Before we had an entire channel dedicated to food, and a new cooking competition every week, there was the pinnacle of competitions: the Pillsbury Bake-Off. It gained popularity quickly from the first Bake-Off in 1949 and in 1966, Heights resident Ella Rita Helfrich won second place with the Tunnel of Fudge Bundt Cake. Though not the winner it would still become the most requested Pillsbury recipe ever.
“Back in ’66, Houstonian’s TVs were focused on the Bake-Off. My good luck became our city’s victory. I have, indeed, been accorded the celebrity treatment and have enjoyed every single moment,” wrote Helfrich in a letter titled Reminiscing.
What she never expected was her recipe to go viral. Around 300,000 letters were sent to Pillsbury to inquire after the recipe in the first month after the Bake-Off alone. And when there was an error in the recipe when it went through the wire service, it was printed incorrectly. Home bakers decided to call Helfrich directly, asking what they were doing wrong. This was back when all you had to do was pick up the phone and ask the operator to direct your call.
“Grandma made public appearances, signed autographs in grocery stores, and the phone rang constantly for months,” said Jackie Pontello, Helfrich’s granddaughter. Pontello went on to explain how the phone rang so much that eventually her grandfather wrapped it in a blanket, so they could get some sleep.
But Helfrich was a good sport, even writing in her letter how she wished she would have had more time to talk to the strangers on the other end of the line because they seemed like such lovely people.
Her decision to use the bundt pan was spurred because Helfrich thought it looked fun. The company behind the pan was Nordic Ware, and having only sold around 500 at that time, they thought about pulling it from their line. However, after Helfrich’s recipe became famous, so did the pan. Helfrich became the woman who singlehandedly caused the sale of the pan to skyrocket to 5 million in sales by 1968. The company had to work around the clock to keep up with the demand.
The donut shaped cake, with a lava like chocolatey pecan center, was so loved that when Pillsbury decided to discontinue the essential frosting mix Double-Dutch Fudge Buttercream, there was a national outrage from home bakers.
Pillsbury came out with a revised recipe for the frosting and Helfrich worked to recreate the frosting the best she could, but many have said nothing works as well as the original recipe.
Helfrich had been entering competitions since the 1950s and for the Pillsbury Bake-Off alone had worked many years perfecting a recipe. Her second-place win meant so much to her because it was something she loved to do and worked hard at achieving.
“This was no spur-of-the-moment happening. For more than ten years preceding this special event, my determination to become a bake-off finalist kept me dreaming up recipes and (as my food budget proves) wasting a lot of expensive ingredients,” wrote Helfrich.
Her determination and her light-hearted spirit inspired the people around her to go after their own dreams, knowing that even if they don’t succeed, at least they gave it their all. Her grandchildren took this especially to heart.
“It wasn’t about the money or the items she won. It was about succeeding in something she loved to do. She was such a good example to all her kids and grandkids on never giving up and chasing your dream. She was a celebrity to us,” said Helfrich’s granddaughter Kristie Grochett Shields.
Helfrich loved to try new things in the kitchen, often having to take something from the oven and toss it in the trash, but even so she wasn’t a fan of recipes. Her grandchildren fondly remember countless days accompanying their grandmother in the kitchen.
“It was a treat to eat [at Helfrich’s house] and to try her experiments,” said Shields.
Shields also mentioned how she loved staying over at her grandparents’ house because she always knew there would be a delicious breakfast, and whatever they wanted, Helfrich knew how to make it.
Helfrich was also a leader in the community. She was the PTA president at All Saints and St. Pius for about 20 years, then she helped start the All Saints Third Age Learning Center, where they offered classes to senior citizens.
“Her bouffant hair on a tiny frame was immediately recognizable across the Heights, and a sweeter woman you never met,” said Pontello.
Although her attempts at becoming a Pillsbury Bake-Off finalist once again were unsuccessful, she cherished the experiences she was given. Years later her own daughter became a finalist and brought Helfrich to the event. Getting to attend the Bake-Off was something Helfrich loved to do even when she was just a guest. In the last line of her letter she wrote, “Just got the mail in. Here’s an invitation to attend the Bake-Off, not as a finalist but as a guest and former winner. Pillsbury is so thoughtful. Once again I’m on cloud nine.”
Helfrich was induced into the Pillsbury Hall of Fame as one of the top 10 recipes and her famous bundt pan sits in The Smithsonian in the room next to the reconstruction of Julia Child’s kitchen. She’ll forever be known as the woman who loved to bake, loved her family, and loved her Heights neighborhood. Helfrich left this world in the summer of 2015 after eating the most fitting of last meals: chocolate mousse pudding.
