The Tunnel of Fudge story should lift the spirits of anyone who’s been discouraged after competing in a contest. This cake recipe — which DIDN’T win the Pillsbury Bake-Off — is proof that judges aren’t always right.
I was reminded of this story last week as I made a Tunnel of Fudge cake for my daughter’s 22nd birthday. Amy has a thing for Tunnel of Fudge cake, ever since we made it together while I was doing a story on Bundt cakes a good 10 or 12 years ago.
In 1966, Ella Rita Helfrich won a spot in the Pillsbury Bake-Off with a ring-shaped chocolate cake that had a gooey, fudgy center. It was baked in a round, fluted “Bundt” pan that, up until that time, very few people had heard of.
In later interviews, Helfrich said she submitted 30 different recipes to get into the bake-off. At the time, Pillsbury had a line of dry frosting mixes, and Helfrich experimented with them. Her final entry, the Tunnel of Fudge Cake, used a Double Dutch Fudge Buttercream frosting mix. To bake it, she used the specialty tube pan that her kids had given her for Christmas.
The judges declared Golden Gate Snack Bread the $25,000 grand prize winner. It was flavored with cheese spread and onion soup mix, trendy ingredients of the day.
Helfrich’s Tunnel of Fudge ended up with a second prize of $5,000 — awarded by the masters of ceremonies Pat Boone and former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur.
But the cake with the molten fudgy center captured America’s interest. It was easy to make, yet the impressive appearance and lava-like middle gave it an elegant cachet. You could say the Tunnel of Fudge went viral at a time when there were no Internet websites, no Facebook and no Pinterest. Recipes were shared person-to-person and through Pillsbury’s printed recipe booklets.
The Double Dutch frosting mix flew off the shelves; grocery stores had a hard time keeping it in stock. The Bundt pan went from obscurity to booming sales almost overnight. Its Minnesota manufacturer, Nordic Ware, began making Bundt pans around the clock, seven days a week, to meet the demand.
“The cake made a diminutive Houston mother of five a celebrity, changed the fortunes of a small company in Minneapolis, and made a little-known European pan a mainstay of nearly every American kitchen,” wrote Amy Sutherland in “Cook-Off: Recipe Fever in America.”
And how many people even remember Golden Gate Snack Bread, much less bake it today? In hindsight (which, as they say, is always 20-20), the judges got it wrong, at least as far as home cooks were concerned.
In 2008, Amy and I visited Minnesota, home of both Pillsbury (which was later bought by General Mills) and Nordic Ware. At a cookware store in the Mall of America, we found a huge selection of Nordic Ware Bundt pans, from mini to giant sizes, and in shapes such as sand castles and roses.
Bundt pans are known for their decorative fluting, the center tube that conducts heat and the very dense, moist cake that results. The design means that more of the batter touches the surface of the pan than in a simple round pan, helping to provide faster and more even heat distribution during cooking.
Thanks to the Tunnel of Fudge, Bundt cakes in a variety of flavors and fillings were popular through the 1970s and early 1980s. Older households may still have a harvest-gold or avocado-green Bundt pan from that era tucked away in a cupboard.
But Tunnel of Fudge fever had waned by the mid-’80s, when microwaves took off and home cooks lost interest in baking. Dry frosting mixes were replaced with ready-made frosting.
With Double Dutch Fudge Buttercream frosting no longer on the market, today it’s impossible to make the original Tunnel of Fudge cake recipe.
Pillsbury has come up with a substitute recipe that uses powdered sugar, cocoa powder and a little more butter. But don’t use the toothpick-in-the-center doneness test. If it comes out clean, you’ve baked it too long and, instead of a gooey center, you’ll have just another chocolate cake.
I’ve developed my own insurance for a fudgy center: I pour about 2/3 of the batter into the pan, and arrange a ring of chocolate chips on top. Then I pour the rest of the batter on top and bake. It may not be “authentic,” but it works for me!
Pillsbury’s recipe warns not to omit the nuts. I’m guessing they provide some scaffolding for the fudgy center, but I’ve never tried making the cake without them to see what happens.
The cake, which calls for enough butter to make even Paula Deen pause, is pretty easy to make. The hardest part is getting the cake out of the pan intact. You’ll need to generously grease and flour the pan, making sure to get into every crevice of the fluting.
That’s even if you have a nonstick pan. I’ve tried lining the pan with aluminum foil to keep the cake from sticking, but you lose some of the detailed fluting from the pan. It also helps to let the cake cool at least an hour before turning it out onto a serving plate.
If there are breaks or tears, well, that’s what the glaze is for. Just use it to “glue” the pieces back together or cover the cracks.
Tunnel of Fudge Cake
1 3/4 cups butter, softened
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups powdered sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (for Utah’s altitude, add 3 more tablespoons)
3/4 cup cocoa
2 cups chopped walnuts
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup chocolate chips
1/4 cup butter
For cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 12-cup Bundt pan. In a large bowl, beat butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat well. Gradually add powdered sugar; blend well. Stir in remaining cake ingredients until well blended.
Spoon 2/3 of the batter into prepared pan; spread evenly. Center 1 cup of chocolate chips in a ring on top of the batter. Top with remaining batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes, until the edges start to pull away from the pan. Cake will have a soft middle. Cool upright in pan 1 hour or more before inverting onto a plate.
For glaze: In small bowl, combine glaze ingredients and microwave about 1 minute. Stir until well blended. Spoon over top of cake, allowing some to run down sides. Store tightly covered.
— Adapted from Nordic Ware and Pillsbury Bake-Off
Valerie Phillips blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.