When Elizabeth Bennett got the call, she thought she was going to hyperventilate.
This was it, this was the moment. The Mill Creek woman was a finalist in the granddaddy of all cooking contests: the Pillsbury Bake-off.
“I was trying not to scream; I was in utter shock,” Bennett said.
For people who don’t watch the Food Network incessantly, who don’t subscribe to Bon Appetite, who don’t know a spatula from a rubber scraper, let’s clear something up.
Being chosen for the Pillsbury Bake-off is a bit like finding the golden ticket into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It puts Bennett within reach of a million-dollar-prize and everlasting cooking contest glory.
The bake-off, set for April 13-15 in Dallas, is one of the oldest and most respected amateur cooking contests in the nation. Tens of thousands of people enter their original recipes for the bake-off and only 100 are chosen.
Some of the past bake-off winners’ creations have become iconic American favorites, such as 1957 winner Freda Smith’s Peanut Blossoms, those peanut butter cookies with the chocolate kiss that everyone brings to potlucks.
Bennett isn’t sure if her creation, mocha-walnut bars with dark chocolate ganache, is good enough to be the next recipe we’re all lugging to Christmas parties. But it’s a dream just to make it to the finals, she said.
One other Washington state resident made it to the finals this year. Sheilah Fiola, a freight loader from Kent, created “peanuttiest peanut butter brownie bars.”
Bennett doesn’t have any professional cooking experience, and she doesn’t have a professional’s kitchen; she whips up her winning recipes on Formica countertops and bakes them in a 1988 General Electric oven with one blown element.
That said, she isn’t a neophyte in the cooking contest world. She began entering amateur cooking contests three years ago. Since then, she has entered dozens and won or placed in the finals of 10.
Her hobby has netted her thousands of dollars and an odd assortment of prizes, including a ceramic burger sculpture and 25 pounds of cheese.
She has already received a new microwave for making it to the finals of this contest.
She dreamed up her recipe one Saturday afternoon when “I should have been doing vacuuming and laundry.” It came together in one try, despite Bennett’s resistance to measuring.
Every contest has its own particular set of rules and expectations, and part of the game is adhering strictly to the rules and trying to second-guess what the judges may be looking for, she said.
Pillsbury tends to favor recipes that are relatively simple to prepare with easy-to-find ingredients. The bake-off requires entrants to use at least one ingredient from a list of Pillsbury products and a secondary list of sponsored products, such as brand-name peanut butter or jam. The rest of the recipe must be entirely the entrant’s own creation.
Contestants can enter as many recipes as they want.
How many recipes did Bennett enter? She looks a little embarrassed.
Among her cooking contest friends, that’s average.
“I know one gal who sent in 59,” she said.
She’s surprised the mocha-walnut bar recipe, of all the recipes, was the one the judges liked. She entered cheesecake torts layered with preserves, a dozen different pizzas and appetizers.
This recipe, with its seven ingredients, seems almost too simple, she said. But maybe that’s what the judges are looking for.
Or maybe it’s the addition of coffee to the recipe that got her in.
“That’s a popular ingredient right now,” she said.
Several of the recipes in her category include coffee-drink influences and teas.
Bennett’s favorite See’s candy, a caramel-walnut confection half-dipped in dark chocolate, inspired her recipe.
Her creation is a three-layer bar cookie. The bottom layer is salty-sweet with chopped walnuts mixed with melted butter and sugar. The middle layer mixes refrigerator dough, the Pillsbury product, with instant espresso. A silky layer of ganache ripples across the top.
The cookie takes three hours to prepare, but most of that time is spent waiting for parts to cool. The preparation is easy and the results don’t look or taste as if they had anything to do with something that came from a can in the refrigerated section.
The cookie bars are a mouth-pleasing mixture of smooth and soft cookie paired with the nutty bottom and silky top. They offer just a hint of coffee flavor.
“They are rich,” Bennett said.
The 100 entrants in the bake-off are divided into several categories, including breakfast and brunches, pizza creations, entertaining appetizers, Mexican favorites and sweet treats — that’s Bennett’s.
Category winners receive $5,000 and a $2,000 double oven.
“I would love to win my category, but I don’t expect to win,” she said. “The competition is stiff, stiff, stiff.”
For instance, she points to the “pistachio mousse brownie torte” entered by a Gainesville, Fla., woman, with its attractive chocolatey layers and puffs of pistachio fluff.
At the moment, she can’t wrap her brain around winning the million-dollar prize.
“I’m not expecting to win,” she said again. “It’s the mother of all cooking contests, one of the oldest and most prestigious. It’s an absolute honor and this is kind of a life goal.”
Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or email@example.com
Mocha-walnut bars with dark chocolate ganache
2-1/2 cups very finely chopped walnuts
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1 roll (16.5 oz) refrigerated sugar cookies
1 tablespoon instant espresso coffee granules
1-1/2 cups dark chocolate chips
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons whipping cream
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, stir walnuts, sugar and butter until moistened. Press mixture evenly on bottom of ungreased 13- by 9-inch pan or 12- by 8-inch (2-quart) glass baking dish. Bake 8 to 15 minutes or until edges are just golden brown. Cool 30 minutes.
In a large bowl, knead cookie dough and espresso granules until blended. Drop small spoonfuls of dough evenly over walnut crust. Gently press dough together evenly over crust. (If dough is sticky, use floured fingers.)
Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 30 minutes.
In a medium microwavable bowl, microwave chocolate chips and whipping cream uncovered on high one minute, stirring after 30 seconds; stir until chips are melted and mixture is smooth. Spread chocolate mixture over bars. Refrigerate 1 hour.
Cut into six rows by four rows. Cover and refrigerate any remaining bars.
Makes 24 bars