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Five area women head to Pillsbury Bake-Off in Las Vegas

The Tampa Bay area, long known for its sunshine and beaches, has a new claim to fame: land of good cooks. • Five of the 100 Pillsbury Bake-Off 2013 finalists — including a Tampa mother and daughter — live here. • Most states don't even have five finalists combined (Florida has seven: our five plus one in Miami and one in the Panhandle). • We asked area finalists about their recipes as they got ready to head to Las Vegas for the three-day competition that begins Sunday. New rules this year called for online voting for entries, which were limited to seven ingredients and had to take less than 30 minutes to prepare. Patti Ewald, Times staff writer

Finalist: Bethany Perry, 39, who moved to Largo from Massachusetts about 10 years ago. She and her husband have seven children, ages 6 to 17. This is her first Bake-Off entry although she said she has been dreaming of winning the contest since she was 12.

Recipe: Chicken and Spinach Biscuit Gyros

Category: Amazing Doable Dinners

How do you find time to cook with seven kids?

I'm a stay-at-home mom. That's my job. I try to get stuff done when they are in school.

How did the recipe come about?

I love Greek gyros but could never find grocery store flatbreads as good as what I get when I order takeout. So my son Daniel, who is 15, and I set out to come up with a recipe for them.

What was your eureka moment?

One day, after having baked different refrigerated breads different ways without gyro success, I was watching my son make pancakes.

I told him that maybe we should try cooking them on a griddle. And it worked.

Why should you win?

It's not only a healthy dinner, but my kids — all of them — will actually eat it. (The only other dinners everyone eats, she said, are hamburgers, spaghetti and meatloaf.)

What would you do with $1 million?

We would probably buy my husband a truck — with a trailer hitch. He has a boat but no truck to pull it with. After that . . . the way they pay it out, over 20 years, I guess I'd just feel blessed to have our daily bread. And we might even be able to help our kids pay for college.

Finalist: Marie Valdes, 55, who moved to Brandon from New York 27 years ago. Married with a son, Valdes works for Express Scripts in Tampa. This was the first time she submitted a recipe for the contest — at her husband's urging, she said — but she has been talking about it for 40 years.

Recipe: Honey Chicken and Corn Rafts

Category: Amazing Doable Dinners

What was your inspiration?

It came from the White House's "Let's Move" campaign. I was reading about the garden also having beehives and I decided to make something based on the White House gardens, promoting healthy eating for adults and kids.

How did you set about developing it?

I thought kids love corn, and boneless chicken is always good — and affordable. Because the recipe was sweet with the honey, I added bacon for a little smokiness. Then the arugula adds a little bitterness.

Did you do a lot of tweaking?

I tweaked it seven or eight times to make sure the quantity and the cooking times were good. I didn't change the ingredients, I just did things like cutting the chicken into smaller pieces and experimenting with the cooking times for the pie crust.

What would you do with $1 million?

I'd probably concentrate on getting the bills paid off but I would like to take a vacation to Italy (yes, I'm Italian) with my husband, my son and his fiancee.

Finalist: Debbie Reid, 50, who works for the Clearwater Parks and Recreation Department, lives in Clearwater with her husband and their dogs. She started entering the Bake-Off four years ago and although she has never won, it gave her the contest bug. She has entered — and won — several other food competitions. In fact, she's leaving early for Las Vegas so she can stop off to compete with her pasta recipes at the World Recipe Championship and a chance to win $300,000.

Recipe: Sweet Pulled Pork Pizza

Category: Amazing Doable Dinners

How did you come up with your recipe?

I entered 15 recipes in the dinner category, eight of them pizzas. I was going through looking at the rules; we had to use something from List A and List B. I saw apricot-peach preserves on the list so that's where I started. I thought pork would go well with that. Then I just added different tastes and textures.

Was it your favorite of the recipes you entered?

It was. I wanted to make a different pizza than what people normally think of.

Did you enter recipes in the other categories?

I didn't because the contests were staggered and this (Amazing Doable Dinners) was first. Since I made it through that one, I didn't enter any others.

What would you do with $1 million?

I didn't think of anything to buy; I just thought it would be nice to have a retirement nest egg and maybe, knowing I'll get $50,000 a year, be able to retire earlier than I planned. I would like to put a fence around the yard, too.

If she wins, so do I, say mom, daughter cooks

It's amazing that out of the thousands of recipes entered in the contest, five of the 100 finalists are all within a 20-mile radius in the Tampa Bay area. Even more amazing is that two of those five are mother and daughter — Anna Zovko and JoAnne Tucker — who live within blocks of each other in Tampa.

