I was a Pillsbury Bake-Off judge

You're on lock-down as you choose a $1 million recipe. You can't even go to the restroom by yourself.

Posted: April 04, 2012

Somewhere between the Thai Chicken Subs and the Indonesian Chicken Turnovers with Spicy Peanut Sauce - as the Falafel Sandwiches with Fire-Roasted Tomato Aioli awaited - it struck me hard:

Something I would taste on this afternoon, in the peaceful hum of a conference room in a hotel in Orlando, was worth a million dollars as the grand-prize winner of the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off.

The next morning, Martha Stewart went on live television to make someone very happy, but it was the 12 judges - food writers, cookbook authors, chefs - who tasted, assesses, debated, and parsed the work of 100 home cooks, all finalists, culled from tens of thousands of entries.

This was serious business. From the moment last year that Pillsbury asked us to judge, we had to avoid references to the contest, the recipes, and the finalists. Once in Orlando, we were instructed to cover our names on our ID badges and publicly utter "Doughboy" to no one. Once the door closed on the judges room, we were on lock-down: No phone calls, no Internet, no cell-phone photos. A Pillsbury lawyer escorted me to the restroom.

As a writer, I've covered two Bake-Off contests - roaming the floor, seeing and smelling the food, chatting up the finalists at their identical work stations, hearing the cheers as they turned in their dishes. But the judging experience was unemotional - like sitting down to Thanksgiving at a quiet restaurant, skipping the fun and drama of the kitchen entirely. And having to tell someone that, sorry, your Asparagus, Artichoke and Red Pepper Pizza was delicious, here's $5,000, but we liked the Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream better - $995,000 better.

The Pillsbury Bake-Off began in 1949 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York as the Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest, marking the company's 80th anniversary. Theodora Smafield won $50,000 (nearly $480,000 in today's dollars) for her No-Knead Water-Rising Twists. It's been held every two years since 1976. Twenty years later, the grand prize rose to $1 million.

To fund this contest, which requires an army of recipe-testers and other support staff, Pillsbury and its parent, General Mills, enlist sponsors such as McCormick, Hershey, Crisco, Jif, and Land O'Lakes. Recipes must use two products from General Mills or the sponsors. (For the 2012 Bake-Off, no recipe could contain duck because the host hotel, the Peabody, has a raft of ducks that waddle through the lobby and live an exalted life in a special fountain.)

General Mills - a $4.2 billion company - does not discuss the business side of the Bake-Off, but it is a marketing bonanza. Winning recipes inspire legions of home cooks to buy Pillsbury products. In the short term, the Bake-Off creates a run on ingredients. Last weekend, the Crescent Recipe Creations refrigerated seamless dough sheet used in the Pumpkin Ravioli were hard to find in supermarkets.

"I'm just a home cook," said Christina Verrelli of Devon, who created the $1 million Pumpkin Ravioli recipe as part of her hobby: entering recipe contests.

Verrelli, a stay-at-home mom, said she had never entered a contest till 2009. Pillsbury named her a finalist in the 2010 Bake-Off for her Savory & Sweet Breakfast Biscuit Sliders. No win. On her flight home from Orlando two years ago, she was devising new recipes. The bug had bit. She was a finalist in the Man-O-Manischewitz Cook-Off and she won the Kennett Square mushroom soup contest. "Who doesn't like to win a $250 gift card?" she asked.

Her win in Orlando is still a blur, she said. She said she later realized that she had worn the same outfit to both Bake-Offs, primarily because money at home is tight. She appeared on the TV morning shows and was feted by Pillsbury at its Minneapolis headquarters.

Verrelli, a teacher before having two daughters, will continue to help her husband, Lou, at Brownies 23 East, the nightclub he purchased last fall. Verrelli caught up by email with Sue Compton of Burlington County, N.J., who won the $1 million prize in the 2010 Bake-Off ( Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups). Compton left her job with a mortgage company and now volunteers hugging babies at a neonatal intensive care unit.

Verrelli said she was writing new recipes on the way to Orlando. Her win, though, "cured the itch for a while," she said.

