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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Most people, by now, would think, OK, looks good, tastes good, IS good. We’re done.
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.
...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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Being a kid-friendly office has a lot of advantages.
Next, the formula goes down to the grain room...
...where Jay Rimmel and his cohorts
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):
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.
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!