Well, maybe it's not so amazing. They seem to come from a hearty stock of cooks. Zovko's sister was a Bake-Off finalist in 1967 and she herself was a finalist in 2002 with her Bacon Spinach Pizza recipe, which remains a popular recipe on the Pillsbury site 11 years later.

Zovko, who is 80, said her mother taught her to cook — on a coal stove in a house with no running water in the Pittsburgh area. The first thing she remembers making — "I was 12 or 13," she said — is a cake. It came out so well that from that day forward, she was the unofficial cake-baker for whenever one was needed.

Tucker, who also learned to cook from her mom, was chopping and mixing by the time she was 9. When she made her first cake, she wasn't quite as successful as her mother.

"There weren't cake mixes back then," Tucker, 61, said, "so I made it from scratch. And it turned out rubbery."

But her mother was her cheerleader then just as she is now.

"It's your first one, honey," she remembers being told, "you'll have better luck next time."

Finalist: Anna Zovko, 80, of Tampa, who has three daughters in the area and a son in Pittsburgh.

Recipe: Chicken Alfredo Brunch Pizza

Category: Quick Rise and Shine Breakfasts

How did you come up with the recipe?

I was a semifinalist in the dessert category (Simple Sweets and Starters) with a Hazelnut Macchiato Mocha Pie but I never made it any further. My daughter was entering the breakfast category and she told me to enter. I came up with this pizza and the first time I made it, the kids loved it.

I knew I wanted to make a pizza with Alfredo — not red — sauce and I wanted to use French Fried Onions. Then I added the eggs and spinach to make it a breakfast dish.

How many times did you tweak your recipe?

I pretty much had it right off the get-go. When I made it for 30 people and when everybody loved it, I knew it was good.

How did you react when you found out your daughter had won, too?

We were both crying. I told her, we both won, JoAnne! We like to do things together.

And what if you win and she doesn't or she wins and you don't?

It doesn't matter. I'm just happy we're both going to Las Vegas. We're going to have a good time. Whoever wins, it's all right with us.

What would you do with $1 million?

We are building a new church; I'd give some to that and other charities and family. I would like to update my kitchen after 16 years. They give you GE appliances if you win.

Finalist: JoAnne Tucker, 61, of Tampa

Recipe: Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Breakfast Bars

Category: Quick Rise and Shine Breakfasts

Did your mom get you into the Bake-Off competition?

My mom was a finalist in 2002 and I went to Orlando with her. It was so exciting. I've been entering on and off ever since. I entered 11 recipes this year (three breakfasts and eight appetizers) and this is the first and only recipe of mine they have picked. Funny, the one Pillsbury liked is the same one my mom liked. She knows. The most exciting thing about this is doing it with my mom.

How did you come up with your recipe?

It's pretty simple to make. It's actually one of the first things I thought about making but the last thing I entered. My husband and I both love breakfast bars. He sticks them in his golf bag; I stick them in my gym bag. We like the big and chewy ones. I started out with refrigerated oatmeal raisin cookie dough and added healthy things like dried fruits and nuts and rolled oats and then things to make it taste good, like chocolate chips and coconut and then mocha drizzle.

What would you do with $1 million?

It would just give me some security in life. I'd help family members and get my mom the new kitchen and appliances she wants. The one thing around the house I'd do is get rid of the carpet in the master bedroom. And I'd keep a little for mad money for myself . . . like for a spa visit.

>>Easy

Chicken and Spinach Biscuit Gyros

CATEGORY: Amazing Doable Dinners

1 (9-ounce) box frozen chopped spinach

1 pound ground chicken

2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1 can large refrigerated buttermilk biscuits (8-count)

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

1 large tomato, cut in half, sliced

1 (12-ounce) container tzatziki (see note)

Microwave frozen spinach as directed on box, 3 to 4 minutes to thaw. Squeeze dry with paper towels. In medium bowl, mix spinach, ground chicken, garlic and 1 teaspoon salt. Shape into 8 (6- by 1-inch) logs. (Moisten hands with water to easily shape chicken mixture into logs.) Heat 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Cook logs 5 minutes; turn. Cover and reduce heat to low; cook 10 minutes. Uncover; cook 5 minutes longer or until thermometer inserted in center of logs reads 165 degrees and meat is browned.

Meanwhile, spray 11-inch griddle or 12-inch skillet with cooking spray; heat over medium-low heat until hot. Separate dough into 8 biscuits. Place 2 biscuits on waxed paper; flatten slightly. Cover with waxed paper; roll each biscuit into 8- by 4-inch oval about ½ inch thick. Place on griddle. Cook 2 to 4 minutes per side or until golden brown and no longer doughy. Repeat with remaining biscuits. Cover with foil and keep warm.

Place chicken log in center of a biscuit flatbread. Top with onion slices, tomato slices and sauce. Fold flatbread around filling.

