Alaina Johnson spoons a small blob of batter onto a flat, electric baking iron, then carefully lowers its lid. She simultaneously glances at a small device perched on a corner shelf near a window. It has a screen with a digital clock. She speaks with urgent authority: “Alexa, set timer for 90 seconds.” Alexa’s calm but dutiful robotic voice responds, “One minute and thirty seconds starting now.”
Johnson was busy on Aug. 18, making krumkake for an international cookie competition at the Minnesota State Fair.
The traditional Norwegian, cone-shaped wafer is commonly dusted with powdered sugar or, just before serving, filled with whipped cream and fresh berries. “Krumkake” translates to “bent cake.” She would be entering the best of her delicate flutes as well as chocolate brownies and two bundt cakes in other categories.
Johnson’s kitchen is a situation room of sorts. She is both commander and crew in a 1950s-era space that is birthday gift happy. Betty Crocker, herself, would feel comfortable in this St. Louis Park kitchen, but is not needed.
The 30-something mother of two is a corporate operations and sustainability executive at Target headquarters. At home, she invents her own from-scratch recipes. No shrink-wrapped dough tubes here.
A 2008 Eden Prairie High School graduate, Johnson says she discovered her competitive nature during stints with local dance programs. High school offered no culinary classes, but she recalls (with a smirky grin) that a Central Middle School home economics class taught about “things” on hot plates.
“Alexa, stop timer,” Johnson orders as the digital timer signals the 90-second mark with a chime resembling the sustained note of a Greek pan pipe.
With a spatula, Johnson carefully lifts a thin, floppy, tanned wafer from the hot iron and places it on the counter. It boasts a molded, bas-relief, Scandinavian floral design, from the krumkake iron. She then rolls the wafer over a plastic cone form.
While it cools, she spoons another dollop of batter onto the iron and closes it. She then instructs Alexa to start the timer, stirs the batter a few times, and removes the finished krumkake, placing it on a wire rack to cool alongside other krumkakes. The best ones, from four hours of kitchen time and years of experience, will be entries. State Fair judges only evaluate the cake cones. No whipped cream and raspberries for them. Krumkake’s magic batter is conjured from eggs, milk, sugar, unsalted butter, all-purpose flour and flavorings like cardamom and vanilla.
“There is no such thing as too much vanilla,” says Johnson. “Alexa! Set a timer for 90 seconds.” Another krumkake begins to bake.
Johnson’s krumkake would be competing with the likes of provolones and Greek Christmas cookies in an international cookie category. Four samples of each entry need to be identical. That’s why Johnson tracks the temperature and timing of each cookie. “They should be a perfect golden brown.”
Note: See the sidebar for Grandmother Patty’s krumkake recipe.
Johnson and her husband Tom delivered a light bundt cake and a dark bundt cake, the krumkake cookies and brownies to the fair on Aug. 19. The line of amateur bakers and others at the Creative Activities Building could be mistaken for a ticket line to “Barbie,” the summer blockbuster. Hopefuls carried plastic bins and picnic baskets of their baked entries. Some pulled wagons borrowed from their kids.
Her Cinnamon Toast Crunch bundt cake (the light one) won second place a few years back and a coveted Blue Ribbon last year. A 2023 first-place encore would sit well with her.
Before results were announced on Thursday, Johnson had won a rainbow of six ribbons for previous entries of chocolate brownies, light and dark bundts, krumkake and cardamom biscotti. But with a 4-year-old boy and now with a 15-month-old girl, she’s scaling back to focus on her trusted bundts, brownies, and krumkake.
Johnson credits her paternal grandmother, Patty Ramsburg, as her baking mentor. She fondly recalls summers of book reading and baking at her grandma’s cabin on Balsam Lake in Wisconsin. The stovetop krumkake iron from her grandma has become a family heirloom.
Her parents, Lori and Todd Ramsburg, have been steadfast cheerleaders. Todd describes his daughter as a very high achiever, a perfectionist who cares deeply about others. “Her young family,” he says, “eats very well. She not only bakes but she cooks and meal plans the entire week ahead of time.”
A display shelf in Johnson’s kitchen showcases aluminum bundt pans. They look like large, finely cut jewels shaped with swirls, braids, curtain folds and diamonds tinted in shades of gold, silver and pewter.
“I absolutely love these pans,” says Johnson, a bundt pan collector. “They’re beautiful. It feels like they connect me to my heritage, being Scandinavian. And honestly, part of the reason I love bundt cakes is you don’t have to decorate the cakes. Nordic Ware does it for you!”
Nordic Ware’s iconic bakeware factory and outlet store operate less than a mile from Johnson’s kitchen.
Note: See the sidebar for Johnson’s award-winning Cinnamon Toast Crunch Bundt Cake recipe.
