My biggest kitchen catastrophe to date struck two weeks before my wedding day in 2011. I was elbow-deep in flour and cocoa powder, daydreaming of crafting my own three-tiered cake. At a particularly grim moment — and sporting a nasty burn on my forearm — I drank a glass of wine and ate a fistful of crumpled chocolate cake for dinner. Then I straightened my apron, buckled down and muscled through on my own.
What I didn’t know at the time was that a squadron of bakers was just a phone call away, ready to coach me through my ambitious undertaking. I disappeared down the rabbit hole of online cake-baking forums when instead I could have had someone like the delightful Irene Shover on the other end of the phone line.
Shover is one of nine bakers who staff the King Arthur Flour baking hotline in Norwich. They’re on standby every weekday between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., and on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (The call volume is typically highest in the run-up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, they say.) Home cooks can also fire off questions by email or live chat. Got a nagging concern about yeast breads that won’t rise, or a pizza crust that isn’t quite right? Shover and her compatriots have your back.
Shover, 56, has been baking since the 1960s. She taught high school home economics for 29 years and learned about the baker’s hotline at King Arthur after retiring. She’s been handling the phone lines, inbox and chat line at the Norwich flour mecca since 2008. When she’s not at work, Shover is baking for friends, family, even road crews out working during winter storms. “It’s my way to say thanks, and, for that reason, I just really enjoy it,” she says.
Seven Days caught up with Shover — by telephone, of course — to ask about common questions and calamity tales received via the hotline, and the advice she offered.
SEVEN DAYS: At what point in a project should bakers call in?
IRENE SHOVER: We tell people to call before they bake, if they have any questions about recipes or ingredients or methods and process. They can call us right in the throes of baking. If something heads south and you put in the wrong leavening agent, or if you don’t have Dutch cocoa in your kitchen and you wanted to substitute a natural or unsweetened cocoa, we can talk about those kinds of substitutions. Or if you’ve finished baking, and it didn’t quite come up to the picture that you wanted, we can chat about that, too.
SD: What projects seem to give callers the most trouble?
IS: For the most part, the questions are about yeast-bread baking. I think, since 2008, people really went back to the kitchens and said, “We want to do this on our own.” That was either an economic choice, because they believed they could make a more economical product for their families, or it was a philosophical choice, because they wanted to control the ingredients and know what was going into their products.
In October, November, the calls will be about Thanksgiving food. They’ll be about making rolls for Thanksgiving, about making pies. “Can I make that ahead of time?” “What can I do so that I can serve something hot and fresh on Christmas morning without having to get up at 5 a.m. to do everything?”
SD: What motivates someone to pick up the phone when they might just be able to go online and plug in a question?
IS: Sometimes we will get a call and think silently to ourselves, Why don’t you just google this? I remember a call[er] this February said, “When is Mardi Gras?” And I said, “Well, that would be officially the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.” “Yeah, but when it is it?” And I said, “Well, that would be February 12 this year.” And she said, “OK, thank you. I knew you’d have an answer. ’Bye!”
Either they’ve called us before and trust that we’ll help them, or they just don’t want to google it. They want to speak to a live person. That part of it really is magical. The live chat, for instance, is not automated. There’s a person sitting at the desk, typing in the answers and having a conversation with you. And on the hotline, it’s Katie and Irene having a chat about baking. I say it’s like having your BBF — your best baking friend — there at your elbow if you have a question or a concern.
SD: What about humorous calls?
IS: When I was first here, a lady called and said, “I ordered the deluxe measuring-cup set, and my three-quarter cup is missing.” Later on in the conversation she said, “You know, I have a recipe, and it calls for three-quarters of a cup, so I really need to have that.” I said, “Well, if you want to make that before the cup arrives at your location, you could consider using half and a quarter, or three one-fourth cups.” “No,” she said. “I can’t!” She really took me to school. “I ordered the three-quarter cup, and I shall have the three-quarter cup.” Yes, ma’am, you shall! How can you refuse that? You want to let the customer lead the dance. If she believes that she needs that three-quarter-cup measure, then that needs to happen.
There was an email one time, and the subject said “hollow bread.” When I read that, I thought, Oh, it’s a shaping thing. They’re making a yeast bread, it’s rising, and then they’ve got a big hole in it or a tunnel or a gap. So in my mind, I had kind of organized my response. And when I looked at the body of the email, it said something about the Food Network [saying] you could make really great French toast with “hollow bread.”
IS: What they were asking about, as you just realized, was challah.
SD: What are some of the common mid-baking-project calamities you hear about?
IS: I had one just a couple of weeks ago about leavening. They had put in baking powder, but the recipe called for baking soda. There are some cases where you just have to say, “There’s no return. You’re better off to start over.” That sounds harsh at first, but I think they want the truth.
There are a lot of questions about yeast bread. People will call and say, “It’s not the texture that I want” or “I want to include more whole grains.” Or they may have questions like “It just didn’t rise. I had a brick.” We get a lot of sourdough questions about shaping bread, and Why does my bread spread out instead of rising up? Kneading questions, you know — “What’s it supposed to feel like?” I often tell people to poke their cheek with their index finger, and if your dough feels like that, then you’re almost there. You’re going to have a nice, soft, supple loaf of bread.
SD: Who is calling in?
IS: It’s all over the map, literally and figuratively. There are young bakers who are trying to dabble in it for the first time, [and] people who are taking care of young families. I was chatting with a woman just the other day by phone, and she said, “You know, some women buy purses, and some women buy jewelry, but I buy baking supplies.” She said it had been so rewarding for her to bake for her family. Jeffrey Hamelman, who is our baker here at the bakery, calls it “reflected glory.” You really do get that warm, fuzzy feeling for doing nice things for people, or having them comment on your pie or your loaf of bread.
SD: Do you ever hear back after coaching a caller through a tricky question?
IS: We do. Sometimes they send pictures. Sometimes they’ll give a call. Sometimes you hear back, but most often you don’t.
SD: Which probably means you’ve done your job well!
IS: I go home at the end of the day thinking, Yeah, I think I did right by people. People really want a sounding board. They want to know that they’re doing the right thing. It makes you feel really rewarded at the end of the day to guide somebody through [a project]. We want to make sure that people can call us with the confidence of knowing that there are no silly questions.
King Arthur Flour baking hotline: 855-371-BAKE (2253) or email@example.com.
The print version of this story was headlined “Knight in Shining Armor: When kitchen calamities strike, King Arthur Flour’s baking hotline comes to the rescue”