SAN FRANCISCO - How to create a recipe that is a contest winner is the million dollar question.
At the 50th Anniversary Pillsbury Bake-Off last week, each of the 100 finalists were winners just by being on the floor of the competition, which was held at the San Francisco Marriott. Each finalist won an expense-paid trip to the event, plus $100 in expense money and a GE Advantium Oven, which cooks in one-eighth the time of a conventional oven.
Some of the finalists were at their second or third Bake-Off. (Finalists can compete a maximum of three times, unless they are the grand prize winner.)
To get some inside tips on how to create a winning recipe, I talked to Sally Peters, director of the Pillsbury Consumer Food Center, during the contest.
"The 100 finalists are picked by an independent agency," she said. "They review correct product usage. These are sent to home economists, who work in their home to read the recipes, looking for the most creative ones."
"Often people send their favorite recipe, which may not be the most creative."
The recipes also are judged on consumer appeal. "Although we don't have a `healthy' category, we will look at that as part of consumer appeal," said Ms. Peters, who has been responsible for recipe evaluation and judging since 1990, for five Bake-Offs.
"About 1,000 of the recipes are tested in our kitchens. We do tolerance testing, which means testing the recipe several times under a range of consumer conditions. Many recipes don't make it because of that."
For example, the filling may come out of a sandwich when it is baked. Or the recipe can't meet the time constraints of the contest. In the Pillsbury competition, being fast and easy was integral in two categories: Easy Weeknight Meals and Fast & Fabulous Desserts & Treats.
Next comes originality. Pillsbury folks check the Internet, Pillsbury recipes, a database of recipes from magazines and newspapers, as well as their library of 5,000 cookbooks.
"It's all part of the narrowing down process," she said. "In the end, 100 recipes are selected with one-quarter in each of four categories."
The best advice is, "Follow the contest directions and make sure the recipe meets all the requirements," she said.
Develop recipes that reflect current and future trends. For example, mango, sugar snap peas, feta cheese, and pine nuts are ingredients that seem to be riding the wave of popularity in 2000. In two years, when the Pillsbury Bake-Off is held again, those items might still be trendy, but others may well be added to the list.
Creativity is important. Guess Again Candy Crunch won the GE Innovation Award this year as the non-cash winning finalist; the recipe was deemed most innovative by the judges. Its secret ingredient was Progresso plain bread crumbs. Those who tasted it, couldn't believe it.
The three major recipe contests - major because of the amount of prize money - are now held every other year. They are:
The Pillsbury Bake-Off, which will return in 2002;
The National Chicken Cooking Contest, which has a grand prize of $25,000 and a deadline for entries of Oct. 15 for the competition in 2001 (for information and entry forms, visit the Web site: www.eatchicken.com);
The National Beef Cook-Off will be held in 2001; the grand prize in 1999 was $30,000. The deadline for entries will be announced.
There are many other recipe contests. The Bays English Muffins "Kids' Recipe Round-Up" National Recipe Contest has a grand prize of "Wonders of the West," a family vacation to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, or $15,000 in cash. Deadline for entries is March 31. For information, visit the Bays Web site at www.bays.com.