot and runs a bit (like the one on the left), it’s still delicious, and most kids would be just fine with it. If you let it cool a little more, it thickens, like the cupcake on the right.

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Most people, by now, would think, OK, looks good, tastes good, IS good. We’re done.

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Andrea is not most people. Andrea wants the children to have a “traditional” style, fluffier frosting. (But only if that’s what THEY want. Andrea is not a pushy grownup.) How can we achieve this without asking kids to use power equipment?

Andrea had this idea that the glaze, if you caught it in the right place between warm and cool, thin and thick, and stirred it vigorously (have you ever seen an 8-year-old attack any mixture with unbridled enthusiasm? We figured this was a pretty safe bet), you could have a pretty fluffy frosting.

So phase II was born. We tried heating the frosting in the microwave in 10-second bursts to get it just right, but then about the third time we were headed to the oven we realized this was getting to be a little too much.

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After a lot of trial and lots of tasty errors…
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…it became apparent that cooling the mixture was the secret to a lot of things. When the glaze is first put together, it can look a little lumpy and separated if it gets too hot.

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But a little time in the fridge and a few energetic stirs, and magic happens. First the glaze comes together to be smooth and shiny; that’s what the right-hand cupcake is wearing above. But after 30 minutes in the refrigerator and some more stirring, the frosting transforms into this spreadable miracle.

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So here’s the nexus of what it is to work in the KAF test kitchen. After all this kerfuffle (Andrea’s term) it turned out that we didn’t have the space on the back panel to tell kids about making vigorously hand-stirred fluffy frosting. But we needed to know. And now you do, too. This is how the cooled frosting looks in place on top of the cupcake. Note the Jaunty Peak on top.

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We also realized that no little kid is going to be running an oven without some adult supervision, so that’s why you see the line of copy that says, “ask an adult to help you beat the frosting with an electric mixer.”

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Out the cupcakes went to the employee tasting kitchen for feedback, and we started drafting other employee-owners with kids to test the mixes at home. They all reported good experiences, so we knew the mix passed the initial user-friendly test in real life. The only hitch was from one family that “forgot” to read the directions (happens more than you know). As we were shooting these pictures, 5-year-old Brandon came by and was immediately drafted for another round of hands-on testing.

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Being a kid-friendly office has a lot of advantages.

Next, the formula goes down to the grain room…

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…where Jay Rimmel and his cohorts

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do what is (for them) a mini batch: about 10 times the amount in a single box. This is what the test mixes look like when they come upstairs (only these are for doughnuts):

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The test mixes come upstairs, and guess what? Andrea gets to make them AGAIN.

If what Jay sends tastes like what we remember, we say OK, and production can start as soon as the artwork, boxes, nutritional panel, and instructions are all done. The kids’ mixes made their debut in fall ’08, so all of our packaging work had to be done at least 2 months before, to give the grain room time to fill the boxes. The chocolate cupcakes came as part of the second wave of kids’ mix flavors, and first appeared just after the holidays.

Here’s their “beauty” shot, all dressed up in sprinkles.

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And now you know a little more about what goes into that mix for Cinnamon Buns, Herb and Cheese Monkey Bread, Almond Sweet Bread, or Kids’ Rainbow Snack Cakes. When we say “we do the measuring, so you don’t have to,” you can believe it!

Susan Reid
About

Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently enjoying her fourth career after stints in advertising, running restaurants, and teaching at the New England Culinary Institute. She joined King Arthur in 2002 to ...

comments

  1. David

    Thanks for showing us all the effort you go through to make your mixes!

    I do have a question though (having not bought this mix…) Why does the mix web page say it makes 6 cupcakes, yet the nutrition link on that page say the mix makes 9 servings? (http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/kaf-kids-chocolate-snack-cake and http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/nutrition.jsp?id=3540) Especially since the directions you show above say it makes 9 cupcakes?

    It makes 9 cupcakes, David – I’ve fixed it on the Web. Thanks for your eagle eye! PJH

    Reply
  2. Bridgett

    First off, let me say that I particularly like this sentiment and think this is why your products stand out in the crowd:
    When we make a mix, it has to taste fabulous. Not good enough, not yummy, but turn your head, “Wow, where did you get this?” fabulous.

