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Judging the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off

The Dough Boy and I — we go way back. We’re tight — like this (fingers intertwined). He’s even let me poke him in the tummy.

So, I was thrilled to be united with my doughy guy earlier this week, when I was invited to be a judge for America’s oldest and most lucrative cooking contest, the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Orlando.

It was my third time as a judge in this competition. And my third time having a hand in deciding who went home with the grand prize of $1 million.

Started in 1949, the event celebrates the joy of home-cooking as only amateurs are allowed to enter. Each time, tens of thousands of entries from home-cooks are whittled down to just 100 finalists who compete to create an original, great tasting dish that will impress not only a panel of discriminating judges, but the entire nation, which has grown up with this iconic contest.

The judges are chosen almost a year ahead of time. From that moment onward, we had to avoid reading, seeing or hearing anything about the contest so that the contestants remained completely anonymous to us. You almost felt like you’d been selected for a secret ops mission, where information is strictly on a “need to know” basis. Hmm, good thing I packed a lot of black clothing.

We 12 food professionals took our mission seriously, too. A few of us were veteran Bake-Off judges, having done it once or twice before. But others were first-timers, nervous and excited about what the judging process would be like. Should we do stomach exercises to gird ourselves for so many dishes? Should we wear XL elastic pants that day? Just how many hours would we be stuffing our faces? Would we have to arm wrestle one another if we couldn’t agree on a winner in the end?

These are the things that go through your head when you are a Bake-Off judge. We came from all parts of the country, brought together for a monumental task: Andrea Astrachan, health and wellness consultant from Lewisberry, PA; Lynn Blanchard, test kitchen director of Better Homes & Gardens in Des Moines, Iowa; Janice Cole, a food writer from St. Paul, Minn.; Janet Rausa Fuller, former food writer for the Chicago Sun-Times; Jeff Houck, food reporter of the Tampa Tribune; David Joachim, veteran cookbook author from Center Valley, Penn.; Michael Klein, executive producer of Philly.com; Charlyne Mattox, food editor for Real Simple in New York; Christian Millman, executive editor of Taste of Home in Milwaukee, Wis.; Brigitte Nguyen, Cooking Channel host, from Lexington, Ky.; John Szymanski, corporate chef for the Kroger Company in Atlanta, Ga.; and yours truly.

Our job was to choose four special award winners, four category winners and the grand prize winner. In each case, our decision had to be unanimous. There could be no hung jury.

On the day of the Bake-Off on Monday, we were sequestered in a conference room at the Peabody Orlando hotel from 8 a.m. on — until we had finished judging, no matter how long it took. There was no tweeting, no iPhone picture-snapping, no making phone calls to anyone. All were forbidden. If nature called, we had to be escorted by a Pillsbury official to the bathroom. Yes, we were in lock-down mode.

Just a few ballrooms away, 100 contestants were buzzing about in 100 mini kitchens, preparing what they hoped would be a dish special enough for a million smackeroos. They had until noon to make their dish at least twice — once for the judges and once for the official photos. Each recipe had to use at least two approved General Mills products.

The judges were divided into four teams of three to judge four categories: “Sweet Treats,” “Breakfast & Brunches,” “Dinner Made Easy” and “Entertaining Appetizers.”

Sometimes you’re asked which category you prefer to judge. Other times, it’s a total surprise. Having judged “Sweet Treats” twice before (obviously, the Pillsbury folks know what a major sweet tooth I have), I was selected to be a member of the “Entertaining Appetizers” group of judges this year. What a change to be on the savory side this time around. Along with my fellow judges, Blanchard and Szymanski, we would be tasting 26 appetizers in our category. We were set, we were primed, we were up to the caloric challenge.

As the dishes are finished, they are brought into the judging room. You never know which dish will come in first or what category will get slammed with an onslaught of dishes all at once.

We waited behind closed doors, relaxing on couches the appropriate color of dark cocoa. Cucumber slices, carrot sticks and apples were at the ready for palate cleansing. Tables were set up all over the room with the names of dishes and the recipes — but with no names on anything.

Every time a knock came at the door, we all turned our heads, wondering with anticipation if it was the first dish making its appearance to start the judging off with a bang. There were quite a few false alarms.

Then, at 8:51 a.m., the first dish came through the door. It was “Thai Chicken Subs,” warm and aromatic with hot chili sauce, in the “Dinner Made Easy” category. Those three judges went to work, scrutinizing and tasting, as the rest of us looked on with envy.

At 9 a.m., “Key Lime Pie Cinnamon Rolls” made their arrival and the “Breakfast & Brunches” judges grabbed their scoring sheets.

Ten minutes later, it was another “Breakfast & Brunches” entry: “Chocolate and Caramel-Cinnamon Roll Skewers.”

Three minutes after that, it was another “Dinner Made Easy” entry: “Caramelized Pear, Spinach and Chicken Pizza.”

At 9:15 a.m., another “Dinner Made Easy” dish! “French Dip Roll.” That was followed only a minute later by “Turkey Upside-Down Burgers” in — you guessed it — “Dinner Made Easy.”

Only at the Bake-Off does dinner come before appetizers.

On it went, as we “Entertaining Appetizers” judges paced about and grabbed tastes of other dishes so as not to feel too left out.

Finally, at 9:20 a.m. — the first “Entertaining Appetizers” entry rolled in: “Caramelized Onion and Peppered Flatbread.” At last!

