NORTH POTOMAC -- Susan Wittan's lemon-ginger cake had the appearance of a winner: Curvaceously caloric, a real heart-stopper. But inside, the layer cake was riddled with air bubbles. When you cut into it, "it looked like Swiss cheese," says Susan friend, Melissa Daston.
That's when the Pillsbury posse swung into action.
"We all put our heads together," Susan says. "This one read Rose Beranbaum's 'Cake Bible,' that one looked into 'Was it the sour cream? Or the baking soda?'
"How we fixed that cake is the perfect example of how we work together as a team."
Ms. Wittan is talking about a group of just-over-40 friends who join forces every two years to compete in the national Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. So far, the group -- which is anchored by two sets of sisters -- has fielded 20 finalists in the past 13 competitions. Though they've yet to win any prize money, five members of the team will be among the 100 finalists at today's Pillsbury Bake-Off in Dallas.
The week before the trip, several Bake-Off veterans are gathered in Joan Wittan's kitchen in the suburbs of Washington, talking, talking, talking. Everyone has something to say and they're all used to saying it at the same time. The conversation's as rich and multilayered as an old-fashioned ribbon cake.
These people are either related to one another or might as well be. They have been developing recipes together since the days of avocado-colored appliances. They have tasted the best -- and the worst -- that a recipe using Pillsbury frosting has to offer. They've even outlasted Bake-Off emcee Bob Barker and the Healthy Food Category.
But this year's competition will be a particularly big deal. First, the Pillsbury folks have upped the ante considerably: The big winner brings home $1 million. Even more important, the 1996 contest marks the end of an era for the Bake-Off gang.
Sandy Daston, 43, who founded the Bake-Off dynasty and has traveled "from youth to middle age" with the Dough Boy, is competing for the last time. Having made the finals three times, the Brookeville resident will be ineligible to compete again. So will her sister, 41-year-old Melissa Daston of Laurel.
Sandy's swan song is a "special occasion dessert." Melissa is entering a "30-minute main dish." (They aren't allowed to discuss their entries before the contest.)
Susan Wittan, 40, who lives in Rockville, will be a finalist for the second time. She's also competing in "special occasion desserts."
Her husband, 41-year-old Ernie Crow, is in the finals for the first time. He plans to dazzle judges with an entry in "quick treats and snacks," but admits he faces stiff competition from friend Elizabeth Shannon, 40, of Rockville, also a first-timer.
It all began with Sandy Daston. On a whim, she decided to enter three recipes in the 1974 bake-off when she was home on a break from her studies at College Park. That year, the 21-year-old student traveled to her first Bake-Off on the classic good taste of "Simply Delicious Jam Bars."
She didn't win, place or show. But, over the next few years, she found a cooking buddy in Joan Wittan, another student at the University of Maryland. Eventually, the two women pulled their parents, siblings and spouses into testing and developing recipes.
Over the years, a few have gained weight and almost everyone has become a finalist.
According to excerpts from "A Brief History of the Pillsbury Bake-off" by Joan Wittan and Sandy Daston:
1976: "The team begins developing many mediocre recipes featuring crescent rolls and ground beef. They are not successful at gaining entry to the Bakeoff but laugh so much it hurts."
1978: "Needing input from friends and family, Sandy, Joan and Mark [Joan's husband] host the first mini-bakeoff. Accommodating friends guzzle Pepto Bismol and taste test over 40 potential entries including the infamous Albino Plops."
1988: "History is made. Three members of the team make it to the finals. Sandy's sister Melissa is chosen for Phyllo Mushroom Bundles, Joan wins with Raspberry Almond Torte and Mark reigns as Cranberry King with Cranberry-filled Layer Cake."
"This is more of a social outlet as opposed to just baking," Sandy explains. "That's what makes it fun."
As the team members forage through life, however, the big contest is never far from their thoughts. Basic research includes visiting trendy restaurants, subscribing to new food mags and ,, devouring cookbooks, especially those by Sheila Lukins and/or Julee Rosso.
"I love 'The Silver Palate' and 'The New Basics,' " says Sandy.
"You love 'New Basics'?" asks Susan.
"I love 'New Basics.' "
"I don't love 'New Basics.' "
"You don't love 'New Basics,' I do," says Sandy.
