IS home baking on the rise? Judging from the flurry of mixing, kneading, and shaping at King Arthur Flour's recent "Winterbake," one might think so.
Tantalizing sweet, savory, and spice aromas wafted throughout kitchens, makeshift classrooms, and a maze of hallways at the Inn at Essex here. The Winterbake honors winners of a national baking contest sponsored by the flour's parent company, Sands, Taylor & Wood. It was initiated in 1990 as a biennial celebration of King Arthur Flour's founding in 1790.
But, even the 1,000 recipe submissions that landed in their mailbox in response to a publicized "search for a new classic" don't necessarily point to a reversal in the cooling off of home baking.
"I've heard it said that every generation spends half as much time in the kitchen as the previous generation," says Josh Sosland, associate editor for Milling and Baking News, a weekly trade publication based in Kansas City, Mo. He explains that the increased availability of gourmet baked goods has boosted per-capita consumption of flour from 110 lbs. in 1972 to 140 lbs. in 1992.
But this is no consolation to King Arthur Flour owners Frank and Brinna Sands, a husband-and-wife team, who are concerned about the scant amount of flour that makes its way into the hands of home bakers.
"In 1900, 80 percent of flour milled in America was for home baking. Today, it's around 4 percent," explains Mr. Sands in a Monitor interview.
Behind the facts and figures, however, the couple perceives the loss of a tradition that means far more than producing and consuming a loaf of bread or a sticky bun.
"So many of the things we do today are passive," says Mr. Sands, pointing to television and other leisure activities as offering tough competition for baking.
Other reasons they cite for the drop in interest range from efforts of baking-mix companies that create an image of home baking as a tedious task to the increase in women working outside the home.
"One of the things we know is that even when the rest of the world seems like it's falling apart, [baking] makes you feel so good because you have done something that is creative, and if you have someone to share it with, it creates another connection," says Ms. Sands. She adds that by baking for her grandchildren with her grandmother's recipes, she connects generations that will never meet.
The passing along of family traditions is a way of life for president Frank E. Sands II, who, after buying the company from his father in 1986, became the fifth generation of his family in the business.
A major thrust of Winterbake is to enlighten the public about "the pure joy of baking," to which the company is dedicated, as they tell consumers in a bannered slogan alongside the familiar knight-on-the-horse logo on every King Arthur Flour bag.
At the stately Colonial Inn at Essex, nestled into the Green Mountains in Vermont's Lake Champlain region, the company gathered 70 winners (five in each of 14 baking categories) and their guests, along with seven top chefs and culinary instructors - Albert Kumin, Jim Dodge, Mary Ann Esposito, Michael Jubinsky, Barbara Lauterbach, Elizabeth Alston, and Josef Harrewyn - for three days of workshops, sumptuous dining, and sampling of the winning recipes.
Of course, these folks hardly need convincing as to the benefits of baking from scratch. But, their leavening influence on the image of home baking and King Arthur Flour beyond the boundaries of the inn is highly valued.
"The instructors aren't paid anything, they come of their own goodwill because they care about the product," says Mr. Sands.
Julia Child, who judged Winterbake entries last September, is among King Arthur Flour's most prominent fans and "market makers," as Mr. Sands calls them.
King Arthur Flour's high-protein (which, when mixed with yeast, converts to high-gluten), bleach- and chemical-free formula is its biggest draw among the company's circle of market makers, who insist, floury hands down, that it's the monarch of bread-baking flours.
In addition to Winterbake, King Arthur Flour sponsors many other grass-roots ventures that spread the word about its baker-friendly formula and more importantly, to the Sands, instill a love of baking.
Michael Jubinsky, who is an instructor of bread-baking at Connecticut Culinary Institute as well as a King Arthur spokesman, has been involved in King Arthur's latest program: teaching schoolchildren how to bake bread.
The first of three of these sessions was held in Killingly, Conn. for two assemblies of 450 7th and 8th graders each.
On stage, Mr. Jubinsky mixed, kneaded, and let rise dough for a loaf of "chewy hearth" bread. Afterward, the kids were given ingredients (including King Arthur flour, of course), a recipe (also King Arthur's), and the homework assignment to return after the holiday weekend with a home-baked loaf to donate to a soup kitchen.
"It was such a gas," he says, explaining that 550 of the 900 kids returned to school, proudly toting fresh, golden loaves along with pens, paper, and textbooks.
Success at baking their own bread helps them to feel good about themselves, says Jubinsky.
Taking it one step further, he says it's touching to see these kids, some who are underprivileged themselves, share their creation with those even less fortunate.
"I know it sounds corny," he says, "but in sharing a fresh-baked loaf of bread, you're giving a part of yourself ... it's an act of love."
Jubinsky is somewhat encouraged by the strong turnout in his regular baking classes, which he sees as indicative of a "getting back to basics" trend.
"In a declining economy, people want to take more control of their lives," he says, explaining that baking one's own bread is one result of this.
Getting back to basics has its modern-day shortcuts, however, and in many kitchens where loaf pans are collecting dust in an out-of-reach cabinet corner, a high-tech, hassle-free gadget, the bread machine [see story at right], sits prominently atop the counter.
Despite their purist approaches, the King Arthur Flour folks applaud this increasingly popular method, which is less costly than store-bought bread and requires of one only to toss ingredients into an electric box and push a couple of buttons.
"Five years ago, I would've eaten my words," says Ms. Sands. "More than half of the questions [callers ask] have to do with bread machines," she says, explaining that buyers of inexpensive brands often solicit their advice after producing lackluster loaves.
But, using a top-quality model (they recommend Zojirushi) makes all the difference, she says.
"We're finding that even people who love to bake bread by hand will use [a bread machine] because it gives them a way not to have to go and buy [bread]," says Ms. Sands, explaining that these people often resort to machine-made loaves during work weeks and return to old-fashioned kneading and rising on weekends.
The gadget, which some have dubbed the "adult toy of the year," has boosted sales of flour for home baking by 2 percent, says John Yurkus of the national Home Baking Association in Denver, Colo.
But, Jubinsky, whose grandmother used to send him off on his bicycle to buy the "flour with the horse on it" says he subscribes first and foremost to what he calls the "grandmother method," or baking from scratch.
So do the Sandses, and for this they're keeping a close watch on states, especially Iowa, where school administrators threaten to eliminate baking from home-economics classes.
"They're looking at it from a purely economic point of view," says Ms. Sands. "There's more to bread baking than that: If you know how to bake bread, you've got something that feeds your soul for the rest of your life."