True confessions of a Pillsbury judge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HOLLYWOOD - So by now you've probably heard about the 34-year-old woman from Findlay, Ohio, who put some crumbled up granola bars in a pie and won $1 million in the Pillsbury Bake-Off last week.

As the cameras flashed and the tapes rolled, Suzanne Conrad, a former children's librarian who grew up in Havre de Grace, confessed how she came up with the winning recipe: "I couldn't bake an apple pie, so I made this one instead."

Give a million dollars to a cook who can't make an apple pie? What were the judges thinking?

Glad you asked.

I was one of 12 judges who awarded Conrad the million dollars and $10,000 worth of General Electric Co. appliances. We also selected runners-up, awarding thousands of dollars to contestants for lettuce wraps, chocolate cookies dotted with peanut butter, a breakfast casserole, banana-nut bread, goat-cheese-and-tomato appetizers, a layered salad and a rustic chicken club sandwich.

Not many of these dishes would qualify as haute cuisine, but that's beside the point. This contest was meant to give home cooks new recipes using General Mills products.

The 100 finalists in the 41st Pillsbury Bake-Off had already passed huge hurdles before they won their trip to Hollywood.

Their recipes had been selected from tens of thousands of entries (Pillsbury won't divulge the exact number), screened to make sure they had complied with the rules and tested several times in the Pillsbury kitchens.

In the end, 95 women and five men from 33 states won the trip to the bake-off. (No one from Maryland made the cut.)

The route to Hollywood for the judges was a good bit shorter. I got a call one day from the head of Pillsbury public relations asking if I would judge the contest. She wanted food experts from various parts of the country who would provide insights into the kinds of recipes consumers want.

So I was on my way, at The Sun's expense.

'It's going to be tough'

My official duties began on the 20th floor of the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel two days before the contest. I was handed a glass of sparkling wine and served a lunch that included lobster-and-avocado gazpacho and steak with peppercorn reduction sauce.

This is my kind of work, I thought.

After we stuffed ourselves, Pillsbury representatives explained how the contest would work.

One thing you must understand about the most prestigious cook-off in America: It's not a test of cooking or baking abilities. Pillsbury flour does not qualify as an ingredient to be used. There isn't even a baking category in this baking contest.

Instead, the four categories we were to judge were "dinner made easy" "weekends made special" "breakfast favorites" and "fast snacks and appetizers."

"This isn't your grandmother's bakeoff," said Peter Robinson, president of General Mills' Pillsbury division. "This is relevant to cooking today."

I was assigned to judge the dinner-made-easy category, along with Sue Ontiveros, the food editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, and Linda Gassenheimer, a Florida radio and television personality. Dishes in our category had to be assembled in 15 minutes or be ready in 30. I imagined the line of casseroles and pasta dishes waiting for us.

We were to judge the entries on four criteria: taste, appearance, creativity, consumer appeal.

"It's going to be tough. You are going to eat a lot. You are going to have to make some gutsy decisions," Robinson told us.

Pillsbury officials warned us to stay away from the contestants. We weren't allowed to know their names, see their recipes or even take a peek at the ballroom where they would be cooking. During the judging, we would be confined to one room with a "secured" balcony and allowed out only on escorted trips to the restroom.

"We keep it squeaky-clean and fair," Maggie Gilbert, one of the contest organizers, told us.

I felt a little like Cinderella who wasn't invited to the ball. But then, I remembered that the other judges and I held the glass slipper. We would decide which cook's fairy tale would have a happy ending.

Narrowing it down

Shortly after 8 a.m. on the day of the contest the other judges and I were escorted into a windowless room behind the ballroom. On the buffet tables were score sheets and serving utensils, paper plates and plastic "spit" cups. I immediately regretted I hadn't packed any antacid.

By 8:45 a.m., our first entry in the dinner-made-easy category arrived. We picked up our score cards, lifted the lid and peeked inside.

It was crab chowder. I was relieved. Being from Baltimore, I know crabs, I thought. We each took a taste. Not enough crab.

We followed the directions not to talk, and for the most part worked without comment, chewing and scoring. By 10:30 a.m. we had scored more than half of the 26 dishes in our category. I was getting full, and decided to pace myself by taking no more than a single bite of any dish.

The judging was interrupted temporarily when celebrity host Dick Clark strolled into the room, looking as tan and fit as he does on TV. One judge asked for Clark's autograph. Another asked for an interview. But there was little time to dally. Dishes were waiting.

A few minutes before 1 p.m., the last entry arrived. We checked our ballots and then waited for company representatives to tally the scores.

When the Pillsbury folks finished their calculations, they moved the top three dishes in each category to the ends of the tables. The dinner-made-easy group was left with Inside-Out Taco Salad Wraps, Layered Caribbean Chicken Salad and Beale Street Chicken Braid.

We gathered around the three dishes to decide which would get the runner-up prize of $5,000 and which would be the $10,000 winner and go on to compete for the million. I had no doubt that the first two places would go to the chicken salad and the taco wraps.

We liked their fresh flavors and their relatively healthful ingredients. But which would be first? Gassenheimer chose the wraps. I chose the salad. Ontiveros stared at the dishes for a long while, then she selected the wrap.

And the winner is ...

The other teams chose their winners and it was time for the big money. The 12 of us sat around a table staring at four plates of food: the Sun-Dried Tomato and Goat Cheese Appetizers, Ham 'n' Cheese Omelet Bake, the Inside-Out Taco Salad Wraps and the Oats 'N Honey Granola Pie.

"Guys, this is such a big deal," said Kristen Browning-Blas, the food editor from the Denver Post.

"Is any of them really worth a million?" asked Gassenheimer.

"One of them is," I answered.

I sensed from the start that the pie was the winner. All were tasty recipes, but the question came down to creativity and consumer appeal.

Like an episode of Survivor, the casserole and wraps were voted off the island. We were left with the appetizer and the pie.

Browning-Blas had reservations about the pie. "Maybe it's because I come from a pie family I hold it to really high standards," she said.

But the majority favored the gooey dessert with its chocolate chips, walnuts and granola bars poured into a pie crust. A vote was taken; it was 11-1. "I didn't think I'd be the difficult one," Browning-Blas said.

She sliced another piece and plopped a spoonful of vanilla Haagen-Dazs on top. She nodded with satisfaction.

A cheer went up. It was 5:35 p.m. In nine hours, we had selected our million-dollar winner.

"It's a twist on a classic pie that everyone loves," said Susan Westmoreland, food director of Good Housekeeping magazine.

Less than an hour later, a farewell party for contestants, the press - and the judges - began in a nearby nightclub. The winners wouldn't be announced until morning, so the mood was festive. The finalists could dream of fame and fortune for a few more hours.

A lounge band was playing "Mr. Big Stuff" while contestants danced with the Pillsbury Doughboy and look-alikes for Whoopi Goldberg and Brat Pitt beneath the strobe lights.

I found Westmoreland and another judge, Betsy Jordan of Women's World magazine, on the patio noshing on homemade marshmallows and chocolate chip cookies.

"You should try the ribs. They're really good," Jordan told me.

I declined. I had had enough for one day.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
30°