The contest is the pinnacle of pie crusts. The Big Kahuna of cooking. Recipe rapture.

The Pillsbury BAKE-OFF.

Food editors from all over the country gathered last week at the Renaissance Resort in Orlando, Fla., to watch Ellie Mathews of Seattle win a $1 million grand prize for her Salsa Couscous Chicken.

For the second time in history, and continuing into the future, Pillsbury dangled the $1 million grand-prize carrot in front of consumers. According to contest officials, tens of thousands entered - 100 made it to the finals.

After a nerve-wracking day of cooking and Tums-taking, the 99 contestants (one couldn't attend the BAKE-OFF due to an illness in the family) waited for the next morning's announcement of prizes.

The winner was a North African-style dish, praised by the judges for "the complexity of the recipe's flavor with so few ingredients."

At a press conference following the televised awards program hosted by Jeopardy's Alex Trebek, Mathews, a 52-year-old fiction writer, said that in putting together her recipe she "wanted something out of the ordinary."

She entered seven original recipes but captured the cash with her main dish made with Old El Paso salsa (all recipes entered in the competition must use at least one Pillsbury product).

Her recipe was the first time in 18 years that a savory main dish won the big prize; in past competitions, there has usually been an expectation that something sweet would win.

Prep time has become a key factor in contest entries. From now on, the event will be known as the Pillsbury Quick & Easy BAKE-OFF Contest and will include these categories: 30-Minute Main Dish, Simple Side Dish, Quick Snacks and Appetizers and Fast and Easy Treats.

The four new recipe categories were chosen on the basis of research indicating what types of recipes are of greatest interest to home cooks.

Winners in the other categories took home $10,000 each. They were:

Simple Side Dish: Texas Two-Step Slaw - Betty Schroedl, Jefferson, Wis.

Fast & Easy Treats: Brownie Souffle Cake with Mint Cream - Edwina Gadsby, Great Falls, Mont.

Quick Snacks & Appetizers: Tex-Mex Appetizer Tart - Richard McHargue, Richmond, Ken.

Are you wondering . . . how can I (yes YOU sitting there on the sofa, dumbfoundedly looking over a $1 million recipe) win a million buckos?

The Pillsbury folks offer these ideas:

- Study winning recipes from past Pillsbury BAKE-OFFs. (All 100 finalist recipes in this year's BAKE-OFF will appear in a magazine available at supermarket checkouts).

- Watch trends in cuisines.

- Practice concocting recipes from qualifying Pillsbury brands: Green Giant, LeSueur, Hungry Jack, Old El Paso, Progresso, Underwood, B&M and Pillsbury.

- Winners are chosen using the following criteria: 1) taste and appearance, 2) quick and easy preparation 3) creativity 4) general appeal 5) appropriate use of eligible products.

The home economists Pillsbury hired (from an independant judging agency) evaluated the multitudes of BAKE-OFF entries. They found some very interesting trends:

- Americans are crazy about cheesecake - desserts and casserole versions. "The obvious comfort level with adding flavor to cream cheese can be linked to the popularity of bagel shops," they say.

- Cranberries used in all forms, from canned sauce to dried, are "hot."

- The various blends of cheeses - taco, pizza and flavored cheeses like tomato-basil feta cheese - add texture and flavor.

- Seasonings, from fresh herbs to spicy mustards and flavored vinegars, are popular. Once-exotic seasonings like chipotle chile peppers, guava paste and pumpkin seeds add a taste "punch" to everyday recipes.

- Mexican has become a melting-pot cuisine that consumers are fusing with other styles of cooking: empanadas with Italian-style filling; Mexican-style lasagna; and Teriyaki-flavored burritos.

- Americans are fine-tuning their appreciation for world cuisines. For example, they're expanding their love of Medi-ter-ranean to include North African or Moroccan fare.

- White is trendy. It's part of the name and also primary color of many recipe entries, with ingredients like creamy white cheese, white beans and white chocolate.

Ask yourself - What would I do with a million dollars? After you've sent half of it to your favorite food editor, dream of the possibilities! Then relocate yourself from the couch to the kitchen and get going!

From May to October, you can whip up test recipes for your friends and family to critique. (You'll find which ones are true friends - but you're stuck with family).

In the final analysis, a lot of the contest is luck. Interestingly, when Alex Trebek, in a reverse role, asked an elderly money-winner a question here's the response:

ALEX: "How did you come up with that recipe?"

WINNER: "I don't know. I was just messin' around!"

*****

RECIPES

SALSA COUSCOUS CHICKEN

3 cups hot cooked couscous or rice (cooked as directed on package)

1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil

1/4 cup coarsely chopped almonds

2 garlic cloves, minced

8 chicken thighs, skin removed

1 cup Old El Paso Garden Pepper or Thick 'n Chunky Salsa

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons dried currants

1 tablespoon honey

3/4 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

While couscous is cooking, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add almonds; cook 1 to 2 minutes or until golden brown. Remove almonds from skillet with slotted spoon; set aside.

Add garlic to skillet; cook and stir 30 seconds. Add chicken; cook 4 to 5 minutes or until browned, turning once.

