Savory Stirrings At The Bake-off

Posted: March 06, 1996

Picture the food at a Pillsbury Bake-Off and you'll probably envision a cuisine as bland and white as the Doughboy himself.

Through the 40-plus years that the nation's top cooks have gathered around makeshift mini-kitchens to prepare their creations, the top recipes have tended toward the safe, sane and unsurprising. Breads and rolls have been big winners. So have basic casseroles seasoned with salt, pepper, and perhaps a little thyme, and fancy desserts that feature the revolutionary flavors of, say, chocolate and custard.

And while there have been innovations - the bundt pan was popularized through a Bake-Off recipe, the still-popular French Silk Pie was another entrant - such winners as Apple Twists, Buttercream Pound Cake and Crescent Caramel Swirls have been delicious, but hardly revolutionary.

That might be changing - and Bake-Off '96, which offered for the first time ever a $1 million purse for the winner, offers evidence of that change.

Yes, the winner was another glam dessert, Macadamia Fudge Torte, a chocolate cake with a fudgy filling that lolled in a pool of caramel sauce.

But that cake had a twist. Winning baker Kurt Wait of California blended pureed pears into the cake mix for added texture and moisture without added fat - a technique he learned from the magazine Cooking Light, and something that no Betty Crocker wannabe of Bake-Offs gone-by would have dreamed of.

And a few pears in the cake batter were just the beginning. Of the 99 other entries deemed good enough to make it to the Pillsbury finals in Dallas last week, many eschewed the basics and dipped into international waters.

In the 30-minute main-dish category - a new division for the Pillsbury contest - dishes included black beans and jalapenos, chili and cumin, couscous and blue tortilla chips, shredded Chinese cabbage and chutney sauce. Influences ranged all over the globe, from Africa (African Black Bean and Sweet Potato Burritos) to Asia (Warm Beef and Veggie Salad with Sesame Dressing) to the Caribbean (Deanna Smith's Caribbean Jerk Chicken Crescent Sandwiches).

Part of this has to do with changes in the contest rules. In 1995, the company that owns Pillsbury bought up Progresso, Old El Paso and Joan of Arc. This mean that contestants' entries could make use of the traditional Pillsbury staples (flour, pie crust, cake mixes and refrigerated doughs), plus a whole range of new ingredients, from Old El Paso's salsas and spices to Progresso's canned black beans.

Part of it might also have to do with cooks who travel more. But most of it has to do with the way America eats today, now that regional foods and flavors are available not only on the coasts, but in middle America.

``Ethnic foods may be evolving into today's `comfort fare,' '' said Marlene Johnson, Pillsbury's director of product communications. Tex-Mex flavors were especially hot in the contest- even casseroles and pastas got a kick from Southwestern spices.

Dishes such as Hungry Jack Biscuit Taco Casserole, Cowboy Tacos, Fiesta Rice Quesadillas and Mexican Hat Dance Beans 'n Biscuits - hey, we don't make these names up, we just report 'em - all incorporated south-of-the-border flavors, usually courtesy of an envelope of Old El Paso Taco Seasoning Mix. Phoebe Jackson of Harleysville, Pa., did the Tex-Mex thing with her Taco and Black Bean Skillet Dinner. Cowboy Steak n' Veggie soup, which eventually won the meal category, included a jar of Old El Paso salsa, plus a can of Great Northern beans.

If there was a hot garnish, it was cilantro. The forward-thinking Pillsbury-ites are already calling the mild, fragrant green stuff the parsley of the '90s.

And if there was a hot grain, it was couscous. ``Couscous seems to have gone mainstream,'' Johnson said. Why? Well, the Middle Eastern pasta is quick (five minutes from box to platter), nutritious and virtually fat-free until you start loading the oily, tasty stuff on. Black Bean Mole and Coconut Couscous, spiced with chili, cumin, cinnamon and cocoa, was a crowd favorite.

