Baking with flour: a novel concept?

The 43rd annual Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest is coming up April 13-15. Devoted tracker of food trends that I am, I figured I’d better go cruise the Pillsbury Web site, read the 100 finalists’ recipes, and see what’s hot with home bakers this year. Chocolate, sure. But how about fancy cakes? Cookies? Gourmet muffins, maybe?

None of the above. The top 100 recipes run to entries like “Philly-Goes-Mexican Cheese Steak,” where the baking consists of opening two cans of “Pillsbury® refrigerated crusty French loaf,” spreading with seasoned butter, and plopping into the oven for 30 minutes. And “Mexican Pesto-Pork Tacos,” whose only “baking” is warming the taco shells in the oven before filling them.

Go ahead, call me a baking snob, a gal who’s not down with the way America really bakes. But to me, if you’re not using flour, in some way, shape, or form, you’re not baking. I mean, making a meatloaf is baking. So is putting together lasagna. But it’s just baking; not BAKING.

Me, I love the act of beating butter and sugar and eggs, then watching as flour gives this rather intense yet thin mixture some heft; some body and soul and spirit. A little vanilla, some salt and baking powder, a shower of chocolate chips, and 15 minutes later I’m passing melty-warm chocolate chip cookies around the office.

And then there’s the transformation that happens when I combine flour, water, and the tiniest pinch of yeast—I mean, probably 1/32 of a teaspoon—and let it “rest” overnight. Rest is hardly what happens. Next morning, my calm little smear of dough has turned into a bubbling, expansive pillow, begging to be made into bread. Love that, the way yeast and flour and water go from barely there to HERE I AM, with the addition of the simplest, least expensive of ingredients: time.

That’s the fun of baking: taking a bunch of simple ingredients and making them into something that’s far more than the sum of its parts. And it all depends on flour. Unless you’re baking macaroni and cheese. And then you’re not BAKING.

Back to Pillsbury’s contest. Kudos to all the participants; hey, at least they’re spending time in the kitchen rather than idling in the takeout lane at McDonald’s. Believe it or not, King Arthur Flour sponsored two baking contests, back in the early ’90s. And I played a very important role in one of them: Julia Child was a judge, and I got to trail in her wake with a paper cup, so she could “taste and spit” with aplomb, as befits culinary royalty. But that’s a story for another day. (One clarifying thought, though: Julia was one of the friendliest, most down-to-earth, just plain nicest people I ever met.)

The junior grand-prize winner of King Arthur’s 1991 WinterBake (apropos; it’s almost always winter up here in Vermont) was Sarah Nist of Montpelier, Vermont, whose Chunk Wild Cookies took the blue ribbon. Her recipe has held up very well over the years. If you like to bake—in the finest sense of the word—you’ll love these kid-friendly cookies.

First, the usual suspects: butter, sugar, salt, and leaveners.

“Cream” them together. If you don’t know what “cream” means, in a baking sense—this ain’t it! It’s a good start. But for something to be fully creamed, it should look like this:

Smooth, no lumps. One even color. That’s creamed.

Notice how beating in two eggs makes it even creamier—more satiny, richer looking.

Next, we grind some oatmeal in a food processor (I’ve use a mini processor here), till it’s pretty finely ground. Then add white chocolate chunks or chips, and grind again, just till the large chunks have disappeared.

A few small chunks are OK; don’t over-process just to grind down every last little chunk of chocolate.

Here’s the dough with the oats, white chocolate, and flour added; that white chocolate is going to add a certain “mmm-MMM!” to the finished cookies.

Once you’ve added the chips, scoop the dough onto parchment-lined or greased baking sheets. A tablespoon cookie scoop works well for this task. Be sure to leave 2” between the dough balls.

See why you leave enough space between the cookies? They spread as they bake, and you don’t want them running into each other.

Yum! All that’s missing is the glass of cold milk. Enjoy-

PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!


  1. Alvara Tompkins

    Dear PJ,
    I love your blogs and read each and every one. I will try these cookies as I am sure that my grandchildren will love them. I made the green pistachio ones for St. Patricks Day and they were a big hit.
    I know you are busy but hope you will continue the blog. I’m sure lots of people enjoy it.
    Happy Easter!

