Sunday, August 30, 2009

Baking the Bake-Off: Project 1 Nut Twists

Ah the great Pillsbury Bake-Off! Something about that famed contest has always intrigued me, although I have never personally had the opportunity to join in the fun and excitement. Throughout my life, I have eaten several of the recipes that had once taken home the grand prize, without even realizing they had originated in that grande dame of American baking contests. I had no clue that recipes such as Peanut Blossoms, a bake sale classic, and the delicious Tunnel of Fudge Cake had gotten their start in the Pillsbury Bake-off. There are some fantastic recipes that have made their way through that contest!

My boxes of household goods have finally all arrived from London and I am currently digging my way through them unpacking. If I can ever get fully moved in, find a stable job, and my life is slightly less complicated than it is at the moment, I would love to enter the Bake-Off someday, especially since the competition is now held in, of all places,.. Florida! Yay! I have so many ideas that I would love to try out on the judges and see what they think. Well maybe someday .. at least it is a more realistic possibility now that I live closer to the event itself.

Recently, the Food Network has started re-airing the most recent competition, gearing up towards the next big event in 2010. Inspired by the show, I decided to do something I had been meaning to do for years... start baking the Bake-off recipes, one by one. I had already made some of the recipes in the past, but never sat down and methodically went through the prize winners, year by year, trying out each one and seeing for myself why each of them won that huge prize. Hopefully, I will be able to continue my quest to bake them all off and write about my journey.

The very first winner of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, back in 1949, was No-Knead Water-Rising Twists. The twists are somewhat like cinnamon buns, only without icing and they are of course shaped differently. Pillsbury's website has a modified version up that has "modernized" the recipe to make it easier for today's cooks. After making the recipe using the original version, I have a better understanding of why they did this. However, I still wanted to try the actual version of the recipe that won, tricky steps and all. It was, after all, the recipe that launched such a classic, massive contest... I really didn't want to try the quickie version. It just felt like cheating to me. Luckily for me, I happen to have a copy of one of the first Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbooks, a treasure picked up at a yard sale. If you would like to try the updated version, which I imagine is still quite good and for all I know, may indeed be an improvement, you can find the new recipe here.

As I began preparing my ingredients for the recipe, I immediately noticed some significant changes... the amount of flour was 3 cups in the original, and the modern version is 2 1/2-3 1/2 cups. The modern version uses more sugar, less salt, fewer eggs and nuts, butter or margarine instead of shortening, and more milk. That seems like a lot of changes to me! The methods used to mix the ingredients were updated as well, and some of those changes account for the simple fact that we have more gadgets and electric kitchen tools at our disposal than most home cooks would have had access to back in 1949, so I can see why such updates were suggested. There is no longer a need, in the US, anyway, to scald milk, as our milk comes pasteurized. It simply needs to be warmed up so that the fat can be melted and blended into it smoothly.

There was one change that did stand out to me though that made me scratch my head and wonder why they changed it, since it is quite possibly a huge reason why this recipe stood out from the pack in the first place... they had removed the "water rising" method. It seems to me a bit odd to call a recipe "water-rising" when the dough is actually left to rise in the usual way, in a bowl until doubled, covered with a damp cloth. Isn't that just normal "air-rising?" While I was perfectly happy to use an electric mixer for part of the process, I was determined to at least try out the old fashioned "water-rising" technique, a process that involves wrapping the dough in a tea towel, tying it up, and leaving it to rise in a bowl of warm water. Yes.. the dough soaks in water, yes the dough is and should be quite damp. It reminded me of the way a Clootie Dumpling is traditionally prepared. Perhaps this change was based on the assumption that not many cooks these days have a pile of clean tea towels lying around just waiting to be used to soak dough in. Realistically, this is probably a pretty accurate assumption.

The water-rising method was actually pretty cool. I found it fascinating seeing the wet mass of raw dough get tied up neatly into its cloth sack and left to soak in its warm bath. As the dough rises, it begins to float higher and higher in the bowl, until it is truly bobbing like a raft. Upon opening the cloth, I was delighted to see that the dough had really changed dramatically during its soak - it had grown and instead of just being a sticky wet mess, it had elasticity and although still a very wet dough, did not glue itself to my fingers like paste. It is still pretty sticky, but it is supposed to be, as the next step is scooping out blobs of the dough with a spoon and then dropping them into a dish of cinnamon, sugar, and nuts, and letting them roll around and get coated with all that yummy goodness. The dough then gets stretched into long twists or "S" shapes and placed onto greased baking sheets, ready to puff up in the oven. The original made 2 dozen twists, the modern version suggests only making 1 dozen, mine ended up being 1 1/2 dozen.

