Minnesota pastry icon Betty Crocker turns 100
Spoiler alert: Betty Crocker, arguably the most recognized Minnesotan of the last century, is not a real person. Still, Cathy Swanson Wheaton is making sure that the 100th birthday of the fictitious General Mills spokesperson does not go unnoticed.
Wheaton is the cookbook editor for the Golden Valley-based company, overseeing recipe development, photography and manuscript writing.
For his latest project, Wheaton compiled a collector’s edition of recipes in “Betty Crocker Best 100: Favorite Recipes From America’s Most Trusted Cook” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $ 25), ranging from proven standards like banana bread and dumplings from Swedish meat to upcoming classics like the spicy pumpkin cupcakes and the gluten-free tuna noodle casserole.
In a recent phone conversation, Wheaton discussed Betty’s early days, the vagaries of memory, and the allure of easy-to-make chicken pies.
Question: How did you go about reducing what must have been a mountain of archived recipes?
A: It was intimidating. I lost a lot of sleep. How do you know which are the top 100 recipes? I ended up looking at the data we had. Bettycrocker.com has 12 million visits each month – it’s one of the biggest websites on food – and picking out the most popular recipes was a good way to choose. We have a large and strong consumer relations department. They get a million questions every year and I have looked into their recipe requests. Many have come from the nearly 400 cookbooks General Mills has published since Betty was born, as well as recipes that we’ve cleverly revisited.
Question: Such as?
A: Fruit cake. He has a bad reputation as a good doorstopper. But there’s a recipe on bettycrocker.com for fruit cake bars that take 20 minutes to make, and people are raving about it.
We have never changed for the sake of change. There was always a goal. We’ve tried to keep the essence of the recipe – we’ve taken some favorites and made them gluten-free – but in some cases the 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. It was then that people were cooking vegetables to death. Now we put them in the microwave with 2 tablespoons of water, and it’s ready in three minutes.
Question: How many recipes did you consider before narrowing the list down to a hundred?
A: There were hundreds of them, easily. Every night I would pull back my memories by asking myself, “What was I 30 years ago?” and “What did I have 20 years ago?”
Question: Memory can be difficult, right?
A: We have learned that although we have our memories, our taste buds have evolved. If you taste the mac and cheese you remember from your childhood, you will probably think, “This doesn’t have a lot of flavor.” We’re expecting more flavor combinations these days, which is why we’ve updated the Mac and Cheese Recipe with Dry Mustard and Worcestershire Sauce. They enhance the flavor of the cheese and meet today’s expectations for the tongue.
Question: First on my to-do list will be making these single-serve chicken pies. Why did you include them?
A: This recipe is very comforting; it tells me “fall”. We recognize that people have busy lives. We don’t want cooking to be intimidating – we want people to be successful and take pride in serving what they do to their family and friends. With these pies, it’s so easy to place the crust on top that it doesn’t need to form nice edges. People don’t look for perfection, they look for things that taste good and are easy to make.
Question: The Star Tribune hosts an annual holiday cookie recipe contest. Which of the 16 cookie and cookie bar recipes in the book would you enter into our contest?
A: Brownie cookies. Chocolate will always be a favorite. The recipe is a take on the brownies, and with the pecans it offers so much flavor and texture.
Question: You produce three or four cookbooks a year. Was this a fun project to take on?
A: Oh, my God, yeah. It was so exciting when we realized a few years ago that the 100th anniversary was approaching. We had to make a book. It helps consumers see that it is still relevant. This is not your grandmother’s Betty Crocker. She has this story, but she always pushes forward and always has great ideas. It evolves with the times, it is not ahead of its time. Examining old books, finding original sources, and seeing how the recipes have touched our lives and continue to touch our lives, it was a lot of fun. My blood flows from Betty Red, so I am very honored to be able to keep the traditions alive.
Question: We are talking about a fictional character as if she is a living, breathing person. Is this a standard operating procedure in your workplace?
A: It’s definitely part of General Mills’ culture. As a writer, it’s a little weird talking about her in first person as much as I did in the book. But it’s her birthday, and she lives on in the hearts of all who represent her.
Question: Can you shorten Betty’s origin story?
