Jan Miller Helps ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ Inspire and Challenge Bakers

jan miller, better homes & gardens

Better Homes and Gardens has long been known for its food content as well as its home décor, gardening and family-interest stories. In fact, they also publish several single-topic magazines throughout the year, such as Cook’s Secrets, Fall Baking, Christmas Cookies and others. It’s no wonder they’re thought of as a creative recipe resource.

I spoke with Jan Miller, who is the magazine’s Executive Food Editor, Special Interest Media Better Homes and Gardens, Food. Her title refers to the fact that she is involved with producing recipes for these special titles as well as for their new book, Better Homes and Gardens Baking: More than 350 Recipes Plus Tips and Techniques (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013). Here, Jan talks about their test kitchen, how their new book can help new bakers and inspire the more advanced, and why a Snickerdoodle isn’t just a cookie.

Dédé Wilson: Jan, thank you for sitting down with me. Tell us what you do at Better Homes and Gardens.
Jan Miller: Well, my title refers to the fact that I handle recipes for the special single newsstand titles, and I am also involved in editing our Red Plaid.

Red Plaid?
[Laughs] That’s what we call the new cookbook – you know our big main title. It’s red plaid on the outside and many people think it’s Betty Crocker, but it’s us!

Oh, of course! So “red plaid” is your insider term! I know there hasn’t been a BH&G baking book in a long time. Why the decision to publish one now?
We felt the timing was right. We do a lot of consumer research and people want to know more about cooking, and what place is more important to share information than with baking? You can fudge and experiment with cooking, but with baking you really have to know what you are doing.

So the book includes lots of basics as well as inspirational ideas?
Yes, absolutely. Baking is always huge at holidays, so there is an entire Holiday Baking chapter, but we also have all the standbys.

A perfect segue to my next question. Were there basics you knew that you would carry over from previous books? And how did you decide what was popular or important enough to add now that’s new?
Every chapter starts with a classic, so for the bread chapter, it starts with a basic yeast dough, but then we also have a no-knead artisan bread. Then we have lots of how-to images, so you know what the recipe should look like in the midst of the recipe. So, for instance, if a batter looks curdled in the middle of the recipe, we can point that out and the home baker will know everything is okay.

Tell us about some of the newer flavors and desserts that you’ve included.
Dulce de leche is pervasive right now, so we’ve used it in several recipes, including a Dulce de Leche Hazelnut Pumpkin Pie and Dulce de Leche Fluff Brownies. S’mores are popular, so we have it in a bread pudding and the classic Snickerdoodle cookie is included, but we also feature a Snickerdoodle Cheesecake. Then there are items like doughnuts that come in and out of fashion, but they are so popular right now – even as a home-baked treat – that we have included them, too. Savory baking is included, as is project baking.

I love that you just said that! We use the term “project baking” around here, too. We find that some of our most complicated desserts are very popular. We have had more community members send us pictures of our Raspberry Ombré Cake than any other!
We find that home cooks cook differently during the week than on the weekend.  Same thing with baking, which is why we also included a chapter called Everyday Baking. A simple everyday recipe might be a simple Bundt cake, but then on the weekend you might want a project like cinnamon rolls. Again, we do a lot of consumer research and there are a lot of people who love this kind of lengthy, challenging project. Macarons are very popular, but they are a recipe that demands your attention and time. The baking enthusiast wants to tackle it. They see it in a shop window and they say, “I want to make that.”

It truly dovetails with the whole DIY passion in general, from food to home décor.
Exactly, and part of our brand is that we want them to have success at home. We have a theme throughout the book called Make it Mine where we present a recipe in a basic form, but then give you ideas to personalize it and make it yours. People these days are looking to make a personal statement.

The Bakepedia motto is “Helping Bakers Succeed,” so this is truly aligned with our approach, and just like BH&G, we feel that having a test kitchen is part of that promise. Tell us about the BH&G test kitchens.
It’s the cornerstone of our brand, the heart and soul, to make sure what we test really does work in the home kitchen. We have a team of home economists that test recipes – some are scientists and some are true home economists – and when they receive a recipe, they go through it top to bottom. In terms of developing recipes, we do that editorially. We hire freelancers and sometimes the test kitchen develops recipes as well. The sources might be varied, but the testing process is consistent and rigorous.

There will be a lead person assigned to the recipe for consistency and they follow it from the beginning to the end. We assemble taste panels and serve the food family-style and we talk about how it came together. Were the ingredients easy to find? Does it ever go crazy in the middle where it might look funny? How was storage? How long does it keep? We try to address any question that might come up and we test as many times as we need to get it right. But then again, if we have tested it five times and we aren’t getting anywhere, we will let it go. If we are struggling with it, then imagine how frustrating it would be for the home baker!

Is there a home-baking area that is particularly troublesome?
A consistent fear of yeast; it runs rampant! Also pastry. Pie pastry seems to always come up. We try to accommodate and address all of this.

What are people clamoring for?
Salted everything! So we have included Salted Caramel Pot de Crème, a Salted Praline Tart that is simply amazing and a few other salted recipes.

Jan, thank you so much for your times and insights. And now I am going to sling that “red plaid” term around; I feel like I am an insider now!
Thank you, Dédé. Enjoy our new book.

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