Now he knows what to expect. He's been practicing. Refining his methods. Reminding himself to relax. "I've had friends and family come over and chat me up while I make the recipe, so I can cook while distracted."
Here's why a dress rehearsal actually isn't that ridiculous: The winner takes home $1 million and $10,000 worth of GE kitchen appliances.
And for Youmans, at least, practice makes perfect. In recent years, he's become quite a contest-scene fixture. He's won a $100,000 kitchen makeover from Better Homes and Gardens, and a trip to Italy from Mezzetta specialty foods for his Santorini Sunset pizza. Youmans also took the prize at an amateur cooking contest hosted by Food & Wine and LG Electronics. He got a trip to Seoul, South Korea, and since he already had a brand-new kitchen, LG donated 11 industrial refrigerators, the equivalent of his winnings, to a local food bank.
"I try to make things that stand out and that resonate with both the judges and consumers," says the humble contest vet.
Pillsbury has been holding the Bake-Off since 1949. It even owns the registered trademark to the words Bake-Off. It's become a biennial event, in which thousands of recipes are submitted (all made with Pillsbury ingredients), then narrowed down to 100. The lucky 100 - nine of whom are from the region - head down to Florida to compete. (Their airfare, hotel, meals, a GE microwave, and some spending cash are included.) On the day of the competition, they have four hours to re-create their edible masterpieces a few times - the batch for the judges is the most important.
They compete in four categories: breakfast and brunches, entertaining appetizers, dinner made easy, and sweet treats. The overall winner walks away with the $1 million, but there are also winners of each category, who get $5,000 in cash and $3,000 worth of GE appliances.
There are plenty of other opportunities to bring home the bacon. Sponsors such as Jif, Crisco, and Eagle Brand also give out individual prizes.
Last time, Youmans knew his Asian spice cashew chicken piadinis weren't his best effort. "As I was leaving, a loser, my mind was already turning out ideas for the next contest," he says. "One thing that stood out about the trip to Florida was the orange groves." And like that, inspiration hit. This year, he's feeling good about his Orange Cream Macadamia Torte, especially because so many people who enter dessert recipes use peanut butter - a too-common ingredient, to his mind.
This is not Susan Hubickey's first time at the rodeo, either. The administrative assistant from West Chester also made the final 100 at the 44th contest, but went outside of what she knows best, sweets. This year she made it in for her Chocolate-Dipped Peanut Butter Empanadas, which got the thumbs-up from her husband and his friends. "They went crazy over the empanadas," says Hubickey. "They really boost my ego a lot."
Alma de Cuba is one of her favorite restaurants, and Latin cuisine (as well as her love for all things peanut butter) inspired the dish.
She's excited, and nervous. "I've started having bad dreams about standing around a place that seems like the contest floor," says Hubickey. "Like the high school test dream. Fortunately, I was a good student."
The dessert category is fierce. Five of the nine locals are competing in that division. Christina Verrelli of Devon is entering a rather sophisticated-sounding Pumpkin Ravioli With Salted Caramel Whipped Cream - according to press materials, salted caramel is a big trend this year.
On the savory side, Nadine Clark of Quakertown has a Thai Chicken Sub, a sandwich she makes with canned Pillsbury crusty French loaf dough, fresh cilantro, and English cucumbers. It's a dish she serves her family regularly, not something she created especially for the contest. It's a nod to her love of Thai food.
After the Monday cook-off, the kitchen warriors will have an overnight wait before contest host Martha Stewart announces the winner, live on her TV show Tuesday morning (on Hallmark).
The waiting, says Youmans, is hard, but something he's gotten used to. For this upbeat expert, the competition has extra appeal. "There's such an incredible energy on the contest floor," says Youmans. "I have been such a lucky guy."
See the cooks and their dishes in the accompanying photo gallery.
Thai Chicken Subs
Makes 6 servings
2 cans Pillsbury refrigerated crusty French loaf
1 cup coleslaw mix
1 small red onion (halved lengthwise), cut into wedges (1 cup)
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1/8-inch strips (1 cup)
1/2 medium English cucumber, cut into 4-inch pieces (1 cup)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
3/4 cup soy-teriyaki blend or 3/4 cup stir-fry sauce plus 2 teaspoons sesame seed
3/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons hot chili sauce
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 tablespoon Crisco vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds uncooked chicken breast tenders (not breaded)
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees Spray large cookie sheet with Crisco cooking spray. Place loaves, seam side down, on cookie sheet, about 3 inches apart. Using sharp knife, cut 5 diagonal 1/2-inch-deep slashes on top of dough. Bake 26 to 30 minutes or until golden brown.
2. Meanwhile, in medium bowl, combine coleslaw mix, onion, bell pepper, cucumber, and cilantro. Combine 1/2 cup of the soy-teriyaki blend, 1/2 cup of the rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon of the brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon of the chili sauce. Beat well with wire whisk. Pour over vegetable mixture; stir to combine. Set aside, stirring occasionally.
