imagine winning $1-million for simmering chicken thighs with chunky salsa and seasonings. Or getting rich by transforming chopped honey-oat granola bars into a deliciously sweet pie. • Or how about collecting a check big enough to buy a house by ramping up a grilled cheese sandwich with provolone, chicken and spinach. Give it a modern twist and christen it Chicken Florentine Panini. • All three seemingly simple dishes have won the grand prize at the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the biggest show in competitive cooking. They prove that any dish can prevail, but trying to guess what will wow the judges is like predicting where lightning will strike. • On April 13, 100 men and women, but mostly women, will gather in Dallas to try to do just that at the 43rd Pillsbury Bake-Off. Nerves,
big dreams and expertise will mingle in a giant convention space turned into 100 small
One finalist — we're rooting for Lana McDonogh and her Gorgonzola, Fig and Walnut Tartlets — will leave a millionaire. The first stop won't be home, but likely a round of appearances on national talk shows. Not to worry if she didn't pack telegenic clothes. The Pillsbury people will see to that.
That's just one of the interesting details of the competition that Ellie Mathews writes about in The Ungarnished Truth: A Woman, A Chicken Dinner, A Million Dollars (Berkley, 2008). Mathews won the Bake-Off in 1998 with her Salsa Couscous Chicken. Her book is part memoir, part behind-the-scenes look at the Bake-Off.
"I'm a little bit on the woolly, Birkenstock side," says Mathews, 62, a writer who lives in Port Townsend, Wash. "I think they knew better what (clothes) worked on TV. They were very gentle about it."
In a phone interview last week, Mathews said the prize money let her settle in even more comfortably to the life of a writer, though she has only made the winning dish twice since the competition.
And get this: "The inside scoop on the recipe is that I never use salsa. I make it with onions and tomatoes. It's the cumin and the seasonings that make the dish." She adapted a favorite fish dish using items off Pillsbury's list of products approved for the contest.
Let that be the first lesson to anyone toying with entering the Bake-Off: Be adaptable.
Adjusting the recipe
The Bake-Off, just like home cooking in America, has changed a lot since the first contest in 1949. That year, Theodora Smafield of Michigan won $50,000 for her No-Knead Water-Rising Twists.
Today, we call that scratch cooking, but the Bake-Off has veered away from that concept to more convenience-product preparation. That first year and for many after, the purpose of the contest, besides honoring a home cook, was to sell Pillsbury flour. It truly was a bake-off.
Selling products is still a goal of the competition but flour is no longer a required component. In fact, it's not even on the list of more than 100 products, of which at least two must be used in each dish. General Mills owns Pillsbury now plus a number of other companies. That's why Old El Paso and Green Giant are among the many products that contestants can pick from for their original recipes. Smucker's, Jif and Crisco are some of the others.
Even though the 2008 product list and the categories, including pizza creations and Mexican favorites, shape the entries, there are still trends to be found among the 100 finalists.
Cheese is prevalent, reflecting America's current love affair with artisan cheeses. It's not just cheddar and jack at this party, but Gorgonzola, feta, mascarpone and queso fresco. Global flavors are also big with spicing stretching around the world.
Many finalists have fused cuisines, evident in such recipes as Mexican Pesto-Pork Tacos and Thai Chicken Burritos. And the sweet stuff is full of nuts, probably owing to the fact that about 25 Fisher nut products are on the product list.
From 1949 until 1976, the Bake-Off was held annually. Since then, it has been every other year and twice in Orlando since 2002. In 1996, the grand prize jumped to $1-million.
It was awarded to Kurt Wait, the first and only man to win the grand prize.
Living with limits
Like many Bake-Off finalists, Mathews has entered and placed in other cooking contests over the years. In 2005, she took the non-beef category of the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger contest, worth $10,000. (For winning burger recipes, go to www.buildabetterburger.com.) Among cooking contest folks, that's another biggie with the grand prize bringing $50,000.
When she made it to the finals of the Bake-Off for the first time, she didn't expect it would be her last. But once a contestant bags the grand prize, they are ineligible to enter again.
"I knew you could go three times so I thought this is the time I scope it out," she said. "In the flash of micro-seconds after the announcement when you think they've made a mistake, I thought 'Oh no, I can't come back.' "
Getting back to the Bake-Off is a dream of many finalists. Kelly Everhart of Seffner was a 2002 finalist, and though her Monte Cristo Folds didn't win any prizes, she still enters every Bake-Off. Of the 10 recipes she sent in for the Dallas Bake-Off, she thought her Cuban Pizza, a twist on Florida's famous Cuban sandwich, was a shoo-in. No dice.
"I keep thinking, will I ever go again?" said the perennial winner at the Florida State Fair. "Making the Bake-Off is one of my bragging points."
Looking back on those Monte Cristo Folds, she thinks she was stingy on the filling. She makes them often but stuffs them more. And she continues to work on other recipes for other contests. When she talked with the St. Petersburg Times last week, she was preparing entries for the Food Network's Ultimate Recipe Showdown competition. The deadline was Saturday.
For dedicated contestants like Everhart and the many other home cooks dreaming of money and fame, Mathews has this advice: Trust your instincts.
"Try not to second-guess the contest and have the courage of your idea. You've got the idea, just grab it and make it work," she said.
That worked for her. Even if Old El Paso Thick 'n Chunky Salsa was not a staple in her kitchen.
Janet K. Keeler was a judge at the 2004 Pillsbury Bake-Off. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.