The Unlikely Origins of the Most Iconic "American" Cake Pan
If you feel in your bones a certain unshakable warm-fuzziness upon using the word “Bundt” in a sentence, you’re not wrong (and if you feel in your bones a little bit like a Texan who just won a baking contest, you’re not wrong either). Coined by one H. David Dalquist of Minneapolis in the 1950’s, the word Bundt is actually a riff on the German word bund, which translates to “association.”
Dave hoped Bundts would always evoke the idea of a gathering together of people, which they indisputably do.
After all, he had a vested interest in seeing to it: As the founders of Nordic Ware—a Minneapolis-based, family-run business that’s been around now for 71 years—Dave and his wife Dotty are very much to thank for introducing Bundts as we know them into the American baking tradition.
Today, we’re launching six original (and all American-made) Nordic Ware designs in the Food52 Shop, including the iconic ridged Bundt that started it all, pictured above. I spoke with Jenny Dalquist, Dave and Dotty’s granddaughter and the current EVP of Sales & Marketing, to learn a little bit more about how Bundts came to be.
Dave Dalquist arrives home from World War II, having served as a radar technician for the US Navy, and marries his girlfriend Dotty without delay. She’s the the daughter of Danish immigrants who settled in Iowa just a year before she was born. While Dotty isn’t entirely unfamiliar with life in the Midwest, Minneapolis is a new city for her nevertheless.
Their union was a long time coming: Dotty and Dave met before the war, during a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. Dave had swooped in to take a photo of Dotty and her friend by the museum’s famous bronze lions (he spared them from a fate of selfies, as Jenny tells it), and they proceeded to bump into each other at every exhibit in the museum.
Newly wed, the couple sets their sights on starting a business together. Dave had a degree in chemical engineering, with a specialty in metallurgy; Dotty had a family tree’s worth of Danish recipes and a very good idea: They’d make bakeware.
In 1946, the year Dave and Dotty founded Nordic Ware, Minneapolis was host to a vibrant immigrant community—and no competitors in their market. But even so the products were niche, and Jenny described the business as “fledgling” during those early years. Dave settled on using cast aluminum as their material of choice, due to its excellent and even conductivity, and a foundry was built in downtown Minneapolis. Life was quiet, but good.
For a while.
The Early 50’s & An Unusual Request
About five years into the business, Dotty and Dave are approached by the Minneapolis chapter of the Hadassah Society, a local Jewish women’s group, about adding a new design to their inventory. The women are looking for a traditional, old world cake pan (Jenny says that many of their members were of European descent), round and deep with a hole in the middle to prevent a jiggly center, but made of modern materials.
In places like Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and parts of France, such pans were used to make light, yeasted cakes called gugelhupf (sometimes spelled kugelhupf), but the Hadassah women called them “bund” cakes as a nod to how they were often served to a group.
In the early years, however, all Nordic Ware products were sand cast—a process that required every single-use sand mold to be made by hand. Bringing on a new shape was an investment, and a risk.
But serving niche, local baking needs was Dave and Dotty’s bread and butter. They said yes.
Dave designed a version of the gugelhupf pan with alternating, regular ridges on the base to make cutting perfectly even slices a cinch, and added a “t” to the end of the word to make it their own before trademarking and patenting it—just in case.
Such measures were likely protocol for Dave, as Nordic Ware was producing all kinds of pieces that the American cooking market had never seen. But he might have felt silly even bothering with this one: With little to no idea how to market them upon launch, early retailers watched Nordic Ware’s Bundt pans sit on shelves collecting dust. Sales were consistently pitiful in the years that followed, so much so that Dave and Dotty considered dropping them from the product line entirely. Not much changed for the next fifteen years.
In a land far from Minneapolis, a local Texas woman decides to find a slightly more American use for the Nordic Ware Bundt pan that has (somehow) come into her possession. She whips up a “Tunnel of Fudge Cake,” featuring a filling of Pillsbury frosting, and submits it to the annual Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. To the joint envy and delight of bakers all over the country, she’s awarded 2nd Place prize, and everyone goes nuts over the recipe. “A worldwide sensation!” is how Jenny described the reaction.