  2. PJ Hamel, post author

    And Happy Easter to you, too, Alvara. Thank you for the nice comment! I’m always busy in the kitchen, but NEVER too busy to share all the things I learn (and the yummy recipes) with all of you. Because that’s what baking is all about, isn’t it? Sharing. Not just the brownies and cookies and bread, but sharing the recipe and how you make them. That’s why I love this blog. And – I hope your grandchildren like the cookies – I’m certain they will!

  3. joan larkin

    would love to know how I can drop the dough from the ice cream scooper
    without a problem, my dough needs help,I use a tablespoon but would
    rather use an ice cream scooper, thanks for the above inf. Love you website.

  4. PJ Hamel

    Joan, if you use the kind of ice cream or cookie scoop where you squeeze the handle to release the dough, it should plop right out onto the cookie sheet; if it doesn’t give your wrist a flick to help it along. I haven’t had an issue, using cookie dough with a “normal” texture. It also helps, when using VERY sticky dough, to dip the scoop in water every few cookies. And/or to rinse it clean, if the dough still seems to be sticking. Hope this helps-

  5. Carolyn Klie

    I have a question I can’t find an answer to. Maybe you can help me since Mostly I “guesstimate” now. When I double a yeast bread recipe do I need to double the amount of yeast ( which seems like a lot sometimes) or is there a way to figure how much less? Thanks- I missed your stories and comments about life and baking when your newsletters changed. I’m so glad they are back. But I miss the magazine!

  6. Sue E. Conrad

    Know exactly what you mean regarding the Pillsbury Bake-Off, especially since it’s that time again!! My husband and I now live in FL but are New England natives (Nantucket and Newton respectively). I attended school at a time when Home Ec was required – half a year of sewing (hated it!!!) followed by half a year of cooking (loved it!!!). Still have my recipe for Apple Crisp from 7th grade and make it to rave reviews each time. Grew up with my mother using Gold Medal flour (reminds me of talcum powder!) but at some point I discovered King Arthur and haven’t looked back!! I make biscuits, cornbread, and piecrust from scratch – always have, always will. We return to New England each summer to visit children, grandchildren, and friends as well as our annual pilgrimage to King Arthur in Norwich. This year will be extra-special as my husband and I will be attending his 50th reunion at Fryeburg Academy! And last but not least, we live on our boat “Spindrift” in the St. Petersburg area…………and the galley (kitchen) is equipped with an oven at my insistence – gotta be able to bake no matter what!!

    Thanks for all the great products and recipes!!

  7. pj hamel

    Carolyn, I think one of our baker’s hotline ladies already answered your yeast question, yes? I remember discussing it with them, about not doubling the yeast, but only increasing it a little bit…

    And Sue, thanks for the newsy comment. I grew up south of Boston, too (Hingham) and had the same half year of sewing, half year of cooking – but in 8th grade (you Newton kids were always SO smart!) Glad to hear you still get back here – and to Fryeburg. We went to the Fryeburg Fair every year when we lived in Maine.

    Have fun on your boat!

  8. Rachel Billings

    I totally know what you mean about the Bake-Off! After seeing the crazy-detailed lists of pre-fab ingredients you’re required to use in your entry (one from each of two separate columns, if I remember correctly, and I don’t think flour was one of them), I’ve finally given up. I’d much rather eat something I’ve actually BAKED!

  9. Melanie

    I spent a few minutes trying to talk myself out of leaving a comment (read: rant) about “recipes and ingredients” these days, but when the battle between good sense and annoyance was waged, you can probably guess which one was the victor.

    First of all, I would like to say that I love what you’ve done with at least one of your blog posts – compared the ingredients to the original type of store bought product that inspired your creative genious to your final version of same. That’s partly due to the fact that I’m sensitive to a lot of categorically nasty things like corn syrup, sulfites, flavor enhancers like MSG and nutrasweet, their deceptively named equivalents, etc. Because of that, I do not eat convenience foods anymore, lest I wind up despondent and depressed for 2 weeks, covered in hives or just plain ill. Or all three. That’s always fun.

    KAF products are, if given a choice, the only ones I tend to use for all of the baking and cooking I’ve ended up doing because of that. Incidentally, KAF flour is the only flour that doesn’t give me hives. Sure, it takes a bit more time, but I feel far better for it, as would most people if they cut the processed garbage we’ve come to know as food out of our respective diets. I’m not preaching here, honest. I actually do have a point. I think.

