Friday, April 16, 2010

Pillsbury Bake-Off & Baking from Scratch

The Pillsbury Bake-Off represents the American Dream--it doesn't matter who you are, or where you come from, create a great recipe and you could win a million dollars. It's a celebration of creativity and excellence, or at least it should be.

If you were to look at past winning entries from the early years of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, you'd find they were baked from scratch using homegrown ingredients. Now with an emphasis on ease of use, and a proliferation of processed food, the finalists and "winning" recipes almost always use a premade mix or refrigerated dough such as biscuit dough, French bread dough, pizza dough, or pie crust. In some cases, because those processed foods have been discontinued, you can't even duplicate the winning recipes from years past.

Does creativity come out of a can or a box? I suppose it's possible. But my experience tasting some of the dishes at the 44th Pillsbury Bake-Off was disappointing. The savory dishes were too salty, the sweet dishes too sweet. Great taste was too often stifled by artificial tasting products and a lack of balance in flavors and textures. Even classic recipes like galettes and pizzas were hampered by the the processed products they included.

According to the rules, contestants must use one primary and one secondary ingredient. In the primary category nine products were refrigerated doughs, there was one brownie mix and last but not least, good old Pillsbury flour. Very few bakers made it to the finals, baking the old fashioned way, from scratch, with flour as their primary ingredients (I counted only five out of the 100 finalists). I'd like to salute three of them that did:

Denise Hopper
Denise Hopper<br />
Deluxe Triple Chocolate Cookies
Denise told me she uses Pillsbury products, but that "nothing tastes as good as homemade." She bakes 16-18 types of cookies at Christmas for her friends and neighbors and has been making this cookie for 10 years. It was inspired by her son who ate peanut butter and nutella sandwiches for lunch and had hot cocoa before bed. It combines all his favorites--peanut butter, hot cocoa mix, hazelnut spread with cocoa (nutella) and chocolate chips. A bit of oatmeal adds texture. This was her first time entering the contest.

Cara Sapida
Cara Sapida
Chocolate Peanut Butter Layered Cupcakes
Cara said, in her family they only use real butter and cream, nothing lowfat. She was trying to make a chocolate cupcake with a peanut butter filling but failed. But the peanut butter reminded her of a family recipe for peanut butter fudge so she tweaked the recipe, layering the peanut butter filling and chocolate dough and studding it with peanut butter and chocolate chips. This was also her first time entering the contest. She told me she Google'd "Pittsburgh baking competition" and the Pillsbury Bake-Off came up so she entered it.

Michelle Gauer
Michelle Gauer
Double Chocolate Orange Scones
Back in November, Michelle, a cooking contest enthusiast, started her blog, Best of the Best Recipes, where she shares her own recipes and tests out others. She was inspired by coffee shops where she is often dismayed in finding scones too dry. First she tried making a white chocolate strawberry scone and while it was good, her love of chocolate and orange led to a rich scone that made the cut. She used whipping cream and orange marmalade to create a rich and moist texture.

I'm sorry to say none of these contestants won the contest. I really liked Denise's cookies a lot. I would definitely make them. Cara's cupcakes were good, but perhaps too rich and decadent. Just a nibble was enough for me. Michelle's scones were really more like brownies than scones, but they were pretty tasty. I hope in the future the Pillsbury Bake-Off will encourage more contestants to bake from scratch. Maybe they could consider adding a "baking form scratch" category? After all, it's the Pillsbury heritage, and what their contest used to be all about.