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Valerie Phillips: Is there a secret to the winning Bake-Off recipe?

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 21 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

Salsa Couscous Chicken was the the 1998 million-dollar winner at the Phillsbury Bake-Off Contest. (Provided by Phillsbury Bake-Off Contest)

Provided by Phillsbury Bake-off

What recipe is worth a million dollars? Two Utah contestants, Cameron Bailey and Elizabeth DeHart, are gearing up to compete in the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest, with the winner announced March 27 on the "Martha Stewart Show."

It's interesting to look back at the recipes that won the million-dollar grand prize over the years. I have to admit, during the seven Bake-Offs I've covered, I've never been able to predict the winning recipe, but I've correctly guessed some of the category winners.

But when the grand prize is announced, most of the food writers are looking at each other with a "Who knew?" expression.

Suzanne Conrad of Findlay, Ohio, crushed up granola bars and mixed them with walnuts and chocolate chips to make a winning Oats 'n Honey Pie for the 2004 contest.

"It's an obscene amount of money for a really simple recipe," Conrad admitted during a telephone interview a few years ago. "I think it helped that it was simple, old-fashioned and has a different flavor. The granola bars are the only unique thing about the recipe."

Since General Mills had recently bought Pillsbury, Nature Valley granola bars were one of the sponsor products, as was Fisher nuts, Hershey's chocolate chips and Land O'Lakes butter and eggs.

The recipe has to taste good, but creative use of sponsor products also helps.

In 2006, Anna Ginsberg of Austin, Texas, won for her Baked Chicken and Spinach Stuffing. She made stuffing from Pillsbury Dunkables frozen waffle sticks and used the accompanying syrup to glaze the chicken.

"There are people who want to trash me for using waffle sticks," Ginsberg told me in a telephone interview. "But if I were a songwriter, I wouldn't expect everyone to like every song."

The judges — mainly food writers, supermarket consumer folks and food personalities — take their duties very seriously. But sometimes their choices don't always resonate with the public.

For instance, Peanut Blossoms — peanut butter cookies topped with a Hershey's Kiss — didn't win anything when they were entered in the 1957 Bake-off. But the public fell in love with them, and they are still popular in kitchens across America. In 1966, the Tunnel of Fudge Cake took second place to Golden Gate Snack Bread, which was flavored with cheese spread and onion soup mix. But the cake with the molten fudgy center captured America's interest, taking the bundt pan from obscurity to booming sales almost overnight.

In its early years, the Bake-Off was considered the World Series of homemakers who spent hours making layered tortes and flaky pies from scratch. When Pillsbury raised the stakes to a whopping $1 million in 1996, Kurt Wait of Redwood City, Calif., won with Macadamia Fudge Torte, a moist chocolate cake with pockets of rich fudge and a macadamia nut streusel topping.

Then in 1998, the contest changed to a "Quick & Easy" format. Flour — upon which the Pillsbury empire was built — was no longer a required ingredient. Instead, cooks had to use at least one ingredient from a list of company products, such as Old El Paso Salsa, Green Giant vegetables and biscuit dough. The point was to give the public recipes that were less complex so they would actually make them, and of course, to showcase the growing stable of convenience products.

That year, Ellie Mathews of Seattle won with Salsa Couscous Chicken, with salsa providing a flavorful shortcut to the North African-style dish. It took just 30 minutes to make.

That was my first Bake-Off. I was in awe when I saw the Orlando contest floor buzzing with 100 finalists mixing, chopping and cooking as tantalizing aromas mingled in the air. I sat next to one of the judges at the press conference the next day, and was told in hushed tones that the judges had been deadlocked between Mathews' Salsa Couscous Chicken and Edwina Gadsby's Brownie Souffle Cake. The chicken narrowly edged out the cake, and Gadsby ended up with a $10,000 runner-up prize.

During the 2000 Bake-Off, Bobbie Sonefeld of South Carolina won for a Cream Cheese Brownie Pie — layers of brownie and cream cheese in a pie crust, topped with pecans and hot fudge. In 2002, Nashville accountant Denise Yennie won with Chicken Florentine Panini. She baked a refrigerated pizza crust and filled it with chicken breasts, frozen spinach, caramelized onions and provolone cheese.

Carolyn Gurtz of Gaithersburg, Md., won in 2008 for Double-Delight Peanut Butter Cookies, which had a pocket of creamy filling inside. When I got home from the Bake-Off, I wanted to make the cookies but couldn't find Pillsbury's peanut butter cookie dough. I use my from-scratch dough recipe and added the peanut butter filling for a similar version.

In 2010, Sue Compton's Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups took the top prize. It happened that this was the last entry I tasted as I left the Bake-Off floor. I loved the pretty raspberry garnish, and they had a nice mouth-feel of cold, creamy and crunch. But I certainly didn't predict that it was THE recipe to win the big bucks.

To me, the cachet of the Bake-Off is that an "everyday" home cook — who isn't a movie star, a corporate pirate, a reality-show survivor or even a celebrity chef — can use a little creativity and walk away with a million dollars.

Whether from scratch or not, that's still the stuff American dreams are made of.

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

Email: vphillips@desnews.com