The side dishes and savory snacks were just as international. There were Southeast Asian Vegetables and Noodles, Warm Couscous and Roasted Vegetables, and Caribbean Couscous. Instead of just a standard bread, this year offered Salsa Bread Ole, with a can of salsa, two kinds of shredded cheese, and a cup of mashed potatoes made from Hungry Jack flakes. And instead of just a standard biscuit variation, one enterprising cook offered Hungry Jack Biscuit Mini Focaccia, complete with basil, pine nuts and parmesan.

While the main dishes showed some evolution, traditional cooks will be glad to know that the desserts were, for the most part, as decadent, as glamorous, and, at heart, as familiar as ever. Hot flavors were chocolate paired with fruit - raspberries, in the case of TerryAnn Moore of Oaklyn's Raspberry Truffle Tart; bananas in Paula Blank of Broomall's Quick Chocolate Banana Muffins.

A show-stopping, jaw-dropping pie, lavished with whipped cream, streusel and lime, and combining the flavors of lemon, vanilla and coconut, such as Julie DeMatteo's Caribbean Truffle Pie, can still earn the big bucks (the Clementon woman took home $2,000 as one of the runners-up in the Special Occasion Desserts category). And this stuff still isn't going to do you any favors come swimsuit season.

``Yes, I know it's not healthy,'' sighed Susan Wittan of Maryland, sliding her Banana Praline Spice Layer Cake into the oven. The cake, rich with butter, eggs, whipping cream and sour cream, topped out at 710 calories and 44 grams of fat per slice.

*

Here are two recipes from the competition.

AFRICAN BLACK BEAN AND SWEET POTATO BURRITOS 1 tablespoon oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 garlic clove, minced

3 tablespoons chunky peanut butter

1 can (23 ounces) sweet potatoes in syrup, drained and rinsed

1 can (15 ounces) Green Giant, Joan of Arc or Progresso black beans, drained

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)

6 flour (10-inch) tortillas

3/4 cup Old El Paso Thick 'n Chunky Salsa or Picante

6 tablespoons sour cream

1/4 cup chopped scallions

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat until hot. Add onion and garlic; cook and stir 2 to 3 minutes or until tender.

Stir in peanut butter, sweet potatoes and beans; mash slightly. Add cumin, cinnamon and ground red pepper; mix well. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 2 to 3 minutes or until thoroughly heated, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, heat tortillas according to package directions. To serve, spoon mixture across center third of each tortilla. Top each with 2 tablespoons salsa, 1 tablespoon sour cream, 2 teaspoons scallions and 1 teaspoon cilantro; spread to cover sweet potato mixture. Fold sides of each tortilla 1 inch over filling. Fold bottom 1/3 of tortilla over filling; roll again to enclose filling. Place seam side down on serving platter. Makes six servings.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 385; protein, 12 grams; carbohydrates, 58 grams; fat, 13 grams; cholesterol, 6.4 milligrams; sodium, 331.5 milligrams.

BLACK BEAN MOLE AND COCONUT COUSCOUS 1 cup uncooked couscous

1/2 cup coconut, toasted (see note)

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon olive oil or oil

2 teaspoons purchased minced garlic

2 cans (15 ounces each) Green Giant, Joan of Arc or Progresso black beans, drained and rinsed

1 jar (16 ounces) Old El Paso Mild Homestyle Salsa

1 1/2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa

1 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon cumin

3 ounces shredded Colby-Monterey Jack blend cheese ( 3/4 cup)

1/4 to 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions

1 medium tomato, seeded and chopped

Cook couscous as directed on package. Stir in toasted coconut and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Cover to keep warm.

Make a mole mixture by heating oil in medium saucepan over medium heat until hot. Add garlic; cook and stir 1 minute. Stir in beans, salsa, cocoa, chili powder, cumin and remaining 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. Reduce heat to low; simmer 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated, stirring occasionally.

To serve, fluff couscous with fork; spoon over serving platter. Spoon mole mixture over couscous. Top with cheese, sour cream, scallions and tomato. Makes 6 servings (about 1 1/2 cups each).

Note: To toast coconut, place in small skillet; cook and stir over low heat for 6 to 8 minutes or until light golden brown.

Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 394; protein, 18 grams; carbohydrates, 60 grams; fat, 9.5 grams; cholesterol, 13 milligrams; sodium, 898 milligrams.

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