The Cinnamon Toast Crunch bundt cake, which won Johnson blue and silver ribbons in the past, was honored this year with a respectable fifth place. In the light bundt cake category for “no marble or topping,” that’s an achievement worth smiling about.
Her other entries — a dark bundt cake, the brownies, and cardamom krumkake — did not make the cut. Had there been recognitions for most seductive cake names, the judges most certainly would have tagged blue ribbons on Johnson’s “Cinnamon Toast Crunch” and “Oreo Lover’s” bundt entries.
The spirited competitor revealed no disappointment about the 2023 results during a follow-up phone chat. She now owns seven ribbons. “I bake with feelings more than science,” she said. “The opposite of what every professional baker would ever say.”
Epilogue for a bundt cake
On Friday and Saturday, Johnson returned to the Creative Activities Building. State Fair baking officials had asked her to hand out Cinnamon Toast Crunch bundt recipe cards to curious foodies and answer questions about the art of baking. The fair’s “Recipe Card Roundup” is an honor of sorts accorded to the previous year’s blue ribbon winners.
Todd Ramsburg noted that they had run out of recipe cards on Friday before his daughter’s 4 p.m. shift began. “They told her she could go home, but she said, ‘No, I’m going to just answer any questions they might have and guide them around the Creative Activities Building.'” Taking a breath, he added, “There’s something special about that girl.”
Editors note: Jeff Strate serves on the Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) board. In the mid-1970s, while a journalism student at the University of Minnesota, Jeff made bundt cake pans at Nordic Ware over a Fourth of July weekend, using a large pneumatic molding or buffing machine.
EDEN PRAIRIE BAKING RIBBON WINNERS, 2023 MN STATE FAIR
Note: The figures in parentheses represent the number of competitive entries submitted in each category.
William Middeke: First place, potato bread (19 entries)
Monica Vogel: Second place, whole wheat grains bread (30 entries)
Jessy Cai: Second place, chocolate chip cookies with oatmeal (73 entries)
Ashley Young: Fourth place, quick corn muffins (35 entries)
Alaina Johnson: Light bundt, no marble, no topping (40 entries)
MN STATE FAIR AMATEUR BAKING COMPETITIONS
For a complete list of this year’s award winners and information on entering future State Fair baking competitions, click here.
ALAINA’S CINNAMON TOAST CRUNCH BUNDT CAKE RECIPE
• 1½ cups all-purpose flour • 1 cup Cinnamon Toast Crunch “cereal powder.” Make a powder by finely processing ~2 cups of cereal using a food processor.
• 2¼ tsp baking powder • ¾ tsp salt • 2 tsp ground cinnamon • ¼ tsp ground cardamom • ¾ cup unsalted butter, softened • 1½ cups granulated sugar • 3 eggs • 2 tsp vanilla • 1 cup Cinnamon Toast Crunch “cereal milk” Make cereal milk by mixing 1½ cups milk with 1 cup cereal and stirring to combine. Let sit for 20 minutes, then strain out the cereal using a colander.
• Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prep the bundt pan by spraying with baking spray and using a pastry brush to ensure every inside surface is coated by the spray; set aside.
• In a medium bowl, mix together flour, cereal powder, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and cardamom; set aside.
• In a separate bowl, cream together butter and sugar on high until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes).
• Reduce mixing speed to medium and add eggs one at a time, fully incorporating after each addition. Add vanilla; mix to incorporate.
• Alternate adding flour mixture and cereal milk on medium speed, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Do not overmix.
• Scoop or pour batter into prepared bundt pan until the pan is ⅔ to ¾ full.
• To ensure bundt pans with greater detail come out cleanly, gently but firmly tap the filled pan on a cutting board or stack of kitchen towels; after tapping, also slightly tilt the filled pan in a circular motion about 2-3 times in each direction.
• Bake for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
• Once baked, leave the cake in the pan for 10 minutes. After that time has passed, invert onto a wire cooling rack and gently lift off the bundt pan. Cool completely before serving.
GRANDMA PATTY RAMSBURG’S CARDAMOM KRUMKAKE RECIPE
Servings: 36 cookies Bake time: 90 seconds per cookie
• 2 eggs • 1 cup sugar • ½ cup butter, softened • 2½ tsp cardamom, freshly ground • 1 tsp vanilla • 1 ½ cups flour • 1 scant (slightly less) cup milk.
• Beat eggs well; add sugar, butter, cardamom, and vanilla. Beat again until well combined.
• Add flour and milk alternatively, ending with the flour. Mix well.
• Pre-heat krumkake iron until a splash of water sizzles/evaporates when placed on surface. Lightly grease iron with butter or baking spray.
• Place ½ tbsp. batter onto iron, close iron, and squeeze.
• Bake for ~90 seconds until golden brown; remove immediately using a spatula and roll into shape using a cone.
• Let cool, seam side down, on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before serving.
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