PHOENIX — Rumors that Monday's contest was to be the last of the long-lived Pillsbury Bake-Offs were flying wildly as members of the press, contestants and others attending the 34th chapter of this venerable culinary competition arrived here over the weekend. But Paul Walsh, chief operating officer of Pillsbury, Inc., speaking at a seminar preceding the Bake-Off, quickly put them to rest.
Pillsbury has no plans to drop the popular cooking contest so long as there is interest in it on the part of consumers, he assured his questioners. In fact, plans are already well under way to hold the next of the biannual events at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in 1992. The first Bake-Off was held in 1949 in New York City. It was held annually in various cities around the country until 1976 when it became a biannual event.
The appeal of the Bake-Off is legendary, largely because the value of the cash and other prizes is sizable. Cash prizes amount to $126,000, including a grand prize of $40,000, five $10,000 prizes and 18 $2,000 prizes. In addition, Pillsbury's co-sponsor, Sears, provides the grand prize winner with a $10,000 kitchen make-over. They also give the $10,000 winners a choice of a Sears Kenmore gas or electric range, and the $2,000 prize winners receive Kenmore food processors. Each finalist also receives a free trip to the Bake-Off site to compete in the finals.
Because of the lure of the Bake-Off prizes, many finalists are repeat contestants, entering the contest year after year. This year was no exception. Of the 99 cooks who made it to this year's finals, (one California contestant had to drop out at the last minute) six were back for the third time and 16 were competing for the second time. Fourteen Californians, several of whom were repeaters, competed this year.
The 34th Bake-Off offered entrants a greatly expanded list of products that could be used in the recipes they entered. Besides the usual Pillsbury brand products such as flour, cake mixes, biscuits, rolls and pie and pizza dough, contestants could also use Pillsbury's Green Giant brand canned and frozen vegetables.
As food trends and cooking techniques change throughout the years, so do the entries in the Bake-Off. This year was no exception. Contestants entered recipes classed as ethnic specialties, quick meals, indulgent treats or healthful alternatives in any of six basic categories based on Pillsbury products.
Southwestern and Mexican flavorings and ingredients were popular with both those who made it to the finals and those who didn't. Low fat, high fiber foods appeared often, however, the healthful trend took a back seat to good flavor in many cases, particularly in the indulgent treat category. Chocolate remains the number one flavor in sweets and liquor and liquers were much in evidence as ingredients in the dessert entries.
The inclusion of canned and frozen vegetables as products acceptable for use under contest rules brought about a wide array of soup, pizza and casserole entries. Spinach was by far the favorite vegetable of the finalists and many commented that their recipes helped them persuade their children to eat the "dreaded green."
One major change in the way we eat was noted by Pillsbury. At the first Bake-Off, only nine spices and herbs were called for by the finalists. Monday's competition sent company shoppers on the search for 34 different flavorings. And if there is any doubt that pizzas are popular, walking up and down the aisles among the ranges in use during the Bake-Off, one found that seven competitors were preparing everything from chicken fajita pizza to a hearty Reuben pizza.
Flour is still the most popular ingredient in the Bake-Off although Pillsbury home economists noted that in numerous entries baking mixes are being used the way flour was 20 years ago. Chocolate cake mix and brownie mix are becoming "chocolate flour" in recipes that often call for additional chocolate as well. It took 23 different kinds of chocolate to fill the needs of the finalists.
Nuts also were popular ingredients in this year's finals. However macadamias, pine nuts and almonds seem to have replaced walnuts in both sweet and savory foods. The Bake-Off finalists required 480 bags, cans and jars of nuts. The contestants also required 44 springform pans, in place of more conventional pans, and 56 muffin pans, ranging in size from miniature to "Texas-size."
Oat bran was used with a heavy hand in many recipes that were entered. Pillsbury home economists found, however, that oat bran was often added in such huge amounts that the results were so unpalatable the recipes didn't make the finals.
On the plus side in their search for healthful recipes, many contestants and would-be contestants utilized low fat and low sodium ingredients such as egg substitutes and low-fat or nonfat yogurts in place of sour cream quite successfully.