In a couple of weeks, I'll be going to the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Orlando. On March 27, the $1 million dollar winner will be announced on the Martha Stewart Show, and I'll be in the audience along with the contestants, their families, and other food writers.
Two Utah contestants are among the 100 finalists. On March 26, Cameron Bailey of Salt Lake City and Elizabeth DeHart of West Jordan will cook their original recipes for the judges and master of ceremonies, Martha Stewart. Bailey's recipe is Bacon-Chicken Sliders with Raspberry-Onion Spread; and DeHart will cook her Falafel Sandwiches with Fire-Roasted Tomato Aioli.
This is the 45th Bake-Off, which was begun in 1949, now takes place every other year. It remains the premier national home cooking contest, as other long-running cook-offs have been downsized or discontinued.
For being a small state population-wise, Utah has a good track record for Bake-Off finalists, with at least one — and sometimes three or four — finalists in every contests. But so far, nobody from Utah has won the grand prize. Could 2012 be the lucky year?
I interviewed the two Utah contestants for a Deseret News story.
Cameron Bailey hopes to be the second male grand prize winner (the first one was Kurt Waite in 1996). But the Bake-Off isn't his only competition that weekend. He will get to Orlando a day early to run in a half-marathon near on Saturday morning.
"I wanted to come home with a medal even if I don't win the million bucks," he said.
A project manager at 3-Form, a building materials company, Bailey said began cooking at a young age.
"I was raised in a large Utah family with four siblings, all of us had to learn to cook because Mom and dad were both busy," he said.
He's been entering the Bake-off since 2002.
"Those first recipes I entered were horrible," he said with a chuckle during a telephone interview. "But I've learned how to play the Bake-Off game."
He's now realized that sponsors are seeking recipes that best showcase their products such as Pillsbury's "Poppin' Fresh" dough, Jif peanut butter, Smucker's jams, Hershey's chocolate, and Muir Glen Organics vegetables.
"My first recipes used a bare minimum of the sponsor ingredients," he said. "This time around, my recipe used seven sponsor ingredients. I used the greatest number of sponsor ingredients to raise my chances."
He also raised his chances by entering seven different recipes. "They were very concise and all winners, I thought. I was surprised that my appetizer recipe was the one selected, though, because I love to show off with my desserts."
He came up with his recipe during a time period where he was "on a kick to find wonderful things to do with balsamic vinegar."
After hearing a discussion on the radio program "The Splendid Table," he was inspired to make a reduction sauce of chicken broth with raspberries, balsamic vinegar and a touch of honey, "And it was wonderful. So when the Bake-Off came along, I thought I could take Smucker's preserves and use it instead of the raspberries to get the right degree sweetness and savory. The balsamic spread sounds odd, but when it comes together, it's really wonderful."
He considers himself a home cook who makes "approachable" dishes using ingredients that he already has on hand. So as far as food TV idols go, he enjoys watching Rachael Ray and Ann Burrell — "I think she's fun and sassy and stands up for herself in the way she cooks."
Martha Stewart has been a lifelong idol of Bailey's, "So I about died when I found out she was going to be the host. I have watched her shows for years and take her magazine. She's been a real inspiration to me."
If he wins the million-dollar prize, he will use the money to pay off his MBA student loans. for his MBA, buy a new used car, and have a down payment on a house, "all responsible choices," he notes.
Finalists can bring guests for a fee to watch from the sidelines during the Bake-off. Bailey, who is single, will have his parents from Cache Valley there cheering for him.
Elizabeth DeHart is a proponent of fresh, local, healthy food. And she has no trouble reconciling that the fact that she's competing in a contest sponsored by food industry giants.
"I'm an advocate of everything in moderation," she said. "And the only convenience foods in my recipe are canned beans and canned organic tomatoes which don't have a lot of processing or additives, and Grands biscuits. There's also fresh spinach in it, and that's very healthy. So it's really good food."
DeHart, a mother of two who works part-time as a medical sales representative, is also semi-vegetarian.
"I was on a quest to find a really good vegetarian sandwich that appeals to everybody. I came up with falafel."