In medium bowl, combine salsa and all remaining ingredients; mix well. Add to chicken; mix well. Reduce heat to medium; cover and cook 20 minutes or until chicken is fork-tender and juices run clear, stirring occasionally. Stir in almonds. Serve chicken mixture with couscous. Serves 4.

- Each serving contains 490 calories, 19g fat, 45g carbohydrates, 540mg sodium, 100 mg cholesterol.

- From Ellie Mathews, $1 million grand prize winner, 38th Pillsbury BAKE-OFF.

TEXAS TWO-STEP SLAW

For Salad:

4 cups shredded green cabbage

1 cup shredded red cabbage

1/4 cup chopped red onion

2 jalapeno chiles, seeded, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 11-ounce can Green Giant Mexican Whole Kernel Corn, Red and Green Peppers, drained

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Fresh cilantro sprigs

Dressing:

3/4 cup purchased Ranch salad dressing

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon cumin

In large bowl, combine all salad ingredients except cilantro sprigs; mix well. In small bowl, combine all dressing ingredients; blend well. Pour over salad; toss to coat. Serve immediately or refrigerate until serving time. Garnish with cilantro. Serves 8.

- Each serving contains 240 calories, 19g fat, 12g carb, 410mg sodium, 20mg cholesterol.

- From Betty Schroedl, $10,000 winner in 38th Pillsbury BAKE-OFF

BROWNIE SOUFFLE CAKE WITH MINT CREAM

Mint Cream:

2/3 cup whipping cream

3 ounces white chocolate baking bar, finely chopped

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon mint extract

Cake:

1 1 pound 5.5-ounce package Pillsbury Rich and Moist Fudge Brownie Mix

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup oil

1/2 to 1 teaspoon mint extract, if desired

4 eggs, separated

Powdered sugar

Mint sprigs, if desired

Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Spray 9 or 10-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray. In medium microwave-safe bowl, microwave whipping cream on HIGH for 45 to 60 seconds or until warm. Add white chocolate and 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon mint extract; stir until chocolate is melted. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or until well-chilled. Meanwhile, in large bowl, combine brownie mix, water, oil, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon mint extract and egg yolks; beat 50 strokes with spoon. In small bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually fold into brownie mixture. Pour batter into sprayed pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 32 to 38 minutes or until center is almost set. Cool 30 minutes. (Center will sink slightly). Carefully remove sides of pan. Sprinkle top of cake with powdered sugar. Just before serving, beat chilled mint cream until soft peaks form. Cut cake into wedges; top each wedge with mint cream. Garnish with mint sprigs. Serves 12.

HIGH ALTITUDE: (Above 3500 feet): Add 1/4 cup flour to dry brownie mix. Bake as directed above.

- Each serving contains 420 calories, 24g fat, 46g carb, 180mg sodium, 46g cholesterol.

- From Edwina Gadsby $10,000 winner in 38th Pillsbury BAKE-OFF Contest

TEX-MEX APPETIZER TART

1 Pillsbury Refrigerator Pie Crust (from 15-ounce package), softened as directed on package

1 1/2 cups shredded Colby-Monterey Jack cheese blend

1/2 cup roasted red bell peppers (from 7.25 ounce jar), drained and chopped

1 4.5-ounce can Old El Paso Green Chiles

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Remove crust from pouch. Place crust on ungreased cookie sheet; press out fold lines. In medium bowl, combine cheese, roasted bell peppers, mayo and chiles; mix well. Spread over crust to within 1 inch of edges. Fold crust edges over filling to form 1-inch border; flute. Bake at 375 degrees F. for 25 to 35 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Sprinkle with cilantro. Let stand 10 minutes. Cut into wedges. Serve warm. Makes 16 servings.

- Each serving contains 150 calories, 12g fat, 7g carb, 200mg sodium, 15mg cholesterol.

- From Richard McHargue, $10,000 winner in 38th Pillsbury BAKE-OFF

ITALIAN CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE PASTA

1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil

3 ounces Italian sausage links*, sliced

3/4 pound boneless skinless chicken brreast halves, cut into bite-sized pieces

3/4 cup chicken broth

1 1-pound package Green Giant Pasta Accents Garlic Seasoning Frozen Vegetables with Pasta

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 4-ounce jar roasted red bell peppers, sliced

4 sprigs fresh basil, if desired

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add sausage; cook and stir 2 minutes or until browned. Add chicken; cook and stir 4 minutes or until chicken and sausage are no longer pink. Add broth, vegetables with pasta, oregano and thyme; mix well. Reduce heat to medium; cover and cook 7 to 8 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle each serving with cheese; top with roasted bell peppers. Garnish with basil. Serves 4.

- Each serving contains 400 calories, 19g fat, 24g carb, 950mg sodium, 80mg cholesterol.

- From Gloria Rendon, Murray, Utah, Finalist in Pillsbury 38th BAKE-OFF

- * NOTE: Gloria purchases Italian sausage at Mediterranean Market, 3942 S. State Street. Since all finalists can't bring any ingredients from home, she had to use another type of sausage during the BAKE-OFF. She swears that if she'd had Mediterranean's Italian sausage, she would have been a winner.