Note: Tzatziki is a yogurt sauce mixed with cucumbers. If you can't find tzatziki, look for Greek yogurt veggie dip containing cucumber, dill and feta.

Source: Bethany Perry of Largo

>>Easy

Sweet Pulled Pork Pizza

CATEGORY: Amazing Doable Dinners

1 can refrigerated thin pizza crust

1 (12-ounce) package fully cooked sauceless hickory smoked pulled pork

½ cup peach-apricot preserves

4 ounces (1 cup) blue cheese, crumbled

8 ounces (2 cups) extra sharp white cheddar cheese, shredded

½ cup finely chopped red onion

¼ cup chopped walnuts

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray 15- by 10-inch pan with sides with cooking spray. Unroll dough in pan; prick several times with fork and bake 8 minutes.

Heat pork in microwave as directed on package; set aside.

Spread preserves over partially baked crust to within ½ inch of edges. Top with pulled pork, blue cheese, cheddar cheese and onion.

Bake 8 minutes; top with walnuts. Bake 5 minutes longer or until crust is golden brown and cheese is melted.

Source: Debbie Reid of Clearwater

>>Easy

Honey Chicken and Corn Rafts

CATEGORY: Amazing Doable Dinners

4 tablespoons light olive oil

1 can refrigerated thin pizza crust

1 ½ pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into ¾-inch cubes

2 tablespoons honey

1 (11.8-ounce) bag frozen honey roasted sweet corn

6 tablespoons ( cup) cooked bacon pieces

1 cup baby arugula

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Brush cookie sheet with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Unroll dough on cookie sheet. Cut dough into 6 squares. Roll up edges of each dough square, forming ¼-inch rim. Pinch corners to resemble rafts. Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown.

Meanwhile, in medium bowl, toss chicken with honey, ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. In 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add chicken, cook 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until no longer pink in center.

Meanwhile, microwave frozen corn as directed on bag. Add corn and bacon to chicken; cook 1 minute longer or until thoroughly heated.

In small bowl, toss arugula with remaining 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, ⅛ teaspoon salt and ⅛ teaspoon pepper. Top rafts with chicken mixture and arugula.

Source: Marie Valdes of Brandon

>>Easy

Chicken Alfredo Brunch Pizza

CATEGORY: Quick Rise and Shine Breakfasts

1 can refrigerated pizza crust

1 (9-ounce) box frozen chopped spinach

6 eggs

½ cup plus 1 tablespoon Alfredo pasta sauce

2 cups finely chopped cooked chicken breast

2 cups (8 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese

1 cup French Fried Onions, crumbled (from a 2.8-ounce can)

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray 15- by 10-inch dark or nonstick pan with cooking spray. Unroll dough and press to edges of pan. Bake 7 to 9 minutes or until light golden brown.

Meanwhile, microwave frozen spinach as directed on box; squeeze dry with paper towels. Set aside. In medium bowl, beat eggs, 1 tablespoon of the Alfredo sauce and 1 tablespoon water with wire whisk until well blended. Heat 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add egg mixture; cook, stirring occasionally, until set but still moist. Set aside.

Spread remaining ½ cup Alfredo sauce over partially baked crust. Top with eggs, chicken, spinach, cheese and onions. Bake 6 to 10 minutes longer or until crust is golden brown.

Source: Anna Zovko of Tampa

>>Easy

Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Breakfast Bars

CATEGORY: Quick Rise and Shine Breakfasts

1 package refrigerated oatmeal raisin cookie dough

1 cup old-fashioned oats

½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1/2 cup flaked coconut

½ cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

½ cup sweetened dried cranberries

¼ cup cappuccino-flavored hazelnut spread

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 9-inch square pan with foil, extending foil 1 inch over 2 opposite sides of pan. Let cookie dough stand at room temperature 10 minutes to soften.

In a large bowl, break up cookie dough. Add oats, walnuts, coconut, chocolate chips and dried cranberries; mix with wooden spoon or knead with hands until well blended. Press mixture firmly in pan.

Bake 20 to 30 minutes or until golden brown; cool 15 minutes. Refrigerate 30 minutes. Remove bars from pan using edges of foil as handles. Cut into 6 rows by 3 rows.

In small microwavable bowl, microwave mocha cappuccino hazelnut spread on high, 30 to 35 seconds or until melted. Pour spread into 1-quart resealable food storage plastic bag. Cut off tiny corner of bag; squeeze bag to drizzle spread over bars.

Source: JoAnne Tucker of Tampa

Five area women head to Pillsbury Bake-Off in Las Vegas 11/04/13 [Last modified: Monday, November 4, 2013 5:40pm]

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