10 Winning Tips for The Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest

10 Tips for the Pillsbury Bake Off Contest Thumbnail.jpg

This time last year I was getting ready to travel to Orlando, Florida to compete in the 45th Annual Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest.  In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined the outcome that happened!  Who will create the million dollar grand prize recipe this year?  I think it could be you!!  Get working on those recipes!!

The Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest (PBO) began in 1949 as the “Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest.”  That first contest was held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.  Pillsbury executives and their advertising agency created the contest as an opportunity to promote Pillsbury Best Flour and as a way for homemakers to share their original recipes.  The grand prize that first year was $50,000.  In 1996 the grand prize was raised to $1,000,000!  The contest was held every year until 1976 at which time it switched to every other year.  This year’s 46th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest, to be held in Las Vegas, NV, marks a return to holding the contest annually once again. 

1950 Grand National Bake-Off, NYC

The Duchess of Windsor, second from right, the former Wallis Simpson, congratulates winners of the Pillsbury Grand National Bake-off. From left are Mrs. Bernard Derousseau of Rice Lake, Wis., who won a $5,000 first prize in a junior division of the bake-off, and Mrs. Peter Wuebel, of Redwood City, Calif., winner of the $25,000 first prize in the bake-off. The women are joined by Philip W. Pillsbury, president of Pillsbury Mills, who along with Wuebel, holds the "Orange Kiss Me Cake," which won the top prize.

Photo, The Associated Press

Through the decades, the contest has seen changes that have followed American cultural changes.  In the early days of the contest, the baked creations were all made from scratch, as many mothers were homemakers at the time.  Convenience foods were added to the Bake-Off’s list of approved ingredients in the 1960’s following America’s increased use of prepared and packaged food products.  Ethnic flavors have been more prevalent in the past decade of the contest due to our desire to explore global cuisine.  The emphasis in the mid-90’s was “quick and easy”.  This year’s contest seeks recipes that are even “quicker and simpler” with streamlined recipe categories, smaller ingredient list requirements and strict cooking time frame limits.  New also this year, the contest incorporates a larger voting component than in years past.  This follows the trend of most companies today who utilize social media in advertising.

My Savory & Sweet Breakfast Biscuit Sliders from the 44th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. 2010

Photo: Pillsbury

I was lucky enough to have been a finalist in the 44th PBO in 2010.  My recipe, Savory & Sweet Breakfast Biscuit Sliders, was in the breakfast & brunch category that year.  I had a wonderful time being a finalist and met some great new friends who I still communicate with today.  Even though I was so happy to be a finalist, you always hold out this teeny tiny hope that maybe your name will be read as won of the prize winners.  In my heart, I knew that my recipe probably wasn’t the million dollar winner, but you still hold out hope for one of the other prizes.  Alas, there was no prize for my sliders that year.  

I remember a moment when I was leaving the awards show and passed by a conference room and there through the open door I saw Sue Compton and the other semi-finalists fielding questions in a press conference.   I thought to myself that that was pretty darn cool and I was going to give it my best shot in the next Bake-Off to see if I could make it back as a finalist, possibly score a prize and a press conference!  

I decided to have some strategy this time around.  I liked my slider recipe from the 44th.  But I felt I could do better.   There was a dominance of sweets and chicken dishes among the grand prize winners in the past.  This is where I would focus my efforts.  The recipes had to be somewhat simple yet have a new and trendy element that would catch the eye.  I decided to come up with a handful of chicken and sweet recipes that I really loved. 

The savory dishes came to me first:  A chicken masala dish with “naan” breads made out of the breadstick dough, a Cuban biscuit sandwich with black bean soup and a lattice breadstick topped chicken cacciatore casserole.  One dessert was individual cappuccino chocolate chip cookie icebox cakes and the other was Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream.

The pumpkin ravioli recipe was inspired by the simple flavors of another Pillsbury recipe, Crescent Sopapilla Cheesecake Squares.  I liked how the cream cheese, crescent rolls and cinnamon all worked together.  It was also inspired by the “hot & fresh mini doughnuts cinnamon sugar rolled, trio of dipping sauces” served at our local restaurant, Nectar.  I liked the idea of coating the ravioli in cinnamon sugar like a doughnut and providing a dipping sauce.  The pumpkin part of the recipe did not come until later.  I wasn’t happy with the plain sweetened cream cheese filling and was trying to come up with a flavor to add.  Pumpkin popped into my head out of the blue.  I like to think my dad, who passed away in 2006, “popped” that idea into my head.  The only dish my father ever cooked were the pumpkin pies for our Thanksgiving dinner every year!  I would say I spent the better part of a week, used up many blue tubes of dough and had gained a few extra pounds by the time I had perfected the recipe.