    And I love it when you all do a post on the science and trials in the kitchen. I would soooo love to have your job!

    Thanks for the good words, Bridgett. We will confess, however, that somewhere around the 20th batch of something (whatever that something is), we can get a little crabby ;-) Susan

    Reply
  3. Melinda

    Wish we could do mixes! We cook around our daughter’s dairy allergy. I know you guys don’t offer any allergy friendly mixes, but I sure wish you would. I suspect your know-how could create some better options that what’s out there. :D
    Hi Melinda,
    As someone with lots of allergies myself, I can certainly sympathize. We are working on a line of gluten free mixes for the future, so dairy free may be down the line some day too. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
    1. Leigh

      I second the request for dairy free recipes and mixes! I grew up baking and when I found out I was lactose intolerant I was heart-broken! I have since learned about dairy alternatives like coconut oil and almond milk, but I prefer to use recipes meant for those ingredients rather than substituting.

  4. Denise

    Thanks so much for showing us what all goes in to developing a mix! I really enjoy using the KA mixes. I usually end up trying things I normally wouldn’t make if it weren’t for the mix. I’ve always know they were good but I feel even better now knowing the personal thought and effort that goes into developing them. Instead of a chemist in a cold, sterile environment, you are real people, using normal equipment and testing with your own familes to make sure it’s right! Thanks!!
    Hi Denise, thanks for sharing. We sure are ‘regular folk’ and we want our customers to love baking as much as we do. Having quality mixes makes it an east choice. Happy Baking! ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  5. Eleanor

    Are any of your mixes peanut free? I have 2 grandsons

    who are allergic.

    All of our mixes are peanut free. Please call us if you need any allergen information. Frank from KAF.

    Reply
  6. Beth

    This is a great blog. And for those who are lactose-intolerant, you may only be sensitive to cow’s milk and not goat’s milk. See if you can get ahold of goat’s milk (preferably from a dairy). Apparently I was allergic to cow’s milk when I was a baby, and my parents located a source of goat’s milk, and that’s what I was given, and I had no problems. But there are articles online discussing this issue. PJ, when is King Arthur Flour opening up a satellite store in central Virginia? Can I send in my resume now??!!!

    Reply
  7. Maureen

    Very interesting – I’d like the job as “taster”. Just curious though – why doesn’t this cupcake mix bake 12 since the cup cake pans hold either 6 or 12 cakes?

    That would have been explained in the packaging design section, if we had had the room. Simply, the box will only hold a mix that make 9. Frank from KAF.

    Reply
  8. Nel

    Well, now, this takes me W-A-A-A-Y back to when I was about 8 or nine years old, and my mother let me bake pretty much anything I thought I could handle from her first edition Betty Crocker Cookbook (that was before Betty’s recipes all started with the words, ‘Take one of our mixes’ – every recipe was from scratch.)

    Being a kid, I was in a hurry to have frosting for the cake, and thought that it would all just go quicker if I melted the butter instead of waiting for the butter to get soft and creaming it with the powdered sugar (of course, I forgot to take the butter out of the fridge and it was a rock). So I ended up with a glaze. But I didn’t want a glaze (what kid wants THIN icing on cake?). So I put the ‘glaze’ into the fridge to harden up. When it got stiff, I beat it with a fork and voila: frosting.

    Seems like you’ve done basically the same thing here, no?

    Reply
  9. cm

    hello! what would be a good way to make this frosting dairy-free? thank you!

    Ganache can be made with chocolate and water, not just cream. Experiment, have fun. Frank from KAF.

    Reply
  10. Peter Roberts

    Jeff,

    Do you have a recipie adaptation for a cheese filled brioche? I would like to try a Katchipuri style brioche (Taleggio/Cheddar filling). And then down-size it to pop-in-your-mouth party snacks. Any ideas?

    Reply
  11. Alison T

    As someone who got a food science degree over 25 years ago and who didn’t know where to go to find a job afterwards, it’s really fun to watch you do what I wish I could have once done (and do now on a much smaller scale at home)!

    Once upon a time, I coulda sworn I got gluten free mixes from KAF. Then they were not available. And in the response to a comment above I read that you are working on gluten free mixes now. Am I hallucinating?

