A few years ago, an elderly man called Mikayla Spaulding with urgent question about a cherry pie. As Mikayla puts it, the man “had never baked a single thing in his life” and he wanted Mikayla to tell him how to get started. Oh, and he was working on a tight deadline. Queries like this aren’t so unusual in Mikayla’s line of work—she’s a baker specialist at the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Hotline. Along with twelve other specialists, she fields calls, emails, and online chats from home bakers in various states of befuddlement.
The man with the cherry pie question has remained one of Mikayla’s favorite callers in her six years working at the hotline. The caller wanted to surprise his wife for their 60th wedding anniversary. She’d left the house for a few hours to get her hair done, so he hoped to have the whole thing finished by the time she got back. Above all, the caller wanted the pie to meet a high standard because his wife was an excellent baker. “It was multiple calls,” says Mikayla. “We walked him through the beginning, and then he called back a couple more times. That was a memorable one because there was so much emotion involved for him.”
King Arthur Flour, which was established in 1790, created the hotline in 1993. These days, there are plenty of places to go for culinary advice. Amateur bakers can watch YouTube tutorials and cruise the comments sections on everywhere from AllRecipes.com to The New York Times food section. And there are other food companies that offer hotline help —Fleischmann’s Yeast, for example. But the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Hotline remains unique in offering such thorough, personalized help for a whole universe of baking challenges.
I turned to the hotline recently for help with a sourdough biscuit conundrum. Six months ago, my sister sent me a jar of our late grandfather’s 50-year-old sourdough starter and a few typewritten pages of his recipes. I have been trying to recreate his beloved breads, pancakes, and biscuits. Especially the biscuits. While I can get a reasonably fluffy batch when I make the recipe with white flour, all my attempts to use a mixture of white and whole wheat have resulted in flat, puck-like failures. My grandfather, who used to make airy, sky-high whole wheat sourdough biscuits, is no longer around to point out what I’m doing wrong. Initially, I was skeptical about asking a stranger from a flour company for help in his stead. But I ended up being impressed by my experience with King Arthur Flour’s online chat program.
First, the baker specialist asked me how I was measuring out my flour—by weight or by volume. “By volume,” I told her. My grandfather wrote all his recipes with volume measurements. The specialist then asked how I was getting the flour out of the bag. “By scooping with a measuring cup,” I replied, a bit bemused. It had never occurred to me to do it any other way. The specialist explained that whole wheat flours are much heavier, so using the same volume measurements as white flour can result in a dense, over-floured dough that will have trouble rising. Additionally, scooping flour from the bag tends to pack it together, which compounds the problem. The baker specialist explained a method for fluffing up the flour and then spooning it into the measuring cup. This information might seem obvious to a more experienced baker, but to a newbie like me it was revelatory—who knew there was a wrong way to measure flour!
Mikayla stresses that no questions are too elementary for the hotline. “We’re here for anything,” she says,“no matter how big or small or how silly it might seem.” Anything, that is, except for questions that aren’t really about baked goods. During November and December, when call volumes spike to many hundreds per day, the hotline gets quite a few questions about roasting turkeys. These inquiries are better directed to Butterball, which operates its own hotline around the holidays.
It turns out that my sourdough biscuit question was not an unusual one. Mikayla estimates that seventy-five percent of the calls she gets are about sourdough. It’s easy to get spooked by a finicky wild yeast. Mikayla’s favorite kind of calls are the ones that require some sleuthing. “We get a lot of questions where people say, ‘I followed the recipe exactly—what went wrong?’ It’s fun to go back step by step with people and reevaluate,” she says. “Sometimes it’s something really simple, but when they go through it with you, suddenly a lightbulb comes on.” Mikayla is like a detective for breads, cakes and pies. No detail goes unnoticed.
In her years at the hotline, Mikayla has noticed a shift in the kinds of baking projects her callers are taking on. “When I first started, I had more elderly people calling,” she says. “I definitely notice a younger generation coming into it now, and the style is changing. Whereas before it tended to be more simple old family recipes, I think now people are trying to branch out into more complicated things.” Mikayla sees how younger bakers are inspired by the explosion of new food media on TV, in print, and online. She also observes that callers these days are more aware of where their food comes from, and more likely to ask about the origins of King Arthur’s products. “People are definitely thinking more about GMOs and environmental impact,” she says.
Home bakers’ interests will likely continue to evolve, but the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Hotline hopes to remain a stalwart source of advice for anyone who wants to learn to bake good food from scratch. When I used the chat program, I was struck not only by how helpful it was, but also by the sense that I wasn’t being sold anything. When I told the baker specialist that I didn’t own a kitchen scale, she didn’t try to get me to buy one (King Arthur does sell them in their online shop—I checked later). Rather, she suggested a better method for measuring by volume using simple tools I already had. According to Mikayla, that approach was no accident. “We’re really here to help people have a good experience with baking,” she says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you need all the fancy gadgets and tools.”
The 60th anniversary cherry pie, by the way, turned out just as well as the caller had hoped.
Molly Jean Bennett is a writer and multimedia producer based in New York City. Her essays, poems, and strongly worded letters have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Atlas Obscura, VICE, and elsewhere.
Photo by Mike Mozart CC BY