These were really light in texture and not overly sweet, perfect with a cup of hot tea or dunked into coffee. I would personally like more cinnamon, so next time I might add a bit more. These didn't keep very well, which was a shame as they were really great the first day. I think the leftovers would be really nice torn up and used in a bread pudding.

Here is the version I used, as found in Pillsbury's Best 1000 Recipes Best of the Bake-Off Collection, 1959:

No-Knead Water-Rising Twists, (based on the original version by Mrs Ralph E. Smafield)
(1-2 dozen breakfast buns)

1/2 cup shortening, butter, or margarine (original used shortening)
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup milk, warmed
1/4 cup water, lukewarm
2 packets of active dry yeast (each packet is 2 1/4 tsp)
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, divided
3 large eggs, unbeaten

3/4 cups chopped nuts (I used pecans)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon (or more to taste)

Combine shortening, sugar, salt, vanilla, and warm milk until smooth, allow mixture to cool to lukewarm. (The modern version suggests mixing these in a saucepan on the stove, which I think is a good suggestion).

Meanwhile, combine yeast with the warm water and allow to sit until frothy, about 5 minutes. Add this to the shortening mixture. Add in half of the flour and beat until smooth (you can use a sturdy mixer for this step if you prefer). Cover and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

Since I was sitting around anyway, I went ahead and mixed up the ingredients for the topping in a small bowl and set them aside. I also greased two baking sheets (next time, I would line them with parchment instead).

Add in one egg at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the remaining flour gradually until it is all combined and you have a smooth dough without any lumps or dry spots.

Get out a clean tea towel and a large, deep bowl. Now, since you will be soaking your dough wrapped inside a cloth, you want to be certain this towel is not only clean, but be certain you have not used any fabric softeners or dryer sheets when you washed it, as they tend to leave behind a residue that I doubt anyone wants to be ingesting. I have a pretty unreasonably large collection of clean cloths I specifically use only for baking, so for me this was not a problem. I suspect you would get similar results placing the dough inside a plastic airtight baggie, so next time I might test that out as an alternative. The modern version suggests allowing the dough to rise in a bowl covered with a damp cloth and plastic wrap.

Lay out your towel and place the dough in the center. The dough will be like a thick wet batter. Gather up two edges of the cloth and tie them together, leaving enough room inside for a large pocket of air; repeat with the opposite corners. The idea is to contain the dough inside the cloth, leaving enough room for it to grow inside the cloth. Set the dough sack into a large bowl and then pour in warm water all around the sides, filling the bowl nearly full. Allow the dough to sit in its bath for about 35-45 minutes, or until the dough has risen to the top of the water.

Preheat your oven to 375 F. Remove the dough sack from the water and set it into a clean bowl. Open the cloth - the dough's texture will have changed considerably, but it should still be a fairly soft and somewhat wet dough. Grab your prepared baking sheets, your cinnamon nut topping, and an ordinary flatware tablespoon. Scoop out a nice sized blob of dough and drop it into your topping bowl. Roll the dough ball around to coat it thoroughly, then lift it, shaking off the excess, and then stretch it to about 8" in length. Twist the dough like a corkscrew and then place onto the baking sheets - you can leave them straight like batons or curve the dough into "S" shapes or snail shapes as you prefer. This would be a great part to let kids do with you, as it was easy and quite fun to work with.

Pop the twists into the oven and allow them to bake for about 12-15 minutes (the modern version suggests 8-16). They should be puffed and lightly golden, and they may still appear slightly glistening on the exterior. Remove to wire racks to cool slightly and eat while still warm.


  1. Heather, I have always loved the bake off! I have several of the cook books and when I was a little girl I used to dream of entering it one day. Your twists look fabulously good!

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  3. Thank you Marie :) I am looking forward to trying out more of them.

  4. How fun to cook all of the bake off recipes. This one looks great and I look forward to seeing more.

  5. What a fascinating post Heather, I love old cookbooks and have some pre-war ones from my Gran. I am sure you will enjoy baking your way through these recipes, each is a snapshot of tastes, styles and ingredients popular in their time - I look forward to seeing more in the future.

  6. I plan to try out another recipe this weekend, so keep posted :) It is great fun. I love my old Pillsbury Bake-off cookbook, what a great yard sale find!