Piping hot secrets from the bake-off

Contest: For the first time, Pillsbury officials reveal before the big event how finalists' dishes are made.

February 16, 2000|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun food editor

With an air of secrecy similar to Oscar announcements, sealed packets landed with a thud on food-editors' desks recently.

But instead of Academy Award nominees, the fat envelopes were stuffed with recipes -- all potential $1 million winners in the Pillsbury 50th Anniversary Bake-Off Cooking Contest.

For the first time, the 100 finalists' recipes are being released before the Feb. 28 Bake-Off, including the entry of local contestant Liz Barclay of Annapolis.

Marlene Johnson, director of product communications at Pillsbury, says that in previous years the recipes were kept confidential to help maintain judging integrity. But Pillsbury officials decided that revealing the recipes wouldn't jeopardize the judges' impartiality.

"We have a panel of food professionals, people who can look at the recipes and evaluate them on their own merit," Johnson says.

Also, she adds, releasing the recipes early gives people an opportunity to try the entries. "What we realized as we looked at the history of the contest is that we have a hundred wonderful recipes, but as soon as we announce the top grand-prize winner, sometimes those 99 other recipes get a little lost. They are wonderful ideas, family-pleasing meals we think should get attention."

The recipes chosen from tens of thousands of entries reflect a quick-and-easy theme, Johnson says. Contestants, who were required to use certain products, submitted their recipes in four categories: Easy Weeknight Meals, Yummy Vegetables, Fast and Fabulous Desserts and Treats, and Casual Snacks and Appetizers.

Home economists, who narrowed the field to 100, noted these trends:

* Fruit is a key ingredient, from desserts to main dishes and sides.

* Seeds, such as fennel, cumin and black sesame, get big play in dishes.

* The use of seafood is on the rise.

* Recipe names were as creative as the ingredients, from Y2K Stew to Bubba's Belt Busters. Even pop-singer Ricky Martin was an inspiration for La Vida Loca Pizza.

Barclay, for one, is carefully checking out her competitors' recipes, which are being listed on the Internet at www.bakeoff.com.

"I think every man is in the game," says the finalist, who entered her recipe for Southwestern Chicken Biscuits in the Casual Snacks and Appetizers category. "You can never really predict who the winner will be."

But Barclay, 48, an assistant principal at Indian Creek School in Crownsville, is feeling confident that her recipe could be the big-bucks winner.

"I'm very comfortable with the recipe," she says. "It's just easy."

With seven ingredients, the biscuits -- filled with diced chicken, chopped green chilies, Monterey Jack cheese, salsa and other items -- take about 15 minutes to prepare and about 18 minutes to bake. Barclay, the wife of attorney David Barclay and mother of sons, Devin, 16, and Colin, 14, compares the taste to chicken wings, which her family loves.

Originally, she even called the recipe Wings Without the Mess. "It's a simple snack with the flavor of wings without the bones," she says. "I love the flavor."

In the meantime, Barclay, a perennial cooking-contest winner, has won three more competitions recently, raking in $450 in prize money and a convection oven. But being a finalist in the bake-off is the "icing on the cake," she says. "I was determined to be part of this."

When she travels to San Francisco next week, she'll be competing against 91 other women and eight men. Four other contestants are from Maryland: Marjorie Bergemann of Greenbelt (who entered Chewy Chocolate-Peanut Butter Bars); Elizabeth LaDuca of North Potomac (Broccoli Bonanza); and Ernest Crow (Chicken Waldorf Pizza) and Leslie Press (Mini Picadillo Empanadas), both of Rockville.

"I'll be fine no matter what the outcome," says Barclay. "Who knows what the whims will be and what the judges will be looking for?"

Southwestern Chicken Biscuits

Makes 20 biscuits

2 (12-ounce) cans Hungry Jack Refrigerated Flaky Biscuits

1 (9-ounce) package (2 cups) frozen cooked Southwestern-seasoned chicken breast strips, thawed, diced

1 (4.5-ounce) can Old El Paso Chopped Green Chilies

4 ounces (1 cup) shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1 tablespoon instant minced onion

1 cup Old El Paso Thick 'n Chunky Salsa

fresh cilantro sprigs

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray 20 muffin cups with nonstick cooking spray. Separate dough into 20 biscuits. Place one biscuit in each sprayed muffin cup; press to cover bottom and sides of cup.

In medium bowl, combine chicken, chilies, cheese, onion and salsa; mix well. Spoon 2 tablespoons mixture into each dough-lined cup; gently press mixture with back of spoon.

Bake at 400 degrees for 13 to 18 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Remove from muffin cups. Serve warm garnished with cilantro sprigs.

Per biscuit: 150 calories (60 calories from fat); 7 grams total fat (2 grams saturated fat); 10 milligrams cholesterol; 570 milligrams sodium; 15 grams total carbohydrates; 1 gram dietary fiber

-- From Liz Barclay

Mini Picadillo Empanadas

Makes 16 snacks

1/2 pound lean ground beef or turkey

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