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Million-dollar question: What would you do if you won the Pillsbury Bake-Off?

Published: Wednesday, April 9 2008 1:05 a.m. MDT

37th Bake-Off, Kurt Wait, Redwood City, Calif.

In 1996, the Pillsbury Co. ramped up the excitement level of its 47-year-old Bake-Off by awarding $1 million to the grand-prize winner.

A million-dollar recipe is bound to grab attention, even if it's as simple as making a pie with granola bars or simmering chicken thighs in salsa.

In 1998, the winning Salsa Couscous Chicken sparked a run on Old El Paso salsa. Winner Ellie Mathews couldn't find any in her hometown of Seattle to demonstrate her recipe on local TV. The Pillsbury Co. had to ship her out a case.

Some recipes become classics, appearing in cookbooks and potlucks across America and on the Internet at Pillsbury.com. But what happened to their creators after the flurry of TV appearances and news stories died down?

The Deseret Morning News tracked down four past winners and asked how the Bake-Off changed their lives.

All four sounded surprisingly grounded. There were no over-the-top shopping sprees, yachts or wild bouts of gambling, possibly due to the way the prize is parceled out. The $1 million annuity is paid in $50,000-a-year installments. The winner can opt to take the cost of the annuity in a lump sum, which Ellie Mathews did. After her initial $50,000 check, she received a lump sum of $581,497 the following year. And of course, there are taxes.

Even so, for one recipe, it adds up to a huge chunk of change.

KURT WAIT

Kurt Wait, of Redwood City, Calif., was the first million-dollar winner (in 1996) and the only male grand-prize winner, with his Macadamia Fudge Torte.

"It was one of the best days of my life," recalled the financial analyst in a telephone interview. "Anybody has to be surprised, because you only have one-in-a-hundred chance. Getting in the finals is the toughest part, because there are thousands of entries."

Wait said he still does a lot of cooking, adding, "I just cooked dinner tonight. But I don't do the gourmet stuff. And that's what the Bake-Off is doing, they're looking for what America really cooks. That makes a lot of sense."

Wait has dabbled in contests before and after the big win. In 1994, he won the grand prize in Sutter Home's Build a Better Burger contest, and in 2007 he won a $5,000 prize in the National Beef Cook-Off.

"I still compete a little bit, but I'm pretty busy with work," he said.

No, he didn't quit his day job. "A million dollars sounds like a lot, and it certainly made my life better, but it doesn't go far these days," he said. "I put some away for my boy's college and some for retirement and some on the house. I didn't overdo."

He often gets asked about his big win, especially when he's competing in other contests. "I don't make a big deal out of it. I don't think the other contestants are intimidated, but they ask a lot of questions," he said.

His advice: "I studied their books. Every year they come out with all the Bake-Off recipes. I looked at what had won in the past and used it as a guide for the future."

Also, "Write your recipe in logical order. A lot of recipes get thrown out because people don't follow the rules."

Pillsbury (now part of General Mills) pays for the contestant's trip and hotel stay and provides meals and entertainment. "If you get the chance to go, do it. You'll have a great time, even if you don't win."

Wait was the last winner before the contest changed to a quick-and-easy format that emphasize more convenience products. Also, the advent of online submissions has likely increased the number of entries, he noted.