A: Our parent company, the Washburn-Crosby Co., held a competition. Many of the responses included questions about cooking, and marketers realized they needed more food-related people to answer them. They decided to create a character for all the home economists working in the company. They chose “Betty” because it was popular, warm and friendly, and “Crocker” because it was the last name of a retired executive.
Question: It’s great that the book includes reproductions of the famous eight portraits of Betty Crocker. The last one was created 25 years ago. Will there ever be another?
A: I hope so, but it’s hard for me to say. I know they played with the idea and how they would represent it today. But anyone can be Betty Crocker. It’s about being a creator. Your gender and race don’t matter. The idea behind Betty is to give you the creativity and the tools to help you do what you want to do in the kitchen.
Question: Do you cook a lot at home?
A: I love to share food with my family and friends. I had an Italian grandmother who cooked great feasts and then watched everyone eat, 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 some great food when you have these gatherings?
Individual chicken pies
Note: For an easy dinner later in the week, make pot pies as directed. Let cool to room temperature 30 minutes after cooking. Cover loosely and refrigerate for up to 3 days. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the pâtés on a rimmed baking sheet and cook until a table knife inserted in the center is hot to the touch with a finger, about 20 to 30 minutes. From “Betty Crocker Best 100.”
• 1/3 c. (5 tbsp plus 1 tsp) butter, plus a little more for the ramekins (or cooking spray for the ramekins)
• 1/3 c. plain 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 ch. Milk
• 3 bedrooms. chicken (or turkey) cooked in pieces
• 2 bedrooms. frozen peas and carrots
For the crust:
• 2 bedrooms. plus 2 tbsp. flour, plus extra for rolling the dough
• 1 C. salt
• 2/3 ch. cold shortening
• 3 to 5 tbsp. frozen water
To prepare the filling: In a 2 quart saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour, onion, salt and pepper. Cook and stir until mixture is bubbly, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth and milk. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil and stir for 1 minute. Stir in the chicken (or turkey) and peas and carrots, and remove from the heat.
To prepare the crust: In a medium bowl, combine the flour and salt. Using a pastry blender (or fork), cut shortening until mixture forms coarse pea-sized crumbs. Sprinkle with water, 1 tbsp at a time, and mix with a fork until all the flour is moistened and the dough almost leaves the side of the bowl (an additional 1 to 2 teaspoons of water can be added if necessary). Gather the dough into a ball. On a lightly floured work surface, divide the dough in half and shape it into 2 circles.
To prepare the pies: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and lightly coat 6 ramekins (10 ounces) or custard cups with butter (or cooking spray) and place the prepared ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet.
On a lightly floured work surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out a round of dough into a 16-inch circle. Using one of the ramekins as a guide, cut the dough with a sharp knife at least 1 inch around the dish to make 3 circles of dough (about 5 1/2 inches in diameter), turning the dough if necessary. Repeat with the second round of dough to make a total of 6 circles of dough.
Distribute the chicken mixture evenly among the ramekins. Line each ramekin with a pastry ring, pressing gently on the sides of the ramekin. Make a slit at the top of each circle. Bake until golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes.
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen cookies.
Note: To toast the pecans, place them on an ungreased rimmed baking sheet. Bake, uncovered, in a 350 degree oven for 6 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until lightly browned. Remove from oven, transfer pecans to a heatproof plate and set aside. From “Betty Crocker Best 100.”
• 2 bedrooms. chopped pecans, toasted if desired (see note)
• 3 bedrooms. (18 oz) semi-sweet chocolate chips, divided
• 1/2 tsp. (1 stick) butter, cut into pieces
• 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
• 1 1/2 tsp. plain flour
• 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
• 2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 4 eggs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line the baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a 3 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, combine 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips, butter and unsweetened chocolate and cook, stirring constantly, until butter and chocolates are melted . Remove from heat and let cool.
In medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt; put aside.
In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the sugar, vanilla extract and eggs until blended. Reduce speed to minimum and gradually add flour mixture. Add chocolate mixture; beat well. Stir in the pecans and 1 1/2 cups of the remaining chocolate chips.
Drop dough by 2 tablespoons onto prepared baking sheets, spacing about 1 inch apart. Cook 10 min. Remove cookies from oven and let cool for 2 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.