The spicy sandwich gets added smoky notes from the fire-roasted tomatoes used in the aioli.
DeHart said she entered "five or six" recipes, and was surprised that the falafel sandwich was the one they picked. "But my kids and my husband really like it, and it's a good recipe."
Dehart said that she is a self-taught cook. "My mother was a good traditional meat-and-potatoes cook. I like cooking ethnic dishes — Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Thai, and Mexican."
She's dabbled in a few recipe contests, winning $500 for her use of Philadelphia Cream Cheese in a Creamy Tomato and Artichoke Gnocchi recipe. She's also had recipes published in Taste of Home magazine.
This is the first time she entered the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
"I was ecstatic to hear I was selected," she said. "There's a lot of satisfaction in the realization that I can actually cook. Also the financial incentive would be a relief, as we have been hurt by the economy. I would like to be able to go back to school."
DeHart's husband, Timothy, is accompanying her to the contest. And, she's gotten a lot of cheering from family and friends.
As for TV food stars, "I'm a huge fan of 'Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.' He's a big proponent of fresh local food and an advocate for health, and I think that's important."
Bacon-Chicken Sliders with Raspberry-Onion Spread
1 can Pillsbury Place 'n Bake refrigerated crescent rounds
1 Land O Lakes egg, beaten
1 to 2 teaspoons McCormick poppy seeds
1 tablespoon Crisco pure vegetable oil
1 cup chopped red onions
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon McCormick ground black pepper
1 cup Progresso chicken broth
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup Smucker’s red raspberry preserves
1/4 cup Smucker’s apricot preserves
1 boneless skinless chicken breast, cooked, thinly sliced
4 slices hickory-smoked bacon, crisply cooked, broken in half
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1. Heat oven to 375°F. Line large cookie sheet with cooking parchment paper. Place crescent rounds on cookie sheet; press each crescent into 2 1/2-inch round. Brush with egg; sprinkle with poppy seed.
2. Bake 8 to 13 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from cookie sheet to cooling rack.
3. Meanwhile, in 10-inch skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, salt and pepper; cook 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, or until onions are tender. Add chicken broth and balsamic vinegar; cook 12 to 17 minutes or until sauce is reduced by half. Stir in red raspberry and apricot preserves; cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently, or until slightly thickened. Cool 5 minutes.
4. Cut each crescent round in half horizontally. Place bottoms of buns on serving platter; top each with 2 teaspoons of the onion mixture, chicken, bacon, cilantro and top of bun.
— Cameron Bailey, Finalist
* * *
Falafel Sandwiches with Fire-Roasted Tomato Aoili
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup Muir Glen organic fire roasted crushed tomatoes (from 14.5-oz can), drained
3/4 teaspoon McCormick minced garlic
1 16.3-ounce can Pillsbury Grands! Homestyle refrigerated buttermilk biscuits
5 tablespoons Crisco light olive oil
1 15-ounce can Progresso chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed, drained
1/2 red onion, chopped
1/4 cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon McCormick chili powder
3/4 teaspoon McCormick ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon McCormick ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon McCormick ground roasted coriander
4 tablespoons Pillsbury all-purpose flour
1 cup fresh baby spinach leaves
1. To prepare aioli, place mayonnaise, tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon of the minced garlic in food processor or blender. Cover; process until smooth. Cover and refrigerate.
2. Heat oven to 350°F. Place biscuits on ungreased cookie sheet. Brush tops of biscuits with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.
3. Bake 11 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Meanwhile, in food processor, place chickpeas, onion, remaining 1/4 teaspoon minced garlic, parsley, chili powder, turmeric, cumin and coriander. Cover; process, using quick on-and-off motions, adding flour 1 tablespoon at a time until mixture is well blended.
4. With wet hands, form about 3 tablespoons chickpea mixture into 3-inch patty. Repeat to make 7 more patties. In 12-inch skillet, heat remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Cook patties in oil 6 to 8 minutes, turning once, or until golden brown.
5. Split biscuits; spread a generous tablespoon aioli on bottom half of each biscuit. Top each with patty, spinach leaves and top of biscuit.
— Elizabeth DeHart, Finalist