Blanchard, Szymanski and I raced over to our station to peer at the sheet-pan of golden flatbread topped with bacon, Muir Glen organic diced tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese and fresh basil. We cut pieces, took bites and jotted down notes, while trying to keep poker faces. After all, we had to judge independently in this round, with no talking or commenting until all 26 appetizers had been tasted.

In silence, we all went about chewing and discerning — until right at noon, when the very last dish of the competition came in: “Bacon-Chicken Sliders with Raspberry-Onion Spread.” Wouldn’t you know it was an “Entertaining Appetizers” entry?

When we were all done tasting our respective category’s dishes, each team chose the winner of the category they had been put in charge of. We were looking for great taste, beautiful appearance, creativity and wide appeal. For us “Entertaining Appetizers” judges, all of that was met by “Asparagus, Artichoke and Red Pepper Pizza.” It was made with Pillsbury refrigerated classic pizza dough crust. While so many other bread-like entries we tried were under-baked or soggy on the bottom, this was the only one that actually was crisp through and through. When my colleague Szymanski took the first bite, you could hear an audible crunch. The reason? The ingenious technique of rolling out the dough on top of a layer of panko bread crumbs. We all gave this particular contestant major props for coming up with this.

Once we had all decided upon our category winners, it was time to dole out four other special honors, each worth $5,000 in prizes to the winners: “GE Innovation At Work Award,” “Jif Peanut Butter Award,” “Crisco is Cooking Award” and “Eagle Brand Signature Award.”

For innovation, we had to go with “Salmon Crescent Sushi Rolls,” an “Entertaining Appetizers.” I mean, who would think to use Pillsbury crescent roll dough to make a maki roll filled with rice and fresh salmon, then garnished with a wedge of avocado? It was beyond brilliant.

For the peanut butter award, we couldn’t have picked a better winner than “Chewy Peanut Butter-Caramel Bars” from “Sweet Treats,” which not only had great, varied textures but an intensely peanut buttery-flavor. For the Crisco award, we chose “Indonesian Chicken Turnovers with Spicy Peanut Sauce” in “Dinners Made Easy.” Made with the cooking oil, plus soy sauce, raisins, crushed pineapple, pineapple juice and shredded coconut, it was a powerhouse of Asian flavors. For the Eagle Brand award, we went with “Orange Cream-Macadamia Torte,” a lovely “Sweet Treats” with a profusion of citrus.

Then, it was time to get down to the real business — choosing the grand prize winner. At 3:25 p.m. we all took seats at a large round table, with the four category winners before us: “Asparagus, Artichoke and Red Pepper Pizza” (“Entertaining Appetizers”); “Sausage-Pomodoro Brunch Bake” (“Breakfast & Brunches”);’ “Chicken Empanada Cones” (“Dinner Made Easy”); and “Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream” (“Sweet Treats”).

We took turns trying each dish again. We argued the pros and cons of each in lengthy discussions. Was this one special enough? Was that one innovative enough? Was it simple enough to make so that home-cooks would actually use the recipe? Was it too seasonal? Was it something that someone would want to make over and over again? Was it truly worthy of $1 million dollars and a place in history?

Paper ballots were cast. Not once, not twice, but three times, as we deliberated our decision that we all had to agree upon.

Round and round it went, until we finally came to unanimity on the dish that really merited the top prize: “Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream.”

Why? Because when you took one bite, you wanted to devour the entire thing. Fresh out of the oven, the hand pie-like “raviolis” were crisp, puffy and covered in cinnamon sugar like wonderful beignets that take far more effort to make. The pumpkin-cream cheese filling was fluffy and redolent of vanilla and autumn spices. It was a recipe that felt modern and timely. And it would no doubt appeal to kids and adults alike.

At 4:50 p.m., stuffed, tired and spent, we toasted with glasses of champagne for a job well done, and signed non-disclosure forms as a reminder that we were sworn to secrecy about the results until they were officially announced live on “The Martha Stewart Show” at 10 a.m. the following morning.

Yes, “The Martha,” as we took to calling her, was in the house. General Mills and the folks at the Peabody Hotel actually constructed a stage and theater for “The Martha” to do her show that day.

So, on Tuesday morning, we judges sat together in a row of that makeshift theater, with the Bake-Off contestants and their families and friends around us.

As Stewart announced the winners of the various prizes, it was the first time we judges were able to put faces to the dishes we had tasted. A few of us even got a little teary as we saw category winner after category winner scream with surprise when their name was announced, and the reality of our decisions set in.

As the four category winners clutched hands on stage, Stewart unsealed the envelope containing the name of the grand prize winner. Even though I knew who it would be, I could feel my heart pounding, as I waited to see the winner’s expression.

Of course, there were tears as Christina Verrelli of Devon, Pa. learned she won the $1 million.

She trembled as she told Stewart that she came up with the recipe after enjoying cinnamon-sugar donuts with dipping sauces at one of her neighborhood restaurants. She was joined on stage by her two young daughters and her husband, who said the money would come in very handy as they had just purchased a nightclub to try their hand at starting up a new business.

As I watched the scene of jubilation unfold, some of the other Bake-Off contestants seated in the row just in front of the judges turned to us and said, “You guys picked the right person. She is the nicest, most wonderful person you could imagine.”

I couldn’t help but smile. I may not have won $1 million, myself. But with the gift of those parting words, I sure felt like I had.

For the grand-prize winning recipe and others, go to Pillsbury.com.

More: Judging the Bake-Off in 2010

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