2 April, 2015

Perfecting our baked goods

Product Developer Jenny, really likes hot cross buns. It’s a good job she does, because as Marks & Spencer’s chief hot cross bun taster, she has to munch her way through thousands every year.

“You can get sick of them,” she admits, when I ask how she isn't possibly bored of scoffing the traditional Easter treats. “But I love them, so it’s not such a chore.”

Jenny, is the retailer’s product developer for baked treats – meaning that no flapjack, muffin or biscuit hits M&S's shelves before she’s tasted them. She started at the firm well over a decade ago as a lingerie buyer, "buying knickers and vests", but gradually worked her way up into her real passion: food development.

When it comes to hot cross buns – of which Marks & Spencer expects to sell above 30 million this year, a third of the total amount consumed by the nation – Jenny starts planning for the next year's range before Easter is even over. “The week before Easter, I’m looking at competitors' products – there are about 36 hot cross buns I’ll be trying,” she says. “Last year, it turned into quite a mammoth eating session. It’s daunting, but it’s exciting to see what's out there.”

Jenny and her team then come up with around 30 different ideas, before whittling them down to less than 10. After that, the recipes are formulated – “each product takes about eight recipes to get completely right” – and are tweaked so they are appropriate for mass manufacturing. 

Getting the buns onto the production line is far from the end of the story, however. After quizzing customer panels to see how the buns are received, Jenny chomps her way through each bun at various stages of its life, from freshly-baked, to the day before its expiry date, to make sure they meet standards. She tries them toasted with butter, untoasted without, and after having been frozen. On a busy day, she estimates she can try up to 70.

What does she look for in a perfect hot cross bun? “You should ideally get the lovely sweet doughiness of the bread, the sweetness of the fruits, a hint of background spice that isn't overwhelming," she says. "And not with one spice dominant - cloves can be quite bitter and leave a nasty taste in your mouth.”

Not every flavour she likes comes to market. She has long played with the idea of making a savoury bun, “but it has never really worked out. The spice is such a dominant flavour and getting savoury flavours that work with that spice is hard. You can take the spice out, but then it's not really a hot cross bun”.

Considering she spends all day scoffing sweet treats, does she ever worry about her health or weight? “It's definitely hard, when you’re surrounded by delicious food all the time,” admits Jenny, whose team have a running joke about “the M&S stone” employees gain after joining the firm. “But I definitely don’t always eat the whole bun...”


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