It is a good cookie. But is it worth a million bucks?
Nope. It is too sweet.
That is what I decided after tasting a version of the peanut-butter cookie that Carolyn Gurtz, a 59-year-old Gaithersburg homemaker, baked to win the 43rd Pillsbury Bake-Off and $1 million in prize money yesterday in Dallas.
Her winning recipe for Double Delight Peanut Butter Cookies takes a package of refrigerated Pillsbury dough and hypes it up. Gurtz adds extra nuts, peanut butter, two types of sugar and some cinnamon.
Her recipe uses "eligible" products that are made - you guessed it - by Pillsbury and other contest sponsors. That is how the bake-off and most sponsored food contests work. The idea is that a cook in Baltimore, Snow Hill or San Francisco could find the ingredients in the winning recipe in a local grocery store. And of course, when replicating these recipes, cooks in kitchens across America use "product."
For instance, Jif Peanut Butter gives an extra $5,000 to the cook with the best recipe using Jif. Gurtz won that, too.
In a brief telephone interview from Dallas, Gurtz, who was on her way to New York to appear on NBC's Today show, said she bakes at least once a week. She enters many cooking contests, including those at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, where, she said, her pecan pie won best in show a few years ago.
She baked about two or three versions of this peanut-butter cookie before settling on what turned out to be the winning recipe. She said she knew she was onto something with these cookies when her 33-year-old son, Michael, smelled them baking and ran up the stairs of their home.
A graduate of the University of Maryland, where she majored in elementary education, Gurtz teaches Sunday school at Covenant United Methodist Church in Montgomery Village. She said her husband, Dennis, a financial planner, already has ideas for how to invest the prize money. But Gurtz has a few thoughts on the matter as well.
"I want to remodel my kitchen," she said.
Never needing much of an excuse to eat cookies for lunch, I joined a handful of tasters at The Sun yesterday as we sampled a version of the winning recipe and compared it to three local products. A cookie from a Whole Foods Market bakery won.
The bake-off winners were baked on short notice by Julie Rothman, a food stylist who tests recipes for the newspaper. Rothman reported the cookies, which require rolling pieces of refrigerated dough paired with sugared balls of peanut butter over the chopped nuts, took about an hour to make.
Rothman couldn't find the Fisher dry-roasted nuts that the official recipe called for, so she substituted unsalted peanuts.
I found the million-dollar cookies flavorful but too flawed. Most peanut-butter cookies have tension between the sweetness of the dough and the salt of the peanuts. In this case, sweetness ruled. After eating one cookie, I longed for a glass of milk. Perhaps using nuts with more salt would have tempered the sugar.
But I have my opinion, and Gurtz has a million dollars.
Beyond the money, baking a prize-winning cookie has its benefits, Gurtz said. When she appears on the Today show tomorrow morning, she will carry a plate of the prize-winners. But Gurtz gleefully said she will not have to bake them. Instead, an assistant will do the dirty work.
For the next few days, Maryland's million-dollar-cookie maker will, she said, be "walking on the red carpet."
BATTLE OF THE COOKIES
We pitted a version of Carolyn Gurtz's winning Double Delight Peanut Butter Cookies against peanut butter cookies from several local bakeries in a blind taste test. The tasters were food editor Kate Shatzkin, former food editor and one-time Pillsbury Bake-Off judge Liz Atwood, restaurant critic Elizabeth Large and food columnist Rob Kasper.
Double Delight Peanut Butter Cookies
verdict --Too sweet for most.
"A cross between a peanut butter cookie and a snickerdoodle," Large said. "Not enough peanut-butter flavor," Shatzkin said. "So sweet my teeth ached," Kasper said.
Atwood, however, praised the unique cinnamon flavor and complexity. "The cinnamon taste subsides, and the peanut flavor comes on strong," she said. "I like how one flavor yields to the next."
Whole Foods Market 1330 Smith Ave., Mount Washington
Price --$5.49 for six
verdict --The overall favorite. Tasters praised its texture and strong peanut flavor. There were large peanut chunks throughout the soft cookie.
Berger's Bakery Lexington Market, 400 W. Lexington St.
Price --$2 for six
verdict --A split decision. Those who liked them found these cookies appealingly small and soft; others thought they were too sweet.
Atwater's Belvedere Square, 529 E. Belvedere Ave.
Price --$3.50 for six
verdict --These were dry and crisp, and didn't have enough peanut flavor.