    Thanks for all you do. I hope someday to visit you in Vermont. Now if you just visited Utah…

    Hi Alison – We do currently offer gluten-free mixes online, from another manufacturer. We’re in the process of getting ready to market our own, which are REALLY GOOD (I’ve been tasting them all along the way – super-duper good!) Stay tuned… PJH

    Reply
  12. jami

    What a great post. I love learning about the behind-the-scenes work process. Can I come work for you? I live in CA, so it’s a bit of a commute, but maybe we can work something out… or you can start a west coast branch!

    Reply
  13. Christina

    It’s really neat seeing what all goes into making KAF mixes!

    I’ve been pining after them for a while.

    I’ll second or third the request for dairy free mixes or options. My kids have all had dairy intolerance early in life and it means I can’t have too many treats either. This momma would pay big bucks for cupcakes/frosting that taste good and can be enjoyed by EVERYONE in the family.

    Reply
  14. Tracey

    What a wonderful post! So few of us appreciate how much time and effort goes into bringing a product like this to market. Thanks for the education :)

    Reply
  15. Summer Day

    I truly am hoping that the gluten free mixes you are working on will also be milk free. it is such a struggle to find a good mix my son can eat. I am pulling for your success!

    The plan is to go dairy free on the gluten free mixes. The trick is finding a manufacturing facility that is suitable. We’re working on it. -TP

    Reply
  16. cheryl jednak

    I am going to show this web info to my 8th grade students, who do a food preperation unit in their Exploring Life Skills class. It’s a great link between food and careers, and also very interesting!
    Thanks, Cheryl, we’re happy to be of help. We have students do job shadows with us every year. They usually leave pretty charged up. And very well fed! Susan

    Reply
  17. Jeanie Lampin

    Thank you for this email – it gives you a chance to ask – DO YOU ALL OFFER ANGEL FOOD AND CHIFFON CAKE MIXES!! I have always loved orange chiffon cake (use to have them from “Betty Crocker”, but no more – really just asking – a I many times search your catalog cover to cover in search of theabove mentioned mixes. Thank you, the kids should be able to have a ball in the kitchen now! My girls did , but we were making them from scratch. jeanie We don’t currently have those cakes as mixes, but I will put it in as a customer request. Mary @ KAF

    Reply
  18. Gayle

    Looks delicious! For those of us who don’t do mixes, but prefer to make everything from scratch, is there a recipe equivalent you can share? Or something similar? I own all the KAF cookbooks except the 200th anniversary one, so if you know of a similar recipe in one of the cookbooks, I’d have access to it. Thanks! The Easy Chocolate Frosting on page 436 of the Whole Grain Baking Book, is probably fairly close. Have fun with it. Mary @ KAF

    Reply
  19. Ray

    I found this very interesting. I always bake from scratch, but there is nothing wrong about using good mixes. I think I like the challenge of “scratch”. Love the flour. Can I buy KAF in Ontario? At this time our flour isn’t available in Canada, but we do ship to individuals there. Mary @ KAF

    Reply
  20. Melinda Jones

    I have loved all the mixes and recipes I have tried. I understand the cost factor but I agreed with a comment written earlier. This person stated the beehive cake pan is still too expensive and I agree. I would love to purchase it but with this economy my priorities have shifted elsewhere. I always have rave reviews from baking with your mixes and feel the cost could be offset by word of mouth generating more business for your company.<br / The beehive pan is currently on sale for $32.95. Mary @ KAF

    Reply
  21. Kathleen

    Thank you for a very interesting blog. I had no idea about how your mixes are formulated. I am a from scratch baker but I do have some of your mixes on hand for when there is not enough time to make something from scratch and you are right, your mixes are fabulous and now I know how they got to be that awesome. It has given me a new appreciation of King Arthur’s test kitchen staff and as a previous comment stated, you all are very human, make the same mistakes we do and use most of the same equpment that a home baker would use. Please relay a “BIG” Thank You to all of King Arthur’s employee/owners, what you do is appreciated by this home baker.

    Reply
  22. Dawn

    King Arhtur Bakers are King and Queens of the typical family of today. Never enough time to do it from scratch. Your mixes are fantastic, simple and get rave reviews from all. I would love to be part of your team when I semi retire.
    Keep up the good work. Your classes and instructors are fabulous people too.

