For two long days, I had to keep mum about one of the biggest secrets around — the name of the person to whom my fellow 11 judges and I had chosen to award a whopping $1 million.
After all, we had been sequestered in an unmarked room in the Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort in Orlando, Fla. , sworn to secrecy as we deliberated our decision for an entire day.
We had to be escorted to the bathroom if we needed to leave that guarded conference room. We had to sign confidentiality agreements. We were not to talk or compare notes with each other at the start, until the field had been greatly narrowed. There was even a paper shredder in the room to destroy any evidence that wasn’t supposed to see the light of day.
This is what you must do when you are a judge for the nation’s premier home-cooking contest, the 44th Pillsbury Bake-Off.
This was my second time as a judge for the iconic contest, in which tens of thousands of home-cooks vie to compete for the grand prize of $1 million by creating an original dish that incorporates at least two Pillsbury or General Mills products. Only 100 finalists are chosen to actually participate in the Bake-Off, where they are flown to Orlando to do battle in an expansive ballroom set up with 100 mini kitchens.
Talk about pressure all around.
But I was up to the task, as were my fellow judges, who were made up of food writers and supermarket industry folks from around the country. About half of us had been Bake-Off judges before.
All of us had judged many food contests in our career. But it’s rare — if ever — that we have the opportunity to change someone’s life with a prize this substantial. As a result, we took our duties very seriously. We avoided reading anything to do with the Bake-Off for more than a year, as we had been instructed to do. We felt the great responsibility placed upon our palates to make the best decision possible, to choose the most deserving recipe that would uphold this contest’s storied history.
We were divided into four teams comprised of three judges each. Each team would be responsible for selecting the winner of one of four categories: “Breakfast & Brunches,” “Entertaining Appetizers,” “Dinner Made Easy,” and “Sweet Treats.” Each of those category winners would receive $5,000. After that was determined, we would all come together as judges to decide the grand prize winner from amongst those four category winners.
The last time around in 2002, I was asked to judge the desserts category. This time? Yup, you guessed it — I got the “Sweet Treats” category again. I guess the Pillsbury honchos have read my blog and figured out I have a major sweet tooth, huh?
Adding to the buzz this year was the fact that unlike other Bake-Offs, the grand prize winner was not going to be announced the next morning after we had made our decision. Instead, the four category winners would have to wait with bated breath until Wednesday — a whole two days later — when they would appear live on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in Chicago, and America’s biggest media mogul, herself, would announce the grand prize winner on national television.
How’s that for lip-smacking culinary drama?
At 8 a.m. Monday, after the 100 contestants were safely secluded away at their kitchens in the ballroom so that we could not see them or have any contact with them, we judges were escorted through a nearby dark hallway to another conference room, where we would spend the next nine and a half hours of our lives with no other contact with the outside world. We weren’t allowed to bring our cameras. We weren’t allowed to tweet. We weren’t allowed to make any outgoing calls whatsoever.
The Pillsbury folks went the distance to make us feel comfortable. After so many years, they have it down pat. At the center of the room were comfy, suede-like couches and easy chairs arranged in a circle and built to hold exactly 12 people. The New York Times, and an assortment of magazines were on the coffee table, in case we needed a break between bites. Platters of pastries, as well as coffee and teas were available in case we needed to warm up our palates before our duties beckoned. And there were piles of cucumber slices, carrot sticks and celery sticks in case we needed to cleanse our palates.
At each corner of the room, each of four teams was stationed around a u-shaped set of tables set up to hold the dishes that we were to taste as they came in from the Bake-Off ballroom. Each table also held the recipes for the dishes. But no names or hometowns of the contestants were attached, so that the folks who cooked the dishes would remain a mystery to us.
The contestants had from 8 a.m. to noon to complete their dishes at least twice. One version would go to the judges, the other would be set aside for photographs.
You have no idea which dishes will come in first for judging. It depends on the logistics of the dish, as well as the swiftness of the cook.