Lucky for Dave and Dotty—and for their son David, who had assumed the role of company President as Dave’s health declined—a Bundt pan was required to make this cake. (Otherwise the ooey-gooey center would never bake off properly.) A molten chocolate creation, it was a far cry from the light, yeasted gugelhupf—but nobody eating it was complaining. In all reality, the public probably didn’t pause to consider that the pan was an Old-World-European-by-way-of-Hadassah-women-via-Dotty-and-Dave design. They just wanted one.
Immediately, demand for Nordic Ware’s Bundt pans soared—they were the only company making them! (Pillsbury turned one out ASAP, but not in time to stifle Dotty and Dave’s wave of success.) Jenny says they sold “millions and millions” of Bundts over the months and years that followed the Tunnel of Fudge Cake’s publicity.
by Jessica Reed
With soaring sales throughout the 60’s and 70’s, the company was able to dramatically expand their processes and offerings.
In order to market some pans to discount retailers (as the hand-cast pieces were fairly expensive), they developed a way to form aluminum, a process by which a solid sheet of metal in a coil shape is spun into a rough Bundt design before being stamped with that with the classic fluting. “Still bakes a great cake,” Jenny says, “but with slightly less crisp design detail.” (Due to their popularity, Nordic Ware still produces a formed aluminum line, which can be found at places like Target.) They also rolled out new sizes: a 6-cup half Bundt, and tiny, adorable 1-cuppers.
They also eventually abandoned the inefficiencies of sand casting to make way for die casting, a far more precise and controlled process that replaces the one-time-use sand molds with a single, long-lasting steel mold that can be used countless times. Still, die cast pans have to be tumbled, shot-blasted, machine-routed, washed, finished with a PFOA- and PTFE-free nonstick coating, and checked for quality after they’re cast. Jenny estimates that they’re touched by ten sets of hands in the process of being made.
The initial foundry burned down in the late 50’s but they were able to rebuild across town, a site Nordic Ware still occupy today. It’s since expanded to a whopping 250,000 square feet of manufacturing and distribution space, with offices next door. Jenny loves that she can walk through a door and into production in minutes. “Over the decades, the city has been built up around us.”
The late 90s saw a second surge in popularity of Bundts, due in large part to a rose-shaped pan that was submitted by a company designer in a yearly contest. And another 10 to 15 million Bundt pans were shipped out their doors by the early 2000s. Jenny admits that as with any baking fad, the pan comes and goes in popularity, but says, “it never really goes away because it’s so much a part of the American baking tradition.”
They’re seeing another surge now, which she chalks up to a return to simple, classic ways of cooking after “the trend of fussy stuff like cupcakes and cake pops and highly decorated cakes” (though I personally think it’s probably because they’re so dang Instagrammable).
A photo posted by Nordic Ware (@nordicwareusa) on Jan 29, 2017 at 9:33am PST
The two Nordic Ware Bundts we’ve just launched in our shop are the Heritage shape, with dramatic swoops to its design, and an Anniversary pan, featuring the classic alternating ridges. Both are entirely American-made right down to the PFOA- and PTFE-free nonstick coating, and will pop out perfect cake shapes—no sticking or burning chunks left in the pan. (They do still recommend coating it with a flour-based cooking spray, or preparing it with butter and a layer of flour, before pouring in your batter, as added insurance.)
But as our co-founder Merrill, they’re pretty close to perfect even if you don’t:
I tested this pan on my favorite applesauce cake, without buttering or flouring it before I added the batter. I was a little nervous before turning it out but with almost no effort on my part, out plopped a perfectly golden cake—beautifully ridged and completely intact. And it was cooked perfectly and evenly throughout!
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mis-stated Jenny’s title—she’s the EVP of Sales & Marketing, not the current owner.
Shop our new line of American-made, die cast pieces from Nordic Ware (including Bundts!) in our shop. And let us know in the comments your favorite Bundt recipe!
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