    Oh, yes. I remember. “Ingredients & Recipes”. I think the trend began in the 1950’s. I’ve purchased several vintage cookbooks to try to find recipes that don’t include things like frozen dessert toppings, canned frosting and prepackaged cake mixes, but as soon as convenience and canned foods began to saturate the market, it seems that recipes with simple, natural ingredients went the way of the dinosaur. Sad, that. And Pillsbury seems to be one of the most frequent offenders. I bought an entire cookbook of their “recipes” in 1992 and only found one that was useable (which had more to do with foul tasting end products than anything, primarily because I wasn’t concerned with senstivity issues back then).

    But, I digress. I guess this miniature rant was just my way of saying keep up the good work! Oh, and fabulous blog! And, of course, Pillsbury recipes are icky and gross.

  10. Tracy

    So you decided to see what was hot with home bakers, and then, having seen it, put down those home bakers because they don’t bake like you — a person who is employed to bake from scratch?

    As a finalist in two Pillsbury Bake-off contests, I can tell you with certainty that the vast majority of people who competed do a great job with recipes from scratch. But they also have full and interesting lives that often include days that are too busy for marveling at the wonders of yeast. For those days, hooray for Pillsbury convenience products!

    If you think there should be a contest devoted to “from scratch” baking, why don’t you and your fellow owners start one?

  11. PJ Hamel, post author

    Tracy, that’s awesome – a finalist not once, but twice! Wow. Considering the zillions of people who enter, that’s impressive.
    I’m happy that you took the time to post an “opposing view” here. Just as you spoke up for baking that doesn’t necessarily include flour or stirring things together, I felt I needed to speak up for the more traditional type of baking. I fear it’s becoming lost in our American culture, the desire to take time to bake yeast breads from scratch, cookies by beating butter and sugar and eggs together, and pancakes not from a boxed mix, but with butter and milk and flour. I believe in our history, and our culture; and I believe that there need to be stewards to take it forward. I’ve chosen to be one of those stewards, and would never consider forcing that task on anyone who doesn’t want to shoulder it.
    In fact, I don’t believe in baking “contests” — I don’t believe in baking as a competitive sport. I feel it’s a collaborative, creative effort, with the reward coming in the form of the happiness it brings both the baker and those who enjoy his or her labors. For those who love baking contests, I say go for it- whatever brings YOU happiness.
    So we can agree to disagree agreeably on this one. : )
    P.S.: I do use convenience products (you’ll find them scattered throughout this blog); I do take the time to bake at home, outside “business hours;” and I have a full and rewarding and busy life (including three jobs) that encompasses much more than watching yeast perform its tricks!

  12. Dana Booth

    PJ, thanks to you, Susan, and the other KAF bakers for being such wonderful stewards of traditional baking. I haven’t checked out the Pillsbury Bake-Off recipes in a while, but I know they used to be more of the traditional baking recipes. Pillsbury flour was certainly used frequently. There is one recipe winner from I don’t know how long ago that I still love to make (Split Second cookies, but with KAF flour and homemade strawberry jam. yum 🙂 I guess the Bake-Off is just following the trend and going towards more convenience food recipes. I understand people feeling pushed for time, but it’s still sad.

    On a positive note tho, just notice how many of us are still out there that like to do more traditional cooking and baking. My [paternal] grandmother was an outstanding baker and my mother got me started very young, so both sides handed down the tradition. I’m 42 and have already been baking for 30+ years. I have three young sons (ages 2, 4, and 6) that I in turn am trying already to show the pleasures of baking and cooking and hope they will continue it on as well. And who knows, with the current economy maybe the trend will switch back to scratch baking! 🙂

    Dana, thanks for continuing to carry the “baking flag”- your sons are lucky to have a mom like you! – PJH

  13. Andrew

    I’m a bit late on positing this comment but these cookies are just amazing. I made mine a bit larger. The cookies spread out beautifully in the oven. I had to eat the cookies with 2 glasses of milk. =)

  14. Marion Leonard

    Loved reading your blog…went on looking for contests and was surprised by what I found…you’re right- baking isn’t a competitive sport, but it is one more way of honeing our skills. I love King Arthur brand and try to make all my cooking and baking more nutritious by adding pwd. milk, nuts and grains… I’ll be keeping and eye on this site.

  15. Wilma C Smith

    I like to cook, and the recipes you have looks delicious and easy to make. Congratulations for the blog. Free Brazilian recipes


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