Amateur cooking competitions earn an array of awards, from tangible to silly.
A cookbook or a trip to someplace exotic – such as Wichita or Grand Forks – or the moniker of The Best Recipe Ever Created (exclamation point optional, but usually included in those kinds of contests).
Then there are cash payouts, the serious side of cooking contests.
Winning a $10,000 national cook-off award might prompt an apron hangup for some contestants weary of laborious contest rules.
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Not Bonney Lake’s Donna Beck, who scored a $10,000 award at last year’s Charleston Wine and Food Festival for a burger recipe she concocted for her teenagers.
Today, the oncology nurse is one of 100 amateur cooks competing at the big daddy of cooking competitions with a million dollar prize – the 47th Pillsbury Bake-Off in Nashville.
She’s entered food competitions only since 2009 but is a second-time contestant for the Pillsbury million-dollar payout.
A funny reverse-order set of circumstances prompted Beck to enter contests.
Instead of mother inspiring daughter to compete, it worked the other way around. Beck’s daughter, Emma Potts, won Red Robin’s 2009 National Kids’ Cook-Off with her Spicy Honey Glazed Bacon Burger.
Here are edited excerpts from a phone interview about Beck’s ride on the amateur contest circuit.
Question: Besides the Charleston award, what other recipe or cooking contests have you won?
Answer: I was flown to Seville in Spain for a contest put on by a company that makes olive oil in Spain. I made salmon poached in olive oil with tangerine and fennel.
Q: Is that how you win, by making the company’s ingredient the star?
A: That’s the reality of any recipe contest – if you can find out how to highlight the ingredients, it gives you a better chance of winning. So I thought if I poached salmon in olive oil and did a slow poach, it would infuse the flavor of the oil. And I paired it with tangerine and fennel and they noticed the creativity there.
Q: What other tips do you have?
A: The absolute first is to read the rules. Some are incredibly specific. You can be eliminated for not listing the ingredients in the order you used them. The first thing I do is print the rules, highlight unusual portions and I tweak my recipe.
Q: What did you cook at last year’s Vegas Pillsbury Bake-Off?
A: My recipe was called Ham and Creamy Sriracha Pizza. It was a Pillsbury pizza crust with sauce made with cream cheese, apricot preserves and Sriracha (the spicy garlic chili sauce). It was like pizza crack. You can’t stop eating it.
Q: Did your kids develop a pizza crack habit?
A: My teenagers loved it. My son (a student at University of Washington now) could eat two to three whole pizzas himself.
Q: Are they your chief taste testers?
A: Definitely. My husband, Greg; son, T.J.; and daughter, Emma.
Q: Who taught you to cook?
A: I’m really a self-taught cook. I didn’t know how to cook when we got married. We’d warm up frozen things, awful things. After the kids were born, I started watching Food Network and watching cooking shows. I didn’t want to be the warm-up cook mom. I wanted to try cooking and giving my kids healthier things to eat.
Q: Last year, the Pillsbury contest had online voting for semi-finalists. Did you beg for votes?
A: I grovelled and begged. It was perfect strangers I was asking. When you have a shot at Pillsbury, it’s the white whale of cooking contests. It’s the one everyone wants to get in, so you do what you gotta do.
Q: What was it like cooking your ham pizza live for judges last year?
A: You have to imagine a huge ballroom the size of two football fields, set up with 100 cooking stations. You march into the ballroom to an acoustic band playing with wooden spoons on pots and pans. It was like from the movie “Stomp.” It was like going into the Super Bowl of cooking contests.
Q: What was that moment like?
A: I was dazed for what felt like about five minutes. They give you time to make the recipe three times, and then you give your best representation to the judges. You choose if you want it to go to the judges. If not, then you make it again.
Q: Do the judges stare at you to throw you off your game?
A: It’s all very secretive. The judges are in another room. We don’t know who they are. You sign a legal document, which was all very boring.
Q: What were you thinking as they shuttled your ham pizza?
A: I didn’t think I’d win last year and I wasn’t surprised I didn’t win. The recipe was really spicy. Really spicy is really good to a lot of people, but not to others. So this year, I made something that’s a more moderate approach, spice wise. … It’s a Chicken and Bacon Peppadew Pepper Panini.
Q: Peppadew peppers are an unexpected ingredient around here. Where did you come up with that?
A: The first one I had was in Napa, California. My husband and I had driven there and we were exploring. We stopped at a market for the cliche picnic ingredients – goat cheese and bread – and we saw this jar of peppadews. I got them and loved them, the sweet and spicy nature of them.
Q: How do you use peppadews in this recipe?
A: I use a Pillsbury biscuit that I smash into a five-inch round and cook on a contact griddle, like a George Foreman grill, so that it’s a biscuit, but crispy, like a panini bread.
I take those biscuits off and spread them with a pesto cream cheese mixture, then layer with cooked chicken breast, crisp bacon, then peppadew peppers, then cover with another crispy biscuit, then I put it back on the griddle to cook until it’s melted and just right.
Q: Is it panini crack?
A: Yes! You get the salt from the bacon, kind of an earthiness from the pesto and the sweetness from the peppadew pepper. It’s a really well-balanced bite. There’s a little bit of heat, but nothing like the in-your-face Sriracha.
Q: Is the real key to winning selecting big flavors?
A: I think so. Most contests want something easy to cook, but prefer complicated and extravagant for flavor.
Q: What’s your biggest worry about the contest?
A: I’m most worried I’m going to burn something or my recipe won’t come out how I planned, but most of that can be alleviated with practice, plus you get three chances to make it.
I’m really excited to go to Nashville, because I’ve never been there, but I’d really like to win. My son goes to UW and it was a lot to get him there. It’s money worth spending, but it’s a lot of money. Winning would help.
Q: What’s your advice for anyone wanting to tackle the Pillsbury cook-off?
A: I say go for it. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I’m not trained in food, all I do is watch cooking shows and read about food. I don’t think it’s a really special talent I have, it’s just an interest. You can learn a lot on your own without going to culinary school. Just read the rules, highlight the product as best you can.
Anyone can do what I have done.