What Goes Into Judging the Pillsbury Bake-Off

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.

More: A Neat Trick Using Pillsbury Refrigerated Biscuit Dough

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  • Now that is called STRESS. I love reading all the recipes of the contestants. It is hard for me to invent recipes using an ingredient(s)! Congrats for being selected to judge the event.

  • Like reading a thriller—I hung on every word…

  • Wow, thank you much for the insider’s view of a process few get to see.

    When I look at food contest judging, I am always impressed. Comment on three dishes, maybe four or five. I don’t know how you can recall and balance more than that. 27? Oh. my.

  • What a cool backstage look at the Pillsbury Bake-off! I always look forward to watching the tv special every year,always marveling at how calm the contestants are – I would probably be a mess. And how awesome you got to be a judge (again)! Can’t wait to try the million dollar recipe 🙂

  • Wow, what an interesting behind-the-scenes look at how this is judged. Initially I thought, hey, I’d love to be a judge, but then after thinking about eating 27 courses! Yowza, I don’t think I would want to eat at all after that! I’m surprised they don’t let the sweet category judges come a bit later instead of making you guys wait. It really sounds like a jury in a trial, the way they organized everything.

  • Great post! I loved reading all that happened behind the scenes.

  • Oh, what a fun read! I usually try the winning recipe each year, and it always gets a
    thumb’s-up from friends and family.

  • Wow! You must have nerves of steel! I’m not sure I could keep a secret like that. 😀

    Thanks for the behind-the-scenes peek. Really enjoyed it.


  • Thank you for posting this Carolyn. I also hung on every word. So great to get a “backstage pass”. I tried to see you in the judges room when Ally went in there! She is funny.


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  • thanks for sharing your experience with us, carolyn! what a struggle it must’ve been. 🙂

  • That’s a once in a lifetime experience. Thanks for sharing!

  • That’s really awesome, Carolyn! Congrats on the gig! As enduring as it was, in the end, it sounded totally gratifying to award someone with such a great prize!

  • What an amazing experience! I have watched the Food Network coverage from outside the chamber. Thank you for giving us the view from inside the judges room!!!

  • That’s for the backstage report on the happenings!

  • Fascinating account! I like the sense of suspense 🙂

  • What a great experience and I love the blow by blow accounts. I am not sure I’d have the self control in the beginning to restrain myself. You’re a better person than me!

  • I was hanging on the edge of my seat reading this. I need to look up the recipes–can’t wait to try some of these!

    Poor Jeff, in what condition was he at the end of the day?

    Thanks for sharing. What an exhilarating experience. I had fun reading.

  • correction-semolina flour (not cornmeal) was used on the popovers!

  • Tivogirl: Actually, if you read the recipe on the Pillsbury Web site, it says to use either semolina flour OR cornmeal when making the popovers.

    And Lisa: Jeff actually made it through the judging A-OK. Although, after the category winners were publicly announced and the cocktail party started, Jeff, definitely wasn’t nibbling on any more food that night.

  • How cool! I’ve always wondered about the judges. I hung onto every word!

  • I am DYING to know who was the second choice, the one you all liked equally as well…can you tell?

  • Yarmie: I purposely left out the details on that because I didn’t want the category winners to feel bad in any way. Truly, they are all winners for having made it so very far in the competition and to have won their respective categories. I didn’t want to detract from that feeling of accomplishment by revealing that so-and-so just missed getting the grand prize or that such-and-such got no votes in the final round.I guess it’s kind of like the Academy Awards. You know which flick won “Best Picture.” But you never do know which film came in second in the ballots.

  • Ha! So funny! Yes, what we eat for breakfast is quite often really dessert! It sounds like a lot of fun! I’m sooo jealous! 🙂

  • Carolyn, what a great article! It reminded me of the time when a half dozen judges and I had to sample over 100 tamales in one day. Funnily enough, we all could agree on a winner in the end! Bring on the raw veggies!


  • my goodness what fun times! thanks for taking us along for such an interesting event… everything sounded so delicious!

  • p.s. and I love that picture of you and the dough boy!

  • Wow — I have no idea what I *thought* the Bake-Off contest would actually look like, but I never envisioned anything actually that huge. What a finely-tuned process, and how super cool to have been a part of it!

  • I really enjoyed reading this post! Thanks for sharing a bit of this wonderful experience with us!

  • What a great article! I have a huge collection of those Pillsbury cookbooks and the Bake-Off issues are my favorites. Beautiful photographs, Carolyn!

  • Wow – very, very cool. I am embarassed to admit that until I saw your post (found via Twitter), I never even knew about this bake-off. How wonderful for all the winners! My kids want to try making the winning ice cream cookie cups this weekend. 🙂

  • I just saw your picture of the winning recipe and had to clip over from Foodgawker. As a former BakeOff contestant, I found your behind the scenes recap super interesting! I can only imagine how hard it would be to know you’re giving away $1 million!

  • Kerstin: How exciting that you were a Bake-Off contestant! Believe me, as much of a responsibility it was to deem someone worthy of $1 million, I still think you had a much harder job. Competing against 99 other folks in a short period of time like that must be thoroughly nerve-wracking and stressful. So, I take my hat off to YOU! 😉

  • Carolyn, thankyou SO much for taking us along with you! I saw an episode of it on Oprah and I was fascinated by it (sadly we can’t get the Pillsbusy product used here). This was a fascinating read! 😀

  • Wow, what a cool experience being a judge at this event! Very neat!

  • wow, i wish i could experience something like that. what a neat time you must have had!

  • What a very cool thing you were able to do. I can’t wait to try out some of the recipes, especially the Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups!

  • wonder if could have the chance to bring home that huge prize money! hmmm…. it would be even difficult to decide to participate or not lol! but kudos to the winner! it’s fun baking!

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences behind the scenes. I love having a peek inside what goes on!

  • Carolyn, Thank you for giving us the behind the scene view. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a contestant. Being a judge for the 2nd time, what a special honor. I always enjoy trying the winning recipes, and I’m really looking forward to trying the Sweet Treats – Grand Prize Winner. What an interesting read…and the photos really made it special. It read like a novel.

  • This is great! Thanks for posting. I just learned about the Pillsbury Bake-Off and I’ve been scouring the web for more information. What a great insider’s look. How in the world did you pick? I also just discovered a couple of contestant’s behind the scenes recaps as well that as a judge you may be interested in. They are on the website http://www.recipecontests.com and they have a behind the scenes for the Bake-Off section of that website. One of the contestant’s recaps is hilarious (the second one) and it sounds like she wasn’t happy with what she sent to you judges. It’s good reading if you’re interested. Thanks for posting this recap. I’m totally going to enter next year.

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