New Recipe: Houston’s Pancake Princess puts popular internet recipes to the test

In her single-oven duplex kitchen, it’s not unusual for Erika Kwee to bake 12 different cookie recipes in a day.

Kwee is the blogger behind The Pancake Princess, where she posts the analytical results of bake-offs she conducts using a blind ranking system and the palates of real Houstonians — her grateful friends and sweet-tooth acquaintances.

Earlier this year on her quest to find the recipe for the best lemon poppy seed muffins, for example, Kwee pitted against one another nine recipes, including those published by the New York Times, in the Bouchon Bakery cookbook and on the food blogs Hummingbird High and Yammie’s Noshery.

To avoid variables, Kwee baked all nine versions on the same day, using consistent ingredients where possible, and had 35 tasters pick up samples to simultaneously rank treats online using a 1-to-10 scale on flavor, texture and overall appeal.

As evidenced in a detailed bar graph on her blog, the Yammie’s Noshery recipe, which Kwee summarized as “a tender, close-crumbed muffin with a delightfully lemony flavor,” was victorious.

Kwee’s experiment — using data to determine whether one popular recipe can stand out as the ultimate crowd-pleaser — began in 2017 when Kwee, a Rice University MBA and project manager at Hewlett Packard, began spending more of her evening hours baking.

“I would always look at Pinterest, and I’d have a million recipes pinned,” she says. “I was constantly Googling ‘best chocolate chip cookie’ or ‘best banana bread,’” and she would have trouble remembering which recipes she had already tried.

With an endless amount of beautiful imagery and recipe content available online, home cooks like her can become overwhelmed, Kwee says. So she set out to find a systematic way “to sort through some of the noise and help you make an easier, faster decision on what to make.”

Kwee, 30, has challenged commonly available recipes for banana bread, Parker House rolls, coffee cake, pecan pie, gingerbread cookies, classic yellow cake, snickerdoodles, scones and waffles — amassing 43,000 followers on Instagram along with the way.

Often, the widely followed bloggers whose recipes she uses share the bake-off results, and Kwee’s Instagram brushes with fame extend beyond foodies.

She recounts with shock the time a follower tipped her off that actress and musician Zooey Deschanel was following The Pancake Princess. “She liked one of my posts, and I just died,” Kwee said.

It was Kwee’s own audience that nominated her for Saveur’s 2019 Blog Awards, ultimately voting her Readers’ Choice in the Baking & Sweets category.

At the awards ceremony in Cincinnati, Kwee got to meet recipe-world titans including David Lebovitz and Deb Perelman, the blogger behind Smitten Kitchen.

“It was just a dream come true to have been reading their blogs for years,” Kwee said. Talking to Perelman “was unreal because I’m such a fan, and she was so nice in real life.”

The feeling is mutual.

Perelman says before she met Kwee at the event, she was familiar with The Pancake Princess bake-offs. “I loved what she was doing,” Perelman said. “I love that her only agenda is finding the best recipes.”

Smitten Kitchen once won a bake-off on The Pancake Princess for best zucchini bread, but, Perelman said, “I happily share her results whether I ‘win’ or ‘lose’ because it’s objectively useful to people who cook at home, and I often refer to her past bake-off favorites when a reader needs a recipe for something I don’t have, or wants it made in a way I haven’t.”

Over time, Kwee has become efficient through trial and error, sharing honestly with her audience if she flubs up a recipe and detailing contest methodology such as whether pans were lined, the brand of flour used and which recipes called for the batter to rest overnight.

Having once given her samplers “taster fatigue” when she tested 16 biscuit recipes — “People just couldn’t tell the difference after a certain point” — she now limits contests to a max of 12 recipes.

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