NEW PORT RICHEY — Josee Lanzi flipped through the glossy pages of the new publication that had just arrived at her Gulf Harbors home one day in April.
"Honey, I'm the centerfold!'' she called to her husband, Brent. "I'm the centerfold."
Lanzi's Rosemary Roasted Potatoes With Lemon Herb Cream Sauce was one of 80 recipes chosen from thousands submitted to Paula Deen's Real Women of Philadelphia (RWOP) Cookbook contest last year. That's Philadelphia as in the cream cheese brand. A photograph of the potatoes spreads across two color pages in the book's section of side dishes.
Lanzi's winning submission came with a check for $500 and a copy of the cookbook autographed by Paula Deen, Lanzi's idol. This year, Lanzi's culinary exploits have taken her further in Deen's second season of Real Women of Philadelphia's casting competition, which if she moves from finalist to winner on Thursday, she will be $25,000 richer (less Uncle Sam's share). She also will sign a six-month contract promoting Kraft's Philadelphia products by hosting online cooking segments for the RWOP cooking community, writing for a cooking magazines and more.
This year, contestants had to create recipes, along with videos demonstrating their creations using Philadelphia's new cooking crèmes. Lanzi, 41, says they're just about miracle workers saving time and energy with their ingredients for what could be complicated recipes. She submitted seven recipes and that seventh put her in the finals for the entrée contest.
She whipped up her show-stopping Chicken Cordon Blue Rotini. Lanzi, a French-Canadian, combines recipes from her French side and Italian from her husband's side of the family.
Pasta (she uses not-so-traditional whole grain), ham, frozen peas, shredded Swiss cheese, boneless chicken breasts cut into bite-sized pieces, white wine and a tub of Philadelphia Italian Cheese and Herbs cooking crème are blended and topped with cooked bacon, more Swiss cheese and fresh basil to make up this tasty dish.
"I cooked it all together and I said, "Ohhhh. Oh," she said shaking her head in disbelief, knowing she had created something special. "This was the easiest one I had done."
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Lanzi made the recipe for what is at least the 17th time and the third time that day. This time she was in her own kitchen and had an audience of two, rather than the thousands who came with the local TV appearance she made earlier in the day when the stove malfunctioned. On the broadcast, Lanzi remained cool, smiling for the 2-minute segment.
"This is the kind of recipe that anyone can make in 30 minutes or less," she said cheerfully back in her own kitchen hours later, adding one ingredient after the other. "And then the star of the show, Philadelphia Cooking Crème."
Yes, she's ready to be a pitch woman.
Lanzi has never had a formal cooking lesson. She learned to cook in Quebec, where she lived until moving to the United States as a child. Her first culinary lesson from her grandmother: making butter. Oh, Paula Deen would approve.
Deen, whose Southern charm and penchant for cooking eventually catapulted her into Food Network stardom and beyond, is known for using y'alls during her shows and butter in her dishes. Lanzi's ingredient of choice seems to be white wine, appearing in several of her recipes. She uses wine, she said, when she's making something "fancy."
She has honed her skills for decades, cooking every night except Fridays when she and her husband usually get takeout.
For more than a year, she's been creating new dishes with cream cheese and cooking creams — everything from pizza with cooking cream instead of sauce to a creamy mango sauce for fresh trout she caught off her own boat (another one of her passions).
She says she's gained 10 pounds in the process but adds it was worth it.
Lanzi has been so into the challenge that even on Thanksgiving there wasn't a side dish on the table that didn't have cream cheese in it, she said. And on Halloween she dressed up as Paula Deen herself and went into full character, giving her best shot at a Southern accent.
"It has really almost taken over my life," she admitted, with a giggle. "Intervention. I heard that word several times."
Still, her husband, relatives, neighbors and co-workers have been willing taste testers for Lanzi's kitchen.
"She's made some of the best food I've ever tasted in my life," said Kathy Slattery, 29, of St. Petersburg.
In fact, Lanzi recently put on a luncheon from salad to a cream-cheese dessert at her day job at Raymond James' corporate office in St. Petersburg for about a dozen or so co-workers who have been rooting for her. The main dish, of course, was her competitive one, which is Slattery's favorite.
"It was a full-course meal," she said. "Everyone was in heaven."
Neighbor and close friend Lori Artz, 51, enjoyed the cream cheese dishes — at least 10 — that Lanzi created.
"We've been fortunate to be near her test kitchen, as I call it," Artz said. "She should win. I don't know anyone as passionate as she is about cooking."
During a cook off in Savannah on Tuesday, Lanzi competed against three other women in her category while a panel of judges, including Deen, watched and tasted. Three other categories — appetizers, side dish and dessert — have four finalists each, including Debi Wood of Kissimmee in the dessert category with her Nana's (Almost) Famous Apple Lasagna.
Now Lanzi and all the finalists have to wait until winners are announced Thursday night during a three-hour live event that begins at 7 p.m. at Savannah's historic Lucas Theatre and will be streamed live at www.realwomenofphiladelphia.com or link from www.pauladeen.com.
Lanzi fantasizes about winning and what that could mean to her future.
"If I could have my own cooking show, that would be the bucket list full until I retire," she said. "…That's a big dream but they say, well if you dream, dream big."