SAN DIEGO — It has changed drastically throughout the years, but the 37-year-old Pillsbury Bake-Off continues to be a bellwether for what's happening in the kitchens of America. The grandparent of all cooking contests may not provide recipes that will fill restaurant tables, but those that make it to the finals are good indications of what's going on in the home. Fads may come and go, but when a fad makes it to the Bake-Off, you know it's no longer a fad; it's a trend.
This year's contest, the 33rd, was no exception to its predecessors. (In recent years, Pillsbury has held the Bake-Off in alternate years only.) The 100 finalists from 31 states came prepared to compete with one another for $126,000 in prizes.
Each contestant cooked his or her recipe several times, once for the panel of judges to sample, once for display and photos and the rest for eager onlookers to sample. Contestants entered in one of six categories, ranging from flour, cake mix and microwave cake mix and refrigerated crescent dinner rolls and biscuits to canned vegetables, frozen vegetables and refrigerated pie crusts.
A $10,000 prize and three $2,000 prizes were awarded in each of the categories and in addition to the $10,000 category first prize, one lucky winner took home an additional $30,000 cash as grand prize winner, plus a $10,000 Sears "Redo Your Kitchen" shopping spree.
Sears, which has replaced General Electric as co-sponsor of the Bake-Off this year for the first time, also provided other extra prizes for the winners. The remaining five $10,000 winners each took home a Sears' Best gas or electric range and all $2,000 winners received Kenmore 12-speed food processors. In addition, all finalists received $100 cash and an all-expense-paid trip to San Diego to compete in the finals.
The canned and frozen vegetable categories were new to the contest this year and added an interesting fillip to many of the recipes. They appeared in casseroles, sandwiches, tortes and quiches. And don't believe anyone who tells you that quiches are out. The Bake-Off was loaded with them under various names: pies, tortes and tarts as well as quiches.
Perhaps the most noticeable trend this year was the same as last year's; American cooks have discovered the wonders of presenting foods attractively. No thrown-together casseroles, here. No uneven pie crusts or hollow-topped cakes, either. Breads were beautiful--well-shaped, evenly browned and tasty. Tarts were works of art. And cakes, which often in the past have suffered from overkill in frosting and decoration, were beautifully understated and obviously products of artistic bakers. American cooks have been observant restaurant diners, it would seem, as many of the presentations would have made professional chefs proud.
In the "what's new" category, it appears that nutrition is high on the list of concerns of today's cooks. Unfortunately they don't always know how to apply this concern to food preparation for, as Marlene Johnson of Pillsbury's consumer communications department told the food press attending: "Add certain ingredients--like whole-wheat flour, wheat germ, granola or shredded vegetables--to a recipe and it automatically becomes 'nutritious,' regardless of fat content, calorie count or sodium level."
Johnson also said that nationwide the trifle is a current dessert craze. Ethnic cuisines and specialty ingredients such as white chocolate, artichoke hearts and Brie cheese now appear to have entered the mainstream of cooking, she said.
As always Bake-Off recipes reflected the popularity of apples and chocolate, but fruit juices, specialty nuts such as macadamias, and other specialty foods such as chorizo, Italian sausage and crab meat ranked high in the list of ingredient choices. The recipes also supported the trend to crossing cultural food lines as in one recipe for colorful chicken fried rice which combined Oriental seasonings with a package of frozen mixed vegetables, canned pineapple chunks and far more chicken meat than would be found in a traditional Chinese stir-fry dish.
But the biggest trend of all was obviously the return to good old, down-home American cooking. Apple pie--old-fashioned or updated--is still a mainstay of home cooking. Casseroles, upscale rather than mere solutions for leftovers, were evident. And above all, there is a broader awareness and use of herbs and spices. Real American cooking has always been good and now it seems to be enjoying a genuine resurgence.
Cake Mix Category
$40,000 Grand Prize Winner
CHOCOLATE PRALINE LAYER CAKE
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1/4 cup whipping cream
1 cup brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1 (18.25-ounce) package pudding-included devil's food cake mix
1 1/4 cups water
1/3 cup oil
Pecan halves, optional
Chocolate curls, optional