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November 14, 2013 at 6:00 AM

What makes a Pillsbury Bake-Off winner? We talk with a judge

Loaded Potato Pinwheels/Pillsbury Bake-Off

Loaded Potato Pinwheels/Pillsbury Bake-Off

Glori Spriggs of Nevada took home $1 million earlier this week when her ‘Loaded Potato Pinwheels’ won the grand prize in the 46th Pillsbury Bake-Off. Her victory came partly thanks to Seattle-area resident Alice Currah, one of this year’s contest judges and author of Savory Sweet Life, as well as a columnist for PBS Parents. When I am looking for a recipe that’s both appetizing and realistic, something a working parent can feel good about making and the whole family can enjoy, sometimes I just search the Internet for the ingredients I have on hand along with Alice’s name. I’m not surprised Pillsbury wanted her creative and can-do perspective. I talked with Alice by phone on her way back from the airport after the 3-day Vegas gala, where the judge’s decisions were announced by Padma Lakshmi. Here’s an edited, condensed version of our conversation — and some hints for home cooks dreaming of winning Bake-Off #47.

Q: What made you say yes to judging the contest?

A: “I’ve always had a super, big fascination with this particular contest, since I was little. It’s been around for 60 years! I always thought ‘it would be so amazing to win that.’ But the one year I decided I wanted to enter, it was after I started blogging. Food professionals are not eligible. I was so sad — that was a bucket list item for me. I feel like it’s gone full circle.”

Q: Did you get to taste the recipes over the contest’s 3 days, or was it all at once? How did you taste 100 recipes without hating food halfway through?

A: “They set up 100 ovens (at the same time), and if you look on Instagram under the hashtag #bakeoff you’ll see what the floor looked like! They had, I think, 3 hours to try their recipe. It was a new oven to (contestants,) so they had to get used to that. Pillsbury provides enough ingredients to make it three times. Some of the recipes came in very quickly, some came in towards the end… My personal concern was, can I give as much diligence to the last bite as I did to the first? I would say that surprisingly, I was consistent all the way through, and I think most people were.

“I think cream rises to the top. We all knew that right from the get-go, when anything really stood out. At the same time, there were some I really loved that didn’t make it past the first rounds. Everyone had their favorites that for whatever reason got eliminated. There was a lot of discussion, and… at the end it was unanimous.”

Q: How can people improve their chances of winning?

A: “The best advice I can give them is to read the rules and read exactly what the contest people are looking for in an entry. This is the granddaddy of contests, and the judges are looking at numerous things — it’s not going to be taste alone. I don’t think you’re going to find an apple pie winner (for instance), there’s nothing new about that — unless (you can create) something so different about it, something that’s really great that is not ordinary.”

Q: Given the dollar amounts involved, were you nervous about the responsibility of choosing a winner?

A: “(Contest organizers) do a very good job with a lot of integrity. We were told to not to interact with contestants, to keep our distance…the awards ceremony started at 7 p.m., we had up until 6:45 p.m. to make the decision.”

Q: “How long did it actually take?”

A: “I think it was close to 4 p.m. when we finished. I just thought, wow, someone’s life is forever changed.

“The (identity) of the winner was revealed to us at the end. We didn’t know anything about them, they were just bringing them out. We were very excited when they told us who this person was… the Bake-Off is the only contest she had ever entered. She had entered it before, but never made it to the finals. Another cool thing that came out of this was the second place winner. You can only advance to the finals three times — (after that) you are no longer eligible to enter the finals, I think it’s to discourage these serial recipe contest people who do this for a living. The second place winner (was a third time finalist), and when I saw her name and photo come up on the screen during the awards ceremony, I thought, that’s a really great way to go out.”

Alice Currah (left) with the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st place Pillsbury Bake-Off winners

Alice Currah (left) with the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st place Pillsbury Bake-Off winners

Q: What made the loaded potato skins worth the grand prize for you?

A: “She nailed it as far as all the things we were looking for. She put her own twist on something. There was a limit as to how many ingredients you could use this time around, you have to figure out what’s the best way to use seven. One of (the winner)’s elements was seasoned potatoes, that was pretty smart, almost a two-for-one kind of ingredient…It was a very tasty bite, when you’re eating it, it’s “Holy hell, that’s good.”

Q: If you were still eligible to enter, what recipe would you develop?

A: “I have a recipe on my site — it’s not 7 ingredients, but I could make something similar to it — a gluten-free shortbread pecan bar. It’s a pecan bar with caramel and bacon. I brought it to a Bon Appetit bake-off in New York…I think something like that, where you…might think ‘it’s disgusting!’ but then you eat it and you love it, I like those kinds of challenges for myself.”

Q: What more should people know about the Bake-Off?

A: “You have to be in it to win it. When people hear the words ‘one million dollars’ — I used to be this way, I used to just not be confident. It kills me to this day that I never entered. If you love baking and cooking, and you have a special recipe everyone raves about, you should do it. You never know. Once you’re there, you really don’t know who’s going to win.”

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