3. In 1-quart saucepan, combine peanut butter, remaining 1/4 cup soy-teriyaki blend, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon chili sauce. Cook over medium heat 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Set aside.
4. In 12-inch skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken tenders; cook 7 to 10 minutes, turning once, until chicken is no longer pink in center. Add peanut sauce; stir to coat. Remove from heat.
5. Cut each loaf crosswise into thirds. Cut each piece of bread in half lengthwise down center to within 1/2 inch of bottom. To make each sub, spoon 1/6 of chicken mixture into each piece of bread. With slotted spoon, top each with about 1/2 cup vegetable mixture. Serve any remaining sauce as a dipping sauce.
- Nadine Clark
Per serving: 520 calories, 35 grams protein, 67 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 50 milligrams cholesterol, 1,860 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Chocolate-Dipped Peanut Butter Empanadas
Makes 24 empanadas
1 roll Pillsbury refrigerated peanut butter cookie dough
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crusts (from 2 boxes), softened as directed on box
1 egg, beaten
1 bag (10 ounces) Reese's peanut butter baking chips
4 tablespoons Crisco vegetable shortening
1 bag (12 ounces) Hershey's semisweet chocolate baking chips
1 teaspoon powdered sugar
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Let 1/2 roll of cookie dough stand at room temperature 10 minutes to soften. (Refrigerate 1/2 roll cookie dough for another use.) In large bowl, break up cookie dough. Add cream cheese; beat on medium speed with electric mixer until smooth. Set aside.
2. Unroll 1 pie crust; roll into 12-inch round. Using 4-inch round cookie cutter, cut into 8 rounds, rerolling dough as necessary. Repeat with second and third crusts.
Spoon scant 1 tablespoon cookie dough mixture on half of each round; flatten slightly. Bring dough over filling; press edges with fork to seal. Cut small slit on top of each empanada; place on ungreased cookie sheets. Brush tops with beaten egg.
3. Bake 12 to 16 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 2 minutes. Remove from cookie sheets to cooling racks. Cool completely, about 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, in small microwavable bowl, microwave peanut butter chips and 2 tablespoons of the shortening on high 1 minute to 1 minute 30 seconds, stirring every 30 seconds, until smooth. Dip 1 corner of each empanada into melted chips on an angle, creating a diagonal line. Place on waxed paper; let stand 10 minutes or until coating is set.
5. Meanwhile, in small microwavable bowl, microwave chocolate chips and remaining 2 tablespoons shortening on high 1 to 2 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds, until smooth. Holding undipped corner, dip the peanut butter-coated empanadas into melted chocolate on opposite angle so that some peanut butter coating is still visible. Refrigerate 10 minutes or until chocolate is set. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Store covered in refrigerator.
- Susan Hubickey
Per serving: 330 calories, 4 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 230 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Orange Cream Macadamia Torte
Makes 16 servings
For the torte:
1 roll Pillsbury refrigerated sugar cookie dough
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
11/4 cups flaked coconut, toasted (See note)
11/4 cups macadamia nuts, toasted (See note)
3 tablespoons grated orange peel
2 tablespoons grated lemon peel
1 can (14 ounce) condensed milk
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons butter
For the icing:
1 cup Hershey's white baking chips
1 tablespoon Crisco vegetable shortening
Garnish, if desired:
1 large orange, cut into 16 thin slices
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Let cookie dough stand at room temperature 10 minutes to soften. In large bowl, break up cookie dough. Add 1/4 of the cream cheese and vanilla; beat with electric mixer on medium speed until well blended. Add 1 cup of the coconut, 3/4 cup of the nuts, 1 tablespoon of the orange peel, and 1 tablespoon of the lemon peel; beat until well blended. Spread evenly in bottom and up side of ungreased 10-inch nonstick tart pan with removable bottom.
2. Bake 18 to 23 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool completely, about 1 hour.
3. Meanwhile, in 2-quart heavy saucepan, add condensed milk, orange juice, butter, remaining cream cheese, orange peel, and lemon peel. Cook over low heat, 20 to 25 minutes, stirring constantly with wire whisk, until mixture is bubbly and thickened. Remove from heat; spread over cooled crust. Refrigerate until cooled, about 1 hour.
4. In small microwavable bowl, combine icing ingredients, microwave on high 30 to 40 seconds, stirring every 10 seconds, until smooth. Drizzle over cooled torte to cover. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup coconut and 1/2 cup nuts, lightly pressing into icing. To serve, cut into 16 wedges; top each with an orange slice. Store loosely covered in refrigerator.
Note: To toast coconut, spread in shallow pan. Bake at 350 degrees 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until golden brown. Remove from pan.
Note: Chop larger macadamia nuts. To toast nuts, spread in shallow pan. Bake at 350 degrees 6 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until light brown. Remove from pan.
- Brett Youmans
Per serving: 450 calories, 5 grams protein, 46 grams carbohydrates, 37 grams sugar, 27 grams fat, 30 milligrams cholesterol, 250 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Contact Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @ashleyprimis.