Experimenting with various ravioli forming methods while developing the pumpkin ravioli recipe. January, 2011

Testing different filling flavors while developing ravioli recipe.  January, 2011

The call came on August 30, 2011!  General Mills called and I was going to be a finalist in the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off with my pumpkin ravioli recipe!  Off we went to The Orlando Peabody Resort in late March, 2012!  The Bake-Off events lasted 3 days.  The busy schedule was filled with meetings, orientations and delicious food!  I was so thrilled to get the opportunity to be a finalist a 2nd time, I don’t think my feet ever touched the ground!

Being interviewed while working on my recipe at the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off.

The actual Bake-Off Contest was a whirlwind of excitement from “the grand march”, the traditional start of the event, until the last entry was turned into the judges just under the wire.  The contest lasts for four hours.  During that time you make your recipe 2-3 times, pose for photos, film some video, get interviewed by press and food celebrities, meet the doughboy and have fun with the contestants around you.

The next morning we were lined up to enter the set of The Martha Stewart Show that had been set up in the conference center of the hotel.  We were all very excited and were wishing each other good luck!  Martha was getting ready to announce the dessert category winner.  I watched her mouth form a letter “p”.  I heard her say the word “pumpkin”, and I thought to myself, “Who else made a recipe with pumpkin?”  It took a moment to register and then I sprung from my seat and made my way to the stage to stand next to Martha!  Unbelievable!!!  More unreal was when she called my name as the Grand Prize winner!!  Then there was confetti and tears and hugs!  

My Bake-Off events came full circle shortly after the show when I got to sit next to Martha at my own press conference!!  Incredibly amazing!!

At the press conference with Martha Stewart following the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest.

The new 46th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest is now accepting recipe entries!!  I would love to see you at the next press conference!!  So get cracking on those recipes!!  Below are my 10 tips to help you create your winning recipe and successfully compete in Las Vegas at the next Bake-Off!  

10 Winning Tips for The Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest:

1. Do Your Recipe Contest Homework:

Go to www.pillsbury.com and sign up to be a member of the website.  Print out the contest rules and the eligible product lists.  Read the FAQs.  Read the rules very carefully, paying special attention to deadline dates, times, recipe ingredient limitations, recipe time limitations and recipe category descriptions.  Develop recipes that use their product(s) in a new and creative way while also trying to incorporate a trendy or fun element.  Consider that this recipe should appeal to the Pillsbury “audience” of consumers and also that it will be judged by “foodie” chefs and food professionals.

2. Get Your Inspiration & Creativity On:

I gather inspiration from wherever I can.  I read food magazines, the newspaper food section, cookbooks and blogs.  When I go out to eat I study the menu.  I have been watching cooking shows since I was a teenager.  If I have extra time while grocery shopping, I like to look for ingredients that I have never used before.  I also look for products that contain multiple ingredients/flavors.  Ingredients such as these are particularly useful in contests with ingredient limits.  These are methods that I use to gather ideas for my recipes.  This is not to say that you should copy anyone's work (that is a huge no-no and chances are you will be caught), but sometimes just reading a certain food word will connect with something in the recesses of your food brain and will spark a new idea.  You should also be creative when coming up with your recipe titles.  Study the former winners of the contest and see what recipe names are used.  Get a sense of what the contest may be looking for in a recipe title.  Try to create a title that will catch someone's attention.  

3. Test, Tweak, Take Notes:

Gather all your ingredients and test your recipe.  Take notes every step of the way.  You will need these notes later on when you write up your recipe on the computer.  Make sure you note ingredient amounts, ingredient preparations, preparation times, cooking times, cooling times, etc. Take note of specific types and sizes of equipment used.  If the recipe isn’t just the way you want it the first time, figure out what you want to tweak and then try it again, taking more notes.  I also like experimenting to find out if the recipe can be prepared in advance and reheated and whether or not it takes well to freezing.

4. Writing Rules:  

There are rules to writing recipes.  Some contests like you to follow their specific rules.  Most contests these days have some sort of an online form for entering your recipe.  I like to type my recipe fully in my word processing program and save it before I enter it anywhere.  Then I’ll cut and paste the parts of the recipe from my document into the online recipe submission form.  This way if something happens like your computer crashes right in the middle of your submission, you won’t have to start from scratch on writing out the recipe. 