Pillsbury only will say it gets "tens of thousands of recipes" for the Bake-Off contest. I'll guess 30,000. In the initial weeding, let's say that half are kicked out. The biggest error: Not following the contest rules.

Assuming that you have something decent, you then have, say, a 1 in 150 chance of becoming one of the 100 finalists and winning a great trip. Once at the contest, you will have a 1 in 100 shot of winning. But not really.

Studded among the 100 finalists are what I'd consider a few "safe" dishes - generally baked goods that incorporate all the required ingredients but are otherwise nonspectacular. We judges saw one cake that included refrigerated cookie dough. The result was tasty, as delicious as any of the other cakes. Unless someone had told you about the cookie dough, you would never know it was in there. 

The dozen judges were divided among the four categories - Breakfast & Brunches, Dinner Made Easy, Entertaining Appetizers, and Sweet Treats. Each panel would select a category winner and then - collectively - assess  the four category winners and awarded the grand prize to one. The voting must be unanimous.

Our day began at 8 a.m. entered the judges room as the finalists began cooking. "We shall overeat," one of my fellow judges sang out, in basso profundo.

I joined my other Dinner Made Easy judges, Charlyne Mattox, food editor for Real Simple in New York, and cookbook author David Joachim of Lehigh County, at a series of tables that would hold the 24 dinner-category dishes we'd sample.

Forty-five minutes later, Pillsbury's Jann Atkins carried in the first dish, Thai Chicken Subs, which we later learned was made by Nadine Clark of Quakertown. We loved the color, the texture and the subtle use of Jif peanut butter in the sauce.

Finalists had four hours to create as many as three versions of their dishes. Clearly, Clark - who also was a finalist in 2010 - had sent out her first attempt. I learned later that Verrelli also sent her first batch to the judges.

Twenty four entrants and four hours later, we dinner judges agreed on Chicken Empanada Cones. We loved the idea of making empanadas with pie crust, with its slight sweetness balancing the savory ingredients within, and baking them, to avoid fat calories from frying. They looked appetizing.

My personal standard was: Would I want to serve this at a pot-luck? Which then opens a discussion about postmodern American cookery. The Bake-Off was born just after World War II, as convenience foods were taking hold. Now, in 2012, the food-forward are touting a return to the simple, olden days. So what if this isn't "farm to table," I could argue, going so far as to evoke Sandra Lee and "semi-homemade" as the way that many Americans cook and eat by way of necessity - when they're not settling for takeout.

The Bake-Off has profound influences on the American table, touting ingredients that might only be a rumor in the fly-over states. I remember a reporting trip to western North Carolina in 1998 in which I stayed at a country bed-and-breakfast. I told the owner that I had covered the Bake-Off several months before. She beamed and opened her refrigerator to show a leftover dish of Salsa Couscous Chicken, which had won the $1 million. "The [supermarket] manager had never heard of couscous before," she told me.

This year's entrants did not seem to break that kind of ground.

Sometimes, a top dish's requisite "wow" factor was more subtle. The asparagus pizza in the Appetizers category, by Terri Sherman of Palos Heights, Ill., resembled most pizzas made with Pillsbury dough. Its vegetable quotient was impressive. But Sherman cleverly dusted the bottom with panko, imparting a wonderful crunchiness that resounded through the judges room.

We loved the Breakfast and Brunches judges' pick - Sausage-Pomodoro Brunch Bake by Maria Vasseur of Valencia, Calif. - for its simplicity. Its directions were basically to dump ingredients over Crescent Rolls. No cutting! We thought that cooks would make it over and over - one of the criteria.

Verrelli's Pumpkin Ravioli, in the dessert category, won praise for its innovation (the dough), its trendiness (the salted caramel whipped cream), and the overall taste (even the pumpkin-pie haters on the panel loved it).

With the Chicken Empanada Cones as our dinner category winner, we took deep breaths and sat at a round table to begin nibbling and debating the $1 million dish.

The empanadas just didn't seem to rise to the top and were eliminated. More debate. A vote. More debate. "Is this a million-dollar dish?" was asked more than once. Then came a second vote. More debates. Then a third vote.

The pumpkin ravioli stood alone.

Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.

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