The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

The New Easy-Bake Oven: Bye-Bye Bulbs

It's a brave new world for the Easy-Bake oven: no more light bulbs.

The Fed is working toward elimination of the good old incandescent light bulb. This presents toymaker Hasbro, the device's current manufacturer, with something of a sticky-wicket since the heat source in the iconic kid's cooker has always been a 100-watt incandescent bulb. (If you've still got one of these bulbs around, light it up and hold your hand near it; you'll see why.) The new and improved CFL bulb produces almost no heat, thereby rendering it useless for baking cakes and brownies. What to do, what to do?

Do over, that's what. It's not like the toy oven hasn't undergone a few changes over the decades. Eleven of them, I believe. But this one is fundamental rather than merely cosmetic. With the juice gone from its traditional source of heat, the new Easy-Bake Oven will feature an actual heating element – sort of like the oven the grownups use.

The brainchild of an inventor named Ronald Howes, Kenner Products introduced the Easy-Bake Oven back in 1963. They were also responsible for the Give-a-Show Projector and the Spirograph, you may recall. But the little plastic oven marketed to pre-teen girls was by far the company's crowning achievement. It was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2006, having sold more than 50 million units.

The original design was pretty simple; you had these tiny little round pans into which you poured pre-measured mixes from little packets that either came with the oven or could be purchased at most toy stores. Add a little water to the mix, turn on the oven, slide the pan into a slot, and, after being cooked by the heat generated by the aforementioned light bulbs, little mini cakes and brownies emerged from a slot on the other side.

I never actually owned an Easy-Bake Oven. My experience with the toy came as a result of having a girl cousin. Even though I was a boy and it was the '60s and I was supposed to have G.I. Joes (which I did), my progressive mother encouraged my interest in cooking. By the time my cousin got her first Easy-Bake Oven, I had already graduated to using the real oven in Mom's kitchen. But the Easy-Bake was still a fun toy.

Like most Easy-Bakers, we experimented with various mixtures and concoctions. And like the parents of most Easy-Bakers, my aunt and uncle got tired of shelling out hefty bucks for the little mix packets, so there was also a lot of experimentation going on with “real” cake and brownie mixes. Most of them turned out pretty well and we had fun, regardless. My wife, who did own an Easy-Bake Oven, recalls her dad being quite a trooper as he dutifully consumed every brownie, cake, and cookie she produced.

The newest iteration of the classic toy is called the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven and it's a far cry from the '60s version. That one was designed to look like a plain old oven – complete with a non-functional stovetop. It had a carrying handle and it came in typical '60s colors – yellow and green. The new Ultimate oven is purple and looks kind of like a really curvy microwave – sort of, I guess. Or as the curator of the facility which houses the National Toy Hall of Fame describes it: “It looks sort of like an Art Deco toaster with wings – a purple one.

The menu has changed, too. No longer limited to tiny little cakes and brownies, the Ultimate Oven can produce cookies, cupcakes, whoopie pies, a “checkerboard” cake, pretzel “dippers”, cinnamon twists, and even pizza. All in bigger portions than the original, to boot, thanks to larger, rectangular pans.

The involuntary redesign is actually a good thing. The new heating element provides more even heat. (Hot spots used to be a real problem. Ruined a lot of little cakes as a result.) It can also generate interior temperatures up to about 375°, so, yes, parental supervision is definitely required. (Don't worry; the exterior remains fairly cool.)

Oh, and one more major upgrade: the price. Be prepared to pony up fifty bucks – well, $49.99, anyway – for a toy for which my aunt and uncle paid $15.95 back in '63. (500,000 units were sold at that price in that year, by the way.)

Lest you consider the Easy-Bake Oven to be nothing more than a frivolous passing fancy of childhood, consider this: Bobby Flay had one. So did Rick Bayless. I guess that's why they contributed recipes to David Hoffman's “The Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet,” a 128-page cookbook published in 2003 by Running Press.

The Easy-Bake Oven was – and still is – a great introduction for kids to the world of cooking and anything that gets kids in the kitchen is okay by me. Buona fortuna, Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven.

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