    Reply
  23. skeptic7

    This was a really great article. Its wonderful finding out how you develop and test those recipes. Brandon looks like he is taking the testing really seriously. I like the pictures of the grain room. Can you describe more about how they make flour and stuff into mixes?
    We start with the same size recipe that you’d make at home, and then we scale it up for a test batch (say, 10 times). If the test batches come back tasting like our original, we go for a production run. We have something called the “mix module”, a computer program which expresses the amounts of each ingredients in weights, and as a percentage of the total weight of the batch. If we decide to make 500 mixes, the mix module will tell us how many pounds of flour, sugar, leavening, flavoring, and add any other ingredients need to go into the big silver hopper you see way up high in the grain room. The ingredients get mixed together by these machines, and then they’re gravity fed by weight into the bags or boxes we’ve had printed. Once the bags are sealed, the boxes go down a line where they are closed, dated and sealed. From there they get gathered together on pallets or in cartons to go to grocery stores or to our backstock, where we take them as we need them to fill orders. Susan

    Reply
  24. SUSAN DAWSON

    I am a avid fan of King Arthur, and since my neighbor up the hill from me has four children ages 10 down to 2, I sometimes give King Arthur products for holiday gifts and birthdays. My grandchildren are grown now so it isi fun to give a busy mom a fun mix. I loved cooking as a child, and both my grandmothrs were good cooks–especially the Norwegian one. She taught me how to make a smashing banana cream pie! Cooking and gardening are great hobbies for kids. Nothing beats eating your own handiwork. Keep up the great work. Your recipes are the best.

    Reply
  25. Soozq

    I have your KAF salt rising yeast and I look dauntingly at the 2 page, 3 day instructions and am dragging my feet. Is there a mix for SRbread yet? I have the toaster, butter and knife ready.

    I am sorry but we do not have a mix. While it would be wonderful if it was as easy as a mix–for those who are not intimidated by the lengthy process–there awaits a wonder loaf of bread at the end. Joan@bakershotline

    Reply
  26. Theresa

    I love the mixes: cakes, scones, frostings, specialty items, all of them. Thank you for making such great ones. I haven’t had one I didn’t like.

    However, I especially love the “grown-up/not necessarily-kid-version” of the chocolate-fudge frosting mix. And while I will always be a loyal and avid fan (living down the street from KAF instills this), I would love to know if there is a make-at-home-from-scratch recipe of this frosting? I recently indulged in your chocolate sale, so with a well stocked chocolate pantry, I am eager to try a scratch version. With love and chips. T

    Dear Theresa: This cooked fudge frosting is the closest one I know to the consistency of what Andrea was working with. If you catch it at the right point (lukewarm), you can whip it and frost (quickly). As a poured frosting it makes this amazing slab of fudgy chocolate on things. mmmmmm….. Susan

    Reply
  27. Amber

    Great post, love the behind-the-scenes details. I would’ve given up after Try No. 3!
    Re: dairy allergies. My daughter had a anaphylasis-level dairy allergy her first three years. For cake, I used King Arthur products and an out-of-this-world chocolate vegan cake recipe from “The Vegan Lunchbox.” I made this far more chocolately using KAF’s extra-dark cocoa as my stealth ingredient, substituting about 1/3 of called-for cocoa. This is still our go-to chocolate cake and kids love it, though with KAF black cocoa and dark-chocolate frosting (recipe also in book) it is very big with adults.

    [Can you tell I love KAF's black cocoa??]

    Reply
  28. Ann

    I stumbled across this fascinating post while searching your website for a mocha frosting recipe. For years, my brother’s wife has been looking for a successful mochae frosting recipe for his birthday cake with no luck. Could she possibly use KA Expresso Powder in the fudge frosting recipe (above) and have good mocha frosting? If not, how could she make a mocha buttercream frosting using the KA Expresso Powder? I will purchase some for her if you think it would solve her dilemma. Thank you very much!

    Thank you for this thoughtful inquiry. I think the Espresso Powder will add the right zing to these recipes to give the mocha taste you are seeking. There is also an espresso frosting recipe with our sourdough chocolate cake recipe. Irene at KAF

    Reply

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