The latest version of the famous toy oven first marketed in 1963 with a carrying handle and a fake stove top is now all curves and purple and snazzy graphics. And -- perhaps most shocking of all -- it comes with a new instruction: No light bulb necessary.
Chalk it up as an unintended consequence of the federal government's move to phase out the incandescent light bulb. The compact fluorescents that are becoming the new standard for household use are so energy efficient that they're useless in baking a brownie -- or any of the other miniature treats the Easy-Bake has been cooking up for nearly 50 years.
Initially, news of the death of the 100-watt bulb prompted rumors that the Easy-Bake might be going the same way. Instead, the toy got its 11th redesign, at the heart of which is a new heating element much like that of a traditional oven.
The forced re-engineering also handed Hasbro an excuse to give the Easy-Bake -- which in the 1960s and 1970s came in the era's popular kitchen décor colors -- its most modern makeover yet.
"This gave us a reason to do it completely differently," said Michelle Paolino, a vice president of global brand strategy and marketing at Hasbro.
"We wanted it to look more like a real appliance, not a plastic toy," she said.
About the size of a big bread box, the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven is clearly designed to fit on any kitchen counter, assuming a parent is willing to shell out $49.99, a steep hike from the last model's price tag of $29.99.
"It looks sort of like an Art Deco toaster with wings -- a purple one," said Patricia Hogan, curator at The Strong, which includes the National Museum of Play and the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, N.Y. "It's just so cool."
The oven targets girls between 8 and 12. The beauty of the oven, the company and users say, is that children can mix and bake mostly themselves -- the food gets pushed in one end of the oven, cooks, then comes out the other side. Still, Hasbro says parental supervision is required.
The company says the cooking chamber temperature of the new model can reach approximately 375 degrees; the outside of the oven remains only warm to the touch.
Hasbro says the product, voluntarily recalled in 2007 because of reports of burns, meets all safety regulations. Nearly a million ovens were recalled after reports of children getting their fingers or hands stuck in its opening and suffering sometimes serious burns; a 5-year-old girl was injured so badly she had to have part of her finger amputated.
Inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2006, the Easy-Bake Oven has become something of an icon, spawning at least one "gourmet" cookbook that includes recipes from Food Network chef Bobby Flay. Some families, to be frugal, would use regular, less expensive cake mixes than the Easy-Bake ones, or create their own.
Jenn Romig, 31, of Denver, got an Easy-Bake for Christmas in the 1980s and loved it. Her favorite was the heart-shaped pan, which she used to make little cakes that she served to her two brothers.
"I think they wanted to" use the oven themselves, she said, "but it seemed girly. So they just would eat whatever I made."
She didn't know at first what was behind the oven's magic -- until one day the bulb needed changing.
"It was kind of sad for me," she said.
Joe Cacciola, president of Fuzion Design Inc., the Pawtucket-based firm that worked with Hasbro on the Easy-Bake's redesign over the last two years, says having to eliminate the light bulb has been something of a blessing.
He says the new heating element allows for more consistent heat -- no hotspots near the bulb -- and an overall better bake. There's also no need for parents to open the insides to screw in a bulb.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the redesign has also brought an up-sizing of portions. Cacciola says the heating chamber is about 50 percent larger, and the new rectangular cooking pan, a departure from the traditional round one, can hold more and bigger snacks.
Cacciola knows a thing or two about the Easy-Bake, having worked for Hasbro himself, including on that toy line. (He also helped launch the Queasy Bake Cookerator, an ill-fated attempt to get boys in on the fun by allowing them to bake grossly named edibles like Chocolate Crud Cake and Dip 'N Drool Dog Bones.) He says the approach designers took on the new Ultimate Oven was a blend of evolution with revolution.
The first Easy-Bake, manufactured by Kenner, now a division of Hasbro, came on the market in 1963. It was turquoise, boxy and cost $15.95; parents bought 500,000 in the first year alone. The oven has always reflected the times, at least in part: In 1965, Hasbro introduced TV-dinner-like trays that were split into three sections. The kid-cooked mini-meal consisted of beef and macaroni, peas and carrots.
By the 1980s, the oven was white and had a high-low setting switch. By 1993, it had gone pink.
In 2003, Hasbro introduced a version of the oven without a light bulb, called the Real Meal Oven, which looked less like an oven and more like a microwave. But it opted to go back to the light bulb with the next redesign.
Along with the latest model comes a new line of Easy-Bake mixes; Paolino says they're trendier snacks. There's a pink-and-brown "checkerboard" cake, for instance, along with whoopie pies, party pretzel "dippers" and cinnamon twists.
The cook time is about the same with the new heating element, about 15 minutes on average.
"It's just like a real oven," says Paolino, before reflecting on the Easy-Bake the way it once was: "It's pretty amazing what a 100-watt light bulb can do."