"But I love 'Silver Palate,' " Susan points out.
In this close-knit group, you can't get much closer than the Wittan sisters. Joan and Susan -- born exactly one year and one day apart -- shared a room growing up in Baltimore, went to the same college and now live four miles apart.
They run marathons together and often cook meals for one another's families. Last May, they traveled to Russia to adopt their daughters: Maddie, 3, and Anna, 2.
The Bake-Off has encouraged a good-natured rivalry.
"I learn to do something, I teach Susan, she's better than me," says Joan. "I taught her to play racquetball and she became state-ranked champ. I taught her to run and she beats me in every race. I taught her to get in the bake-off, and she's going to win the million dollar grand prize!'"
Susan takes issue with some of this. Take, for instance, the year the Wittan sisters decided to see who could make the best Key lime dessert.
"I came up with Key Lime Coconut Cake which I entered into our mini-bakeoff. It got rave reviews," she says. "And Joanie entered a Key Lime Creme Torte. So what got into the Pillsbury Bake-Off? Key Lime Creme Torte. What did not get in? Key Lime Coconut Cake.
"What I'm saying is two things: One, that we have a friendly competition. But second, and more important, none of our personal favorites ever get in the Bake-Off!"
Begun in 1949, the Pillsbury Bake-Off has become a culinary phenomenon with tens of thousands of contestants sending in original recipes using a Pillsbury product.
In addition to the grand prize, there are four $10,000 prizes. Another dozen finalists receive $2,000 each. All awards are announced at the awards ceremony which is emceed by Alex Trebek and broadcast live at 11 a.m. tomorrow on CBS stations.
On Bake-Off day, the finalists enter a ballroom to compete next to one another in 100 mini-kitchens equipped with the appliances and ingredients they need to prepare their recipes.
"My attitude about this competition is 'No expectations,' " says Susan. "We've been in so many times and we've never won any money. If we win, great. If not, it's a good time."
The competition pays all expenses for its 100 finalists. It flies them round-trip to places like San Diego and Orlando. It also gives them three nights in a luxury hotel, feeds them handsomely and entertains them at dude ranches and Sea Worlds. Each contestant can also bring immediate family members or one guest at minimal cost, creating possibilities for weird-but-cheap vacations.
"This became a thing for us because it was fun to do," explains Joan, who is going along as a guest.
"I have a different attitude than the rest of them," says Susan's husband, Ernie. "They have no expectations. I feel that I'm in it to win it!"
Although they are not allowed to discuss their current recipes, they eagerly debate the merits of past Bake-Off entries such as Spicy White Pizza and Zesty Ginger Bars.
"We thought lemon and ginger was a good combo last time," Joan notes.
Even more memorable, however, are the ingredients of the finalists' lives.
In addition to managing a household with a 9-year-old son, teaching her newly adopted Russian daughter how to speak English and running in marathons, Susan Wittan serves on various community committees.
Sandy Daston, mother to a 5-year-old who doesn't like sweets, is a senior health analyst with a research company.
Her sister Melissa manages training for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Defense Department and also teaches business and information systems at the University of Maryland.
Elizabeth Shannon looks after her three children and teaches part-time at an elementary school.
Ernie Crow is a partner in a television production and post-production company.
That's not all, of course.
"I'm into hiking," says Melissa. "Volksmarching. Ten and 20-k hikes on a regular basis all over Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts, Maine, Germany, France, Belgium. Getting badges, medals, commemorative plaques, all that stuff."
"I climb Mount Everest," says a poker-faced Elizabeth Shannon.
"I'm the most boring person in the world," Sandy says.
"I think Sandy does have hobbies," Joan insists.
"Not anymore," says Sandy.
"Don't you think our software program is a hobby?"
Joan, Susan, Sandy and Sandy's husband, George Shepherd, are deep into another collaboration: They are putting the finishing touches on what they believe will be the world's best baby-naming software program.
So far, this team has compiled a data base of more than 8,000 names and created many intriguing database fields. They are also eager to link brains on a cooking software program -- that is, once the Bake-off is over.
"I don't think any of us are the Susie Homemaker types," says Susan. "I really don't."