I’ve judged a handful of cooking contests before…a kid’s burger contest (imagine 10 year old boys prepping raw meat with no handwashing sinks-YAY!) and a couple pie contests in Michael’s small hometown, but nothing could prepare me for the Superbowl of cooking contests: the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off where 100 contestants vie for a whopping $1,000,000.
The judging panel consisted of 12 food enthusiasts (we’re missing Mike and Carolyn here!), all of whom were food writers for various publications except for me and the corporate chef from Kroger. I couldn’t glean enough information from Charlyne Mattox, food editor of Real Simple, or Lynn Blanchard, test kitchen director for Better Homes & Gardens. I love hearing about all the different career avenues that food lovers can take.
As judges, we were told to avoid any contact with recipes or finalists. I couldn’t even play around on the Pillsbury website or watch any of the fun profiles that the Martha Stewart show was putting together. At 8am on the day of the Bake-Off, judges were taken into the room where we would be held for the day, until a verdict was reached. No outgoing calls or photographs were permitted and bathroom trips required an escort. These Pillsbury folks mean business. I’ve always wanted to walk the competition floor and see all those ovens and cooks firing away. No such luck.
There are 100 recipes in the Bake-Off and the 12 of us were split into categories: 1)Breakfast & Brunches, 2)Entertaining Appetizers, 3)Dinner Made Easy, and 4)Sweet Treats. Each group of 3 judges tastes & evaluates all the recipes in their respective categories and then chooses a category winner. From those 4 winners, the judging panel must unanimously choose the Grand Prize winner! I was happy to be judging Breakfast & Brunch, as I thought there would be a good split between sweet and savory. I do my share of sweet consumption for Unique Sweets and was relieved to have avoided that category. I knew I’d be eating all day, but still opted to nibble on some fruit for breakfast to take the edge off my empty stomach. We perused recipes, sipped coffee, lounged on the comfy couches brought in for us, signed aprons, and waited…patiently…
The first recipe sailed in at 8:52am and the next few hours would absolutely fly by with evaluating, tasting, note-taking, and more tasting. I was lucky that Breakfast & Brunch ended up being a very well-paced category. We received a steady stream of entries, vacillating between sweet, savory, and somewhere in-between. As you can imagine, the Sweet Treats category gets hit towards the end, as many recipes involve time to bake, cool, set, ice, assemble, etc. While there is no discussion amongst judges until the end, if a dish really resonates with you, you can call over the other judges to sample it while it’s fresh.
In sampled all 24 dishes in my category and attempted to taste as many of the other dishes as possible. Carpe diem! I’ll never get around to making all 100 recipes, so why NOT try to taste them all, made by the creators themselves? In the end, I sampled a whopping 67, as some plates were whisked off to the refrigerator for optimal storage. Maybe next time I’ll attempt all 100. We’re offered the use of spit cups and I think this saved me from having to unbutton my pants, as most of these recipes center around dough. Starchy, sugary, expand-in-your-belly-with-every-sip-of-water dough. I think this helps to keep things fair, especially when you’re on the 4th hour of judging. Besides, no one wants to start looking like the Doughboy.
The last recipe came running in at 11:59am, with just a minute to spare. Lunch was wheeled in, (salad, YAY!) and to no one’s surprise, went completely untouched. We waited for everyone to finish judging their respective categories and then each team chose their category winner. We came together to decide on special prizes, provided by the contest’s sponsors like Jif and GE. And then we gathered at a round table to debate the merits of the Final Four…
We presented our winners, tasted, read recipes, chatted, discussed, tasted again, and cast votes in 3 rounds of anonymous ballots. At this point, all four recipes were absolutely delicious and just so well-executed. It was 4:51pm before we finally reached a unanimous verdict, which was met with applause and a champagne toast.
The winner? Of a life-changing MILLION dollars???
Christina Verrelli and her Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream!!! Just typing this out makes me want to drool a little bit. They were crispy little pie pockets, filled with a subtle pumpkin cream cheese filling. The Salted Caramel Whipped Cream was a genius addition, resulting in an elegant dessert that wasn’t overly sweet. I think any of us, home cooks or professionals, would be proud to serve a dish like this one.
Congratulations, Christina! Good grief, they were SO good. I’m making them at home this week and can’t wait to taste them again. It was fascinating for me to be on the other side of a cooking competition. I can’t imagine how excited all 100 contestants were to have a shot at such a prize and I just have to thank them all for coming to Orlando and cooking for us!