When there’s a baking emergency, who do you call?
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a seasoned baker in the house to discuss how to avoid a soggy pie crust. Or a Grandmother who can explain how to keep a dessert kosher for Passover. And try to find a neighbor that can offer a shoulder to cry on when a tiered cake topples unexpectedly.
Thankfully, the King Arthur Flour Baking Hotline is ready to help. Located within the King Arthur Flour headquarters In Norwich, Vermont, it the oldest flour company in America, founded in 1790. Along with the corporate offices, the headquarters includes a baking school, baker’s store and bakery. Their tagline for the hotline: When your cookies crumble or your bread doesn’t rise, contact us – we’re your best friend in the kitchen.
Tara Mitchell oversees the team of “best friends in the kitchen”. The hotlines was established in the early nineties with just a few people and it has grown since. These days, she has a staff of around fifteen and their credentials vary from culinary professional to simply, experienced baker. There is one woman who specializes in yeast breads and sour dough starters, an expert who is ready to answer any question about wedding cakes, and yet another who knows everything there is to know about bread machine baking. “The one thing they all have in common is they are passionate about baking,” she said.
The calls come in daily and vary in difficulty. According to Mary Tinkham, who has been working at King Arthur for sixteen years, there is never any way to predict the kinds of questions that are going to come in.
“Sour dough starters are really hot right now and there are lots of questions about them,” she said. “Allergy issues related to nuts, dairy and gluten are also a popular call topic,” she said. And then there are always the holiday baking calls that come in and typically cause a spike in call volume. A week before Easter, Tinkham had already received numerous calls about lamb cakes. She had to tell callers about the best cake recipe to use for a lamb cake, how to prepare the actual mold and insure that it bakes evenly, and she advised more than a few callers about the cake’s structural support. “Over the years I’ve had a lot people ask about how to make sure the lamb’s head doesn’t topple off the body itself,” she said. “I always tell people to use barbecue skewers or chopsticks to support the neck,” she added.
The hotline staff is constantly being challenged by the callers and they are all well schooled in the recipe archives, how to manage live chat and the various social media channels. They are up on the latest baking trends and if they don’t have an answer to a question right away, they will research the question, call an expert if they need to and try to get back to the caller as quickly as possible. Mitchell also noted that everyone continues to take classes at the school to stay sharp. “It’s nice for all of us to continue to learn,” she said.
And beyond the typical spike in calls during the holidays, Mitchell has also noticed whenever anything political is happening, there also tends to be a call spike. She said during the 2008 recession it was very noticeable. “I think people turn to baking during stressful times and they want to cook and bake for their families,” she said. “It’s one thing you have a little control over,” she added.
Laurie Furch, who has been working at the Hotline for the last two and half years, said it definitely has a support group vibe at times and there are regulars that they consider friends. “We call them frequent flyers,” she said laughing. “We have one man who has been calling us for years with all sorts of questions. His baking skills have definitely improved – I think he just enjoys having that connection and help along the way,” she added. She also said she has calmed frantic bakers down, helped them out of terrible situations and ultimately just acted as a support during a stressful time. “There are so many emotions attached to baking,” she said. “Baking evokes memories and we all want everything to be perfect for our family or our friends, unfortunately we all make mistakes.”
And Like life, Mitchell said, there are mistakes, disappointments and all sorts of situations that occur when you are baking, whether you are a beginner or an expert. “We have so many helpful people here at the Hotline,” she said. “I can assure you there will always be someone on the other end of that line when there’s a tough situation in the kitchen.”