We can owe the entire bundt cake phenomenon to one single recipe: the Tunnel of Fudge cake.
Following World War II, a man named H. David Dahlquist returned home to Minneapolis after serving in the Navy. With a degree in chemical engineering, he founded a small bake-ware company called Nordic Ware. In 1950, members of the women’s Zionist group Hadassah approached Dahlquist and asked him to create a modern pan to make the classic European pastry kugelhopf – a tall, brioche cake baked in ceramic molds. The company developed a round, aluminum tube pan and trademarked the name “bundt.”
For the next 16 years, the company barely sold any of the new pans. Several times the company considered discontinuing it. Recipes for bundt or “fluted tube” cakes occasionally appeared in cookbooks, but none of them were terribly popular.
Enter Mrs. Ella Helfrich of Houston, Texas. In 1966, she came in 2nd place in the annual Pillsbury Bake-Off competition with the Tunnel of Fudge Cake, a chocolate-nut bundt cake that seemingly magically baked with a fudgy center. Helfrich lost out to Mrs. Mari Petrelli’s Golden Gate Snack Bread, but her recipe became one of Pillsbury’s most requested recipes. Over 200,000 letters poured in, not only requesting the recipe but information about where to purchase the unique cake pans.
To meet the demand for bundt pans, Dahlquist put his factory into round-the-clock production, eventually turning out 30,000 pans a day. Within four years, he licensed the “bundt” name to Pillsbury. Pillsbury created a ready-made cake mix line specifically for bundts, and sold packages that included the bundt pans and mixes. For the next twenty years, bundt cakes were a staple dessert in the American kitchen. Several of the original bundt pans made by Dahlquist are now in the collections of the Smithsonian.
At some point, Pillsbury unexpectedly discontinued the key ingredient in the recipe – their Double Dutch Fudge Buttercream Frosting Mix. The outcry was so immense, Pillsbury brought the powdered mix back for a time though they eventually did discontinue the mix permanently. Responding to demand, they published an adapted recipe that attempted to recreate the frosting mix using powdered sugar and cocoa. The new recipe also includes a chocolate glaze for the cake.
To this day, the Tunnel of Fudge cake remains the most popular recipe in the history of the Pillsbury Bake-Off competition.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Follow the instructions carefully. It is absolutely essential to use nuts in this recipe. The fudgey center doesn’t form without them. Walnuts were used in the first printed recipe from Pillsbury, but the recipe’s inventor, Mrs. Helfrich, used pecans.
It is also important to grease and flour your pan to ensure the cake removes cleanly. Carefully work a half tablespoon of butter into all of the folds of the pan. Add a couple tablespoons of flour into the pan and roll the pan to evenly coat the edges. Shake out the excess flour.
Some people attempt to follow the original recipe using canned frosting. The ingredient the original recipe refers to was a powdered mix used to make frosting. Canned frosting won’t work. The adaptation Pillsbury made attempts to recreate the powdered mix at home.
In an article for the New York Times, Shirley O. Corriher suggests toasting the nuts before adding them to the batter for enhanced flavor.
The annual Pillsbury Bake-Off has become one of the great American culinary traditions. While the general public doesn’t follow it with the same level of fanaticism it once did, it captures the creative ingenuity of the experimental home baker, and no other recipe captures the spirit of the Pillsbury Bake-Off more than the Tunnel of Fudge cake. It’s worth making it for this reason alone.
The original recipe magically produced a gooey ring of fudge in the center of the cake. Unfortunately, the adapted recipe from Pillsbury does not produce quite the same affect, though the inside still has a soft fudge-like taste.
This is a recipe that suggests classic retro baking, while still appealing to contemporary tastes. Yes, it’s a bit labor intensive compared to buying a cake or using a mix. It’s also gimmicky, but that’s partly the appeal. It is a crowd-pleaser and a conversation piece for your next special occasion. And with nearly four cups of sugar in the cake alone, it has enough to satisfy even the most fickle of sweet-teeth.
Original 1966 Recipe
Tunnel of Fudge Cake
by Mrs. C. J. Helfrich, Houston Texas
- 1 1/2 cups soft Land O’Lakes Butter
- 6 eggs
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 2 cups Pillsbury’s Best Flour
- 1 package Pillsbury Two Layer Size Double Dutch Fudge Buttercream Frosting Mix (*see note above)
- 3 cups chopped Diamond Walnuts
Oven 350 degrees. 10-inch tube cake. Cream butter in large mixer bowl at high speed of mixer. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Gradually add sugar; continue creaming at high speed until light and fluffy. By hand, stir in flour, frosting mix and walnuts until well blended. Pour batter into greased Bundt pan or 10-inch tube pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 60 to 65 minutes. Cool 2 hours; remove from pan. Cool completely before serving.
From The Pillsbury Busy Lady Bake-Off Recipes (1966)
Pillsbury’s Modern Adaptation
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
- 1 3/4 cups margarine or butter, softened
- 6 eggs
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 2 1/4 cups Pillsbury BEST® All Purpose or Unbleached Flour
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
- 2 cups chopped walnuts
- 3/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
- 4 to 6 teaspoons milk
- Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 12-cup fluted tube cake pan or 10-inch tube pan. In large bowl, combine sugar and margarine; beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually add 2 cups powdered sugar; blend well. By hand, stir in flour and remaining cake ingredients until well blended. Spoon batter into greased and floured pan; spread evenly.
- Bake at 350°F. for 45 to 50 minutes or until top is set and edges are beginning to pull away from sides of pan.** Cool upright in pan on wire rack 1 1/2 hours. Invert onto serving plate; cool at least 2 hours.
- In small bowl, combine all glaze ingredients, adding enough milk for desired drizzling consistency. Spoon over top of cake, allowing some to run down sides. Store tightly covered.