The never before seen letter Helfrich wrote detailing her experience after winning second place at the Bake-Off:
As the annual Pillsbury Bake-Off time approaches, it awakens memories of those thrilling days of the 17th Busy Lady Bake-Off in San Francisco and one again I find myself re-living that exciting moment when my Tunnel of Fudge Cake was named second grand prize winner. As actor-singer Pat Boone took my hand and led me toward former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur who was co-hosting the nationally televised awards special and Mrs. Phillip Pillsbury who was presenting the awards, 1966 suddenly and magically turned into an unforgettable dream-come-true year.
However, this was no spur-of-the-moment happening. For more than 10 years preceding this special event, my determination to become a bake-off finalist kept me dreaming up recipes and (as my food budget proves) wasting a lot of expensive ingredients. Pillsbury became our household by-word and my family teased that I’d become a Pillsbury addict. Years went by with no wins but by that time I was so hooked on the Pillsbury habit that I couldn’t quit without one more try—then one more—and on and on and on! It’s only fair to say that some of the resulting put-togethers were good, some passable—but many, many concoctions went from the oven right into the garbage can. I guess the only thing that saved our food budget in those years was the fact that we had our own back-yard pecan tree. And since part of my hang-up was with chocolate too, it would have been to our advantage, financially, if we’d had some way of growing our own cacao trees.
Back in ’66, Houstonians’ TVs were focused on the Bake-Off. My good luck became our city’s victory. I have, indeed, been accorded the celebrity treatment and have enjoyed every single moment. Our food editors did such a marvelous job of building up to—and covering—the big event (treating it as a baking Olympics) that a great percentage of Houstonians (even the men) were keenly interested in the results. My rooting section was larger, bless them.
One of my many cherished mementos is a beautifully worded resolution of congratulations, bearing the seal of Houston and signed by the mayor and councilmen, given to me at a council meeting at which time I presented the mayor with a Tunnel of Fudge cake which was later taken to the mayor’s dining room and served to members of city council. It was a special thrill to be a guest in the City Hall dining room.
To add yet another quivery feeling of pride and excitement, Pillsbury chose the picture of my cake to feature on both the cover of the cookbook and the pull-out supplement in the newspapers.
There was one incident that affected out lives for many months following my return home from San Francisco. There was an error in the recipe as it came in over the wire service. It was printed that way. Then, when the papers attempted to re-print a corrected recipe, another error appeared (gremlins in the composing room!) Although everyone was anxious to bake the new cake, they hesitated to waste all those expensive ingredients on a recipe that might still be incorrect. And so—my family and I did little besides answer the constant ring of the telephone for weeks and weeks. Besides the recipe error, grocery stores were not prepared for the run on Double Dutch Frosting Mix and the department stores could not stock enough Bundt pans. The result—more telephone calls asking where to buy the mix and pan. Add to this confusion, friends and relatives dropping by, requests for personal appearances, mail coming in from all over the country—and you a glimpse into a household thrown into a state of utter (but gloriously exciting) chaos. I remember that every few days, just to escape the constant ring of the telephone, I merely walked out, locked the door and drove off in our new car (that the prize money allowed us to buy) and went to visit the supermarkets. Or rather, I should say, the cake aisles. It was such great fun to stand and eavesdrop on shoppers and listen to the comments on the new Tunnel of Fudge cake.
After the first year the telephone calls slowed to just 3 or 4 a week. However, when Pillsbury changed their packaging and another time when they increased the amount of frosting in each box by 10%, there were again many calls. I really regret that there wasn’t enough time to chat at length with all those wonderful people who did call. But I feel as though I made many new friends, some who have kept in touch.
After the Bake-Off people began to recognize and speak to me in public. I was also a guest in several stores, spoke before groups and did cooking demonstrations for classes. All of these events and experiences have gone into making these years indescribably wonderful.
Needless to say, Pillsbury and G.E. (co-sponsor) really know how to roll out the red carpet. Each finalist is treated like royalty and—win or lose—enjoys a once-in-a-lifetime experience. All finalist then become Bake-Off advisors and throughout the years, are part of the vast Pillsbury family.
Among contest fans, the Pillsbury Bake-Off has always been considered the granddaddy of all contests. To contesters—becoming a Pillsbury finalist is really the ultimate!
I still dream of becoming, once again, a bake-off finalist. It didn’t happen this year. Maybe next year—or next.
Just got the mail in. Here’s an invitation to attend the Bake-Off, not as a finalist but as a guest and former winner. Pillsbury is so thoughtful. Once again I’m on cloud nine.
Ella Rita (Mrs. C. J.) Helfrich