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Tampa Bay Bake-Off finalists give secret to winning $1 million

Cinnamon-Pumpkin Muffins made by Anna Zovko of Tampa.
Published Sep. 1, 2014

Two Tampa Bay area women are once again so close to winning $1 million they can almost taste it — or, at least, smell it in the oven.

Marie Valdes, 55, of Brandon and Anna Zovko, 81, of Tampa are among the 100 finalists who will compete for the grand prize money at the 47th Pillsbury Bake-Off on Nov. 3 in Nashville.

And they are also among the 45 of those 100 who are have been there before. Though it seems as if it would be a long shot to be chosen twice — let alone three times, as Zovko has been — out of the tens of thousands of recipes submitted to every contest, Pillsbury said, nearly half the winning entrants seem to know the secret of getting to the top.

Pillsbury denies giving preferential treatment to repeat entrants. In fact, according to contest manager Shera Balgobin, "The initial judging process is completely blind. All information regarding the identity of the entrants is removed by an outside agency before the recipes are provided to the Bake-Off Kitchens for evaluation."

So, what is the secret?

Being very, very serious about contests, Valdes said.

In fact, she said, 40 of the 45 belong to Cooking Contest Central. It's a website that — for an annual fee of $25 — gives you information on upcoming contests and allows culinary competitors to get together and share information. (The website takes credit for having six $1 million Pillsbury winners as members.)

"You have to think about what Pillsbury wants, what appeals to the general public," Valdes said.

"When you think of Pillsbury, you think of down-home and wholesomeness. Narrow the parameters and get into Pillsbury mode," she said. It has to be affordable; it has to appeal to 90 percent of the population.

She also did a lot of research of past winners and has "every Pillsbury cookbook back to the beginning of time."

Zovko, named a finalist for the third (and final, according to the rules) time, said it's all about following the contest rules to the letter. Instructions specify the recipes must contain no more than seven ingredients — including two from Pillsbury-generated lists — and be entered in one of four categories: Simply Sweet Treats, Savory Snacks & Sides, Weekend Breakfast Wows or Amazing Doable Dinners.

"Sadly," Valdes said, "some people are eliminated because of small errors like not listing the ingredients in the order you use them as the rules say."

The recipes

Valdes, who works for Express Scripts in Tampa, said her recipe for Spinach Dip-Stuffed Garlic Rolls, entered in the Savory Snacks & Sides category, was the one she liked the best of the four she submitted.

She said she did some adjusting to the filling before getting it just right, substituting cream cheese for sour cream and adjusting ingredient amounts.

Zovko 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.

She entered her recipe, Cinnamon-Pumpkin Muffins, in the Weekend Breakfast Wows category.

Last year, Zovko's daughter, JoAnne Tucker of Tampa, was a finalist, too. Tucker didn't advance this year but she's accompanying her mother to Nashville.

"We had such a good time last year," Zovko said, "we're going to do it again. The accommodations are so great and they treat you like royalty."

How would they spend the $1 million if they win?

"I have always wanted to visit Italy," Valdes said, "so I would finally get to take my dream vacation, and new kitchen countertops would be nice too!"

Zovko would give some away — "We are building a new church; I'd give some to that and other charities and family" — and treat herself to some, too. "I would like to update my kitchen," she said.

There is also a repeat finalist south of the bay area. JoAnn Belack of Bradenton, who competed in 2011, will vie for the grand prize with her Savory Snacks & Sides recipe, Pepper Jack-Salsa Flatbread With an Italian Twist, one of the 20 recipes — it was her favorite — she entered. Find her recipe and those of all the other finalists at pillsbury.com.

Contact Patti Ewald at pewald@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8746.

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