At 9 a.m., nothing had arrived yet for any of us to judge. Each time the doors swung opened, we’d all crane our necks to see if a dish was arriving. But each time, it was only a General Mills honcho entering or leaving the room.
But at 9:03 a.m., when a General Mills employee grabbed a potholder and ran out the door, we knew something was up. She returned with the first dish to be judged: “Pear-Havarti Crepe Squares” entered in the “Breakfast & Brunches” category. The judges for that category sprang into action with forks and plates.
We “Sweet Treats” judges continued to wait.
At 9:16 a.m., the aroma of dark chocolate filled the room as “Hot Fudge-Marshmallow Monkey Bread” was carried into the room. The “Breakfast & Brunches” judges tore into that one, too.
And we “Sweet Treats” judges paced the room.
At 9:20 a.m., “Snappy Joes on Toast” arrived, and the three “Dinner Made Easy” judges who had been killing time with us, ran over to inspect their first dish.
At 9:24 a.m., “Persian Date-Filled Cinnamon Roll Muffins” were delivered. Another “Breakfast & Brunches” entry.
At 9:30 a.m., “Rancheros Crescent Rounds” appeared. Yet ANOTHER “Breakfast & Brunches” entry.
At this point, we “Sweet Treats” judges were starting to feel rather neglected. Seriously, was it something we said?
To be fair, cookies, pies and muffins, which would make up our category, do take time to bake and cool. But still…we were definitely feeling ignored.
At 9:34 a.m., another “Breakfast & Brunches” dish arrived. Four minutes later, the first “Entertaining Appetizers” entry arrived, “Salmon Pecan-Crusted Tartlets.” Then, another “Breakfast & Brunches” item, followed by another “Entertaining Appetizers” dish.
We “Sweet Treats” judges were starting to nod off.
Jeff Houck, food writer for the Tampa Tribune and my fellow “Sweet Treats” cohort, mumbled in jest, “I’m not even looking at the door now. I don’t care any more.”
I yelled back to Jeff: “I’m actually getting hungry now! Can you believe it?”
On it went. Another “Entertaining Appetizers” arrived, followed seconds later by another “Breakfast and Brunches.”
Finally, at 9:54 a.m., it arrived — “Chocolate-Caramel Crumb Cakes.” Yes, finally, a “Sweet Treats” entry. Jeff, Jonell Nash (of Jonell’s Kitchen at Essence.com), and I grabbed our clipboards and ran over to examine the little cakes that had been baked in muffin tins. We not only had to grade each dish on taste, but also on appearance and its appeal to consumers.
I took a small bite at my chair, then glanced at Jeff, who had inhaled his entire crumb cake. After that, I feared for the man. After all, we would be tasting 27 “Sweet Treats” that day. Having done this before, I knew to take small bites, and not to finish everything. Jeff, never having judged before, was going full-bore. At this rate, what would become of him? When we turned in our score sheets for those crumb cakes, we again started to wait for the next “Sweet Treats” to arrive for our perusal. As we waited, Jeff, obviously already overcome by the sugar, reached for a second crumb cake!
Jonell upon seeing Jeff chewing, “The man is desperate!”
Finally at 10:54 a.m., a full hour after our first “Sweet Treats,” the second one in our category arrived: “Fudgy Chocolate Chip-Toffee Bars.” A minute later, yet another was set down in front of us: “Chai Brownie Cupcakes with Creamy Froth.”
Twenty minutes later, we were getting slammed with “Sweet Treats.” They were coming out of our ears. “Creamy Orange-Chocolate Truffle Bars,” “Chocolate-Cherry-Pistachio Brownies,” and “Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups,” which we all had to hurry to eat first, before they melted.
The next hour and a half were a blur as we took bite after bite of some very, very sweet treats. A fair number lost points because of bad textures — they were gummy from under-baking or dried out from over-baking. A few gained points for the creative use of bourbon and Chai tea. There was enough chocolate and peanut butter to make our heads spin.
