What recipe is worth a million dollars?
Two Utah contestants, Cameron Bailey and Elizabeth DeHart, are competing in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. I'll be there in Orlando on March 27 when the winner is announced on the Martha Stewart Show. And I'll be walking the contest floor as I have for the past seven Bake-offs. I'll try to guess which of the 100 finalist recipes will win the million-dollar grand prize.I have to admit, I've never been able to predict the winning recipe. I've correctly guessed some of the category winners. But when the grand prize is announced, most of the food writers are looking at each other with a "Who knew?" expression.
Suzanne Conrad of Findlay, Ohio crushed up granola bars and mixed them with walnuts and chocolate chips to make a winning Oats 'n Honey Pie for the 2004 contest.
"It's an obscene amount of money for a really simple recipe," Conrad told me in a telephone interview a few years ago. "I think it helped that it was simple, old-fashioned and has a different flavor. The granola bars are the only unique thing about the recipe."
The recipe has to taste good, but creative use of sponsor products also helps. Since General Mills had recently bought Pillsbury, Nature Valley granola bars were one of the sponsor products, as was Fisher nuts, Hershey's chocolate chips and Land O'Lakes butter and eggs.
I remember 2004 well, because Dick Clark hosted the Bake-off in Hollywood. It was pretty exciting to see the "American Bandstand" icon and marvel at how youthful he looked. Sadly, he suffered a stroke later that year.
In 2006, Anna Ginsberg of Austin, Texas, won for her Baked Chicken and Spinach Stuffing. She made stuffing from Pillsbury Dunkables frozen waffle sticks and used the accompanying syrup to glaze the chicken. It was an innovative use of a sponsor product, although I wondered how many people would actually go out and buy Dunkables in order to make a chicken dinner.
"There are people who want to trash me for using waffle sticks," Ginsberg told me in a telephone interview. "But if I were a songwriter, I wouldn't expect everyone to like every song."
The judges — mainly food writers, supermarket consumer folks and food personalities — take their duties very seriously. But taste buds are subjective. Sometimes they have passed over recipes that ended up becoming classics with the public.
For instance, Peanut Blossoms — peanut butter cookies topped with a Hershey's Kiss — didn't win anything when they were entered in the 1957 Bake-off. But the people fell in love with them, and they are still popular in kitchens across America. In 1966, the Tunnel of Fudge Cake took second place to Golden Gate Snack Bread, which was flavored with cheese spread and onion soup mix. But the cake with the molten fudgy center captured America's interest, taking the bundt pan from obscurity to booming sales almost overnight.
In its early years, the Bake-Off was considered the World Series of homemakers who spent hours making layered tortes and flaky pies from scratch. When Pillsbury raised the stakes to a whopping $1 million in 1996, Kurt Wait of Redwood City, Calif. won with Macadamia Fudge Torte, a moist chocolate cake with pockets of rich fudge and a macadamia nut streusel topping.
Then in 1998, the contest changed to a "Quick & Easy" format. Flour — upon which the Pillsbury empire was built — was no longer a required ingredient. Instead, cooks had to use at least one ingredient from a list of company products such as Old El Paso Salsa, Green Giant vegetables and biscuit dough. The point was to give the public recipes that were less complex so people would actually make them, and of course, to showcase the growing stable of convenience products.
That year, Ellie Mathews of Seattle won with Salsa Couscous Chicken, with salsa providing a flavorful shortcut to the North African-style dish. It took just 30 minutes to make.
That was my first Bake-off. I was in awe when I saw the Orlando contest floor buzzing with 100 finalists mixing, chopping and cooking as tantalizing aromas mingled in the air. I sat next to one of the judges at the press conference the next day, and was told in hushed tones that the judges had been deadlocked between Mathews' Salsa Couscous Chicken and Edwina Gadsby's Brownie Souffle Cake. The chicken narrowly edged out the cake, and Gadsby ended up with a $10,000 runner-up prize.
During the 2000 Bake-Off, Bobbie Sonefeld of South Carolina won for a Cream Cheese Brownie Pie — layers of brownie and cream cheese in a pie crust, topped with pecans and hot fudge. I remember it because I had suffered a skiing accident a few weeks before the contest, and I hobbled around the Bake-off floor on crutches.
In 2002, Nashville accountant Denise Yennie won with Chicken Florentine Panini. She baked a refrigerated pizza crust and filled it with chicken breasts, frozen spinach, caramelized onions and provolone cheese. The morning after the 2002 Winter Games concluded in Salt Lake City, I stood in long lines at the airport to catch my flight to Orlando for the Bake-off. I had never seen so many people wearing those Roots berets.
Carolyn Gurtz of Gaithersburg, Md. won in 2008 for Double-Delight Peanut Butter Cookies, which had a pocket of creamy filling inside. When I got home from the Bake-off, I wanted to make the cookies but couldn't find Pillsbury's peanut butter cookie dough. I use my from-scratch dough recipe and added the peanut butter filling for a similar version.
In 2010, Sue Compton's Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups took the top prize. It happened that this was the last entry I tasted as I left the Bake-off floor. I loved the pretty raspberry garnish, and they had a nice mouth-feel of cold, creamy and crunch. But I certainly didn't predict that it was THE recipe to win the big bucks.
A lot of people criticize the Bake-Off because it uses convenience products. It's not necessarily about baking or cooking skills, but innovative use of those sponsor products.
To me, the cachet of the Bake-Off is that an "everyday" home cook can use a little creativity and walk away with a million dollars.
Whether from scratch or not, that's still the stuff American dreams are made of.