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Pillsbury Bake-Off will make one cook rich

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 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 or (727) 893-8586.

.On the Web

Pillsbury Bake-Off

The 43rd annual Bake-Off is April 13 through 15 in Dallas. To see the recipes of the 100 finalists and to vote for your favorite, go to


Salsa Couscous Chicken

(Winner of the 1998

Pillsbury Bake-Off)

3 cups hot cooked couscous or rice (cook as directed on package)

1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil

¼ cup coarsely chopped almonds

2 garlic cloves, minced

8 chicken thighs, skin removed

1 cup Old El Paso Garden Pepper or Thick 'n Chunky Salsa

¼ cup water

2 tablespoons dried currants

1 tablespoon honey

¾ teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon cinnamon

While couscous is cooking, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add almonds; cook 1 to 2 minutes or until golden brown. Remove almonds from skillet with slotted spoon; set aside. Add garlic to skillet; cook and stir 30 seconds. Add chicken, cook 4 to 5 minutes or until browned, turning once. In medium bowl, combine salsa and all remaining ingredients; mix well. Add to chicken; mix well. Reduce heat to medium; cover and cook 20 minutes or until chicken is fork-tender and juices run clear, stirring occasionally. Stir in almonds. Serve chicken mixture with couscous.

Serves 4.

Source: Ellie Mathews and Pillsbury


Oats 'n Honey Granola Pie

(Winner of the 2004 Pillsbury Bake-Off)


1 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust (from 15-ounce box), softened as directed on box


1/2 cup butter or margarine

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

3/4 cup corn syrup

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 eggs, lightly beaten

4 Nature Valley Oats 'n Honey crunchy granola bars (2 pouches from an 8.9-ounce box), crushed

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup quick-cooking or old-fashioned oats

1/4 cup chocolate chips

Whipped cream or ice cream, if desired

• Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place pie crust in 9-inch glass pie pan as directed on box for one-crust filled pie.

• In a large microwavable bowl, microwave butter on high 50 to 60 seconds or until melted. Stir in brown sugar and corn syrup until blended. Beat in salt, vanilla and eggs. Stir crushed granola bars, walnuts, oats and chocolate chips into brown sugar mixture. Pour into crust-lined pan.

• Bake 40 to 50 minutes or until filling is set and crust is golden brown. During last 15 to 20 minutes of baking, cover crust edge with strips of foil to prevent excessive browning. Cool at least 30 minutes before serving. Serve warm, at room temperature or chilled with whipped cream or ice cream. Store in refrigerator.

Serves 8.

Source: Suzanne Conrad and Pillsbury


Gorgonzola, Fig and Walnut Tartlets

(Finalist in the 2008

Pillsbury Bake-Off)

1 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust (from 15-ounce box), softened as directed on box

6 dried figs or pitted dates, coarsely chopped (1/3 cup)

1 tablespoon packed Domino or C&H Dark Brown Sugar

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup Fisher Chef's Naturals chopped walnuts

1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

1 tablespoon honey

• Heat oven to 425 degrees. Unroll pie crust on flat surface. Using 2-inch cookie cutter, cut 24 rounds from pie crust, rerolling crust scraps if necessary. Gently press 1 round in bottom and up side of each of 24 ungreased mini muffin cups.

• In small bowl, mix figs, brown sugar, cinnamon and walnuts. Spoon slightly less than 1 teaspoon fig mixture into each cup. Break up any larger pieces of Gorgonzola. Top each tartlet with slightly less than 1 teaspoon cheese.

• Bake 7 to 11 minutes or until bubbly and golden brown. Remove tartlets from pan to serving plate. Drizzle tartlets with honey. Serve warm.

Makes 24 appetizers.

Source: Lana McDonogh and Pillsbury

Pillsbury Bake-Off will make one cook rich 04/01/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 1:55am]
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