At 2:30 p.m., the judges had scored all their respective category entries, and we broke for lunch. A salad bar was set up for us. And let me tell you, after all that sugar, vegetables never tasted so good. I piled my plate with broccolini and was in heaven.
Sated with greens, we pressed on. We were to determine three special winners next, who, unfortunately, would not be eligible for the grand prize. Two of them would receive $5,000 each, and the third would receive a set of GE kitchen appliances. For best use of Jif Peanut Butter in a dish, we awarded the “Jif Peanut Butter Award” to Lenore Klass of Koloa, Hawaii for her silky, luscious”Banana-Peanut Butter Cream Tart.” For the best use of Crisco in a dish, we awarded the “Crisco Is Cooking” prize to Heather Halonie of Webster, Wisc. for her inventive, festive “Turkey Club Sandwich Ring with Avocado Aioli.” And for innovation, we awarded the “GE Imagination At Work” award to Laura Stanke of Maple Grove, Minn. for her delightful “Pepperoni-Pesto Popovers” made with Pillsbury Crescent dough dusted with cornmeal and twisted up with pesto, pepperoni, mozzarella and Parmesan.
At 4:10 p.m., we gathered around a large table to start deliberating who would be the grand prize winner from our four category winners: “Tomato-Basil Eggs Alfredo in Bread Baskets” for “Breakfast & Brunches,” “Salmon Pecan-Crusted Tartlets” for “Entertaining Appetizers,” “Zesty Lime-Fish Tacos” for “Dinner Made Easy,” and “Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups” for “Sweet Treats.”
All four dishes were either taken out of the freezer or warmed up to optimal temperature again in the oven for all 12 judges to taste. We took turns explaining why we chose what we did for our category winner. And then we took a moment to think in silence, before we wrote down our top pick on a slip of paper that was folded up and placed into a cup.
After our votes were tallied, it helped us eliminate one dish, which ended up getting no votes. It also helped us knock out a second dish, which had received only one vote. Just so you know, the grand prize winner cannot be chosen by a simple majority. All 12 judges must come to an agreement over the winner. So with only two dishes remaining in real contention, we started discussing the merits of each. Which dish would a consumer most likely make again and again? Which one really tasted the best? Which one made you go “wow” the most when you saw it or ate it?
In the end, we felt both dishes could easily have won the title. But we could only choose one. And so we did.
We nodded in agreement as we voted unanimously to award the $1 million prize to “Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups,” created by Sue Compton of Delanco, NJ.
Yes, it was the winner I helped choose in the “Sweet Treats” category. It was the first time that I had judged, where my category winner actually ended up winning it all.
As we signed our names to the official score card, the General Mills folks wheeled in buckets of champagne for us to toast the conclusion of our judging stint.
So why did we choose what we did? Simply, because the tiny cookie cups — formed out of ready-to-bake sugar cookie dough, dipped in melted chocolate, rolled in chopped walnuts, smeared with raspberry jam, filled with vanilla bean ice cream and topped with a fresh raspberry — are sensational. They are elegant, creative, and so much more than the sum of their parts. It’s a treat you could serve at a dinner soiree or a kids’ party. It’s a treat that when presented will surely make your guests ask, “How did you make these? Can I have the recipe?”
And that’s what a $1 million winner should be.
Later that night, we got to watch the Food Network’s bubbly Sandra Lee announce the four category winners on stage at the hotel. On Wednesday, we tuned in to “Oprah” to watch the announcement of the grand prize winner.
Even though we judges were privileged to know the outcome ahead of time, it didn’t spoil anything for us. It was incredibly touching and thrilling to put the faces to the winning dishes, and to see the jubilant reaction when each learned they had won.
I’ve never had to keep a $1 million secret like this before. And it’s not often I get to play Santa Claus, a magic genie, and the Lotto commissioner all rolled into one.
All I can say is that it’s the best feeling in the world.
For a complete list of the 100 Bake-Off finalists and their dishes, go to Pillsbury.com.