List the ingredients in the order they are used

List the specific amounts of the ingredients and be consistent with your measurement types

List whether ingredients should be chopped, minced, diced, etc…

Write the method in a logical sequence using short sentences

5.  Proofread, Proofread, Proofread:

Read your recipe over and over.  Read it on your computer and print the recipe out and read it.  Read it forwards and backwards.  Match the ingredients in the list to the ingredients in the method, making sure you don’t forget to mention one in the other.  Have someone else read it for you to see if it makes sense.  Then read it again!

6. Connect with Others:

If and when (hopefully!!) you become a finalist, it is a great help to find other finalists to communicate with.  You will have lots of questions and chances are there are others who will have the same questions and/or already know the answers.  A great place to start is a cooking contest website called, Cooking Contest Central (there is an annual fee to join this site).  Here you can learn about contests and participate in contest forums.  If you hit it off with people on the website, you can hook up with them on Facebook as well.  Also, with this year's voting component to the contest you are going to want to get the word out to your friends and family to vote for your recipe.  So if you don't currently use social media, it may be something you want to start exploring. 

7. Equipment & Ingredients:  

When you are a finalist you will have the opportunity to approve the ingredients and equipment that will provided for you at the Bake-Off.  It is crucial that you make sure everything you need is on the list.  If you forget something, chances are it will not be supplied to you. 

8. Plan Your “Game Day” Strategy:

The Bake-Off floor ready for action!

The Bake-Off floor ready for action!

If this upcoming Bake-Off is like the two I participated in you will have 20 minutes in your cooking station before they allow the press onto the Bake-Off floor to begin their interviews.  Have a plan in your head for what you want to accomplish during this time when you will be free of interruption.  I planned to get an overview of where all my equipment/ingredients were.  I opened any containers that would need opening (besides the blue tubes).  I also tried to get my chopping done at this time.  I didn’t want to have any cut fingers because someone startled me while I was chopping.  Also, have a plan in your head for when you want to turn your dish into the judges.  If my first round of ravioli looked and tasted good, I was going to take them to the judges.  I like to serve them warm and I knew I would feel most confident if my first batch turned out well.  Other contestants would make all three batches and decide which looked best before turning them in.  This is a good option if your dish doesn’t need to be served at a certain temperature.

9. Have a “Geek” Folder:

I was a total “geek” before the Bake-Off carrying around a folder with all my PBO related papers.  But if I feel prepared, I am less nervous.  I had printouts of my recipe, my equipment and ingredient lists, my strategy plan (see, total geek!)  You won’t be allowed to bring this on the Bake-Off floor with you, but you can review it beforehand.

Hanging out with the Doughboy!

Hanging out with the Doughboy!

10. Breathe, Have Fun, & Make Friends!  

Being a finalist at the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest is such a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Make sure you enjoy every moment, take pictures and make friends.  Take a break in the midst of your baking to breathe and “soak it all in!”  Being a finalist is such a special moment and quite an accomplishment!!  When you are a finalist, you are part of The Pillsbury Bake-Off Family with a history that goes back to 1949!!  

I wish you the best of luck!!!  I’ll be rooting for you!! Tina ( :

For More Pillsbury Bake-Off Information Check Out:

Books:

THE UNGARNISHED TRUTH, "A Cooking Contest Memoir" by: Ellie Matthews (Grand Prize PBO Winner)

BAKED-OFF! Memoirs of A Pillsbury Bake-Off Junkie, by: Steve Grieger (Three time PBO Finalist)

COOKOFF, Recipe Fever in America by : Amy Sutherland

Blogs:  

Debbie & Kristina Vanni, a mother, daughter duo with their own Bake-Off histories, wrote a series of blogs on the history of the PBO.  Just search on their blogs for Bake-Off.  Click the links below:

The Culinary Cellar, Debbie Vanni

The Daily Dish, Kristina Vanni

Videos:

My family and I were invited up to visit General Mills/Pillsbury after the PBO.  Here are two videos we filmed, click the links below:

Meet the Million Dollar Winner

How to Make Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream

We had a great visit to General Mills in MN after the Bake-Off!

If you have any Bake-Off questions, leave in the comment section below and I'll do my best to answer them.  

Thanks for spending some time in the cloud with me!! Tina ( :