The Road to the 46th Pillsbury Bake Off – Part 1

Meatball and Breadstick Sub Skewers

It was January 2013, and I, like many of my fellow competitive cooks, was eagerly waiting for Pillsbury to release the rules for the upcoming Bake Off.   This would be the year that I seriously try my hand at becoming a finalist.  I had attempted to put together a few recipe submissions for the 45th Bake Off, but they all fell flat.  I had tried WAY too hard to create something.  None of the submissions were ones that I would feed my family, none of them had my fingerprint, none of them were me.  So I wasn’t surprised to be watching the festivities from the comfort of my home.

I don’t normally turn on the television during the day, but I made it a point to watch as Martha Stewart announced the grand prize winner, Christina Verrelli.  Wow, oh wow!  A million dollars!  That’s life changing.  I’ve never really been preoccupied with money.  My husband and I have always put family before money, and in doing so, have had to make significant sacrifices.  We were and still are completely content with our decisions.  But as our children grew, it seemed that our expenses did as well.  I bet some of you are there.  Someone needs new shoes…again.  Unexpected medical bills.  A monthly food bill that looks more like a mortgage.   Orthodontic work.  You get it!  And while I completely trust that the Lord will fulfill His promise when He says that He will supply all of my needs, I am keenly aware that that may involve some work and effort on my part.   Last time I looked, the trees in my backyard were only dropping black walnuts not Franklins.   Entering into the competitive cooking arena was a way for me to do something I love, cook, while trying to earn a bit of money from home.

So the day finally came.  The rules were up.  As my hopes started to rise, my stomach quickly began to fall as I read the rules.  The Bake Off had been totally revamped.  In the past, finalists were selected by “The Test Kitchen” based on the merits of their recipe.  This year, Pillsbury would select semi-finalists for each category, then the public would vote to determine which would move on to the finals.  There would be no way I would make it.  I wasn’t into the whole social media thing.  I had three facebook friends (seriously) and rarely posted anything on my site.  I wasn’t into Pinterest or Twitter.  It seemed like this would come down to a popularity contest.

I determined that I would enter one recipe, only one.  I set off to the grocery store to scope out what products I would experiment with.  I picked up two different Pillsbury products and a small assortment of frozen vegetables.  I vowed that I would not allow myself to endlessly experiment and spend money that I didn’t have.  Something would have to come from what I had. Period.

Before cracking open the blue tubes, I set about to do some research.  I took a good look at the finalist recipes from past Bake Offs.  I skimmed over the recipes on the Pillsbury site.  I wasn’t looking for what was there but for what wasn’t there.   I wanted and felt like I needed to create something that hadn’t been done yet.  I didn’t want to make a pizza, sandwich, or a dessert.  I simply didn’t think that I was creative enough to make any of those things make you say “wow”.    After a bit of time I realized that I didn’t see many recipes that used skewers.  I decided that that would be my direction.  It’s kind of funny that I would choose that direction because I’ve avoided skewers all together.  I’m the mom of three boys.  Three boys + skewers = trouble or a trip to the emergency room.

I have to admit that I was not feeling particularly inspired.  I had no idea what I would actually put on the skewers that I had vowed to work with.  Then one evening, while I was rolling out miniature meatballs to pop into a pot of soup, it hit me.  My kids love these little meatballs.  I bet they’d love them more on skewers, maybe with a breadstick twisted around them, with cheese and a dipping sauce.  I had an image in my head of what the finished product would ideally look like, but I wasn’t sure if it would all come together.   My kids were busy playing outside so I took the opportunity to give my recipe a try.  I remember holding my breath when I opened the oven door and exclaiming, “It worked.”  And it had worked.  They looked exactly like what I had envisioned, and more importantly, they were tasty.  Later that evening I scoured over search after search for meatball sub sandwich skewers. I couldn’t find anything like it online.  I knew that this would be my one submission.

The entry period closed.  My one submission was in.   Now the waiting game would begin.  Then one afternoon it happened; an email message from Pillsbury in my inbox.   I clicked it and then nearly passed out.  I couldn’t believe it; they actually picked my recipe.  I called my husband, laughed and shrieked with my kids, and ran barefoot over to my neighbor’s house (she had been one of my loyal taste-testers).  The joy of the moment would soon be replaced with reality.  I’ve got to get people to vote..a lot of people to vote, and I’ve got to do it now.

I made flyers, lots of flyers.  I went door to door.  I spoke at a local Women’s Club.  I bombarded Facebook pages with requests.  I called a local radio station.  A few local newspapers ran articles.  Local restaurants posted my plea for help.  Soon, seemingly everyone in town knew.  The receptionist at the dentist, the cashier at the grocery store, the clerk at the post office, the teller at the bank…they all knew!  Word was getting around.   The voting period came and went.  Now I waited.  I reflected on how hectic the time had been. I had done a lot to try to get votes, but realistically I knew one thing:  if the Lord wants me at the Bake Off, then I’ll be there.  If it’s not part of His will, then I won’t.  I needed to prepare myself to be content either way.  I would have three sets of eyes watching closely.  Would I cry and pout if I didn’t make it or would I congratulate and praise the ones who beat me out?  Would I heap praise upon myself if I did make it or would I proclaim that the Lord had orchestrated it all?

To prevent this from going on forever, I will simply say that I made it through to the finals.  Amazing, truly amazing.  My little recipe for Meatball and Breadstick Sub Skewers would be competing for the big money in Las Vegas.  Las Vegas?  Well now, that will be interesting.

Next up: The Road to Vegas.

The Bird, the Bread, the Bake Off.

<strong>Pillsbury<sup>®</sup></strong> Pumpkin Quick Bread & Muffin Mix


I remember cooking my first Thanksgiving meal.  I was a newlywed who was still finding her way in the kitchen.  At that time in my life, I regularly turned to Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, and the Gorton’s Fisherman for cooking advice.  They were always so helpful and reliable.  Cooking from scratch was not something that was important to me at the time.  However, I knew that I wanted to impress my guests at my first Thanksgiving meal.  I figured that I would cook both a turkey and a fresh ham, neither of which I had ever cooked before.  I feel really old making this statement, but this was before we had a desktop computer.  I didn’t have a plethora of cooking advice and recipes that were strokes away, and, at that time, I don’t even think I owned a cookbook.   I figured that I would wing it.  How hard could it be?  I planned out the menu which included the traditional green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, corn, and a pumpkin bread courtesy of Pillsbury.

The morning of Thanksgiving came.  I cleaned my bird, which I must admit scarred me a bit, popped it in the oven, and began working on my other side dishes.  In short time my potatoes were cut and soaking, and the green bean casserole was assembled and ready for the oven.    But lurking from the top shelf of the refrigerator was the fresh ham.  I was stumped.  I took out that ham, unwrapped it, and stared in awe at the copious amount of fat that encrusted the meat.  I knew how unhealthy all of that fat was so I decided, that since I loved my family so much, I would remove ALL of the fat from the ham and boil it.  Yep, boil it…with all of the fat removed.  I regularly purchased boiled ham from the deli counter so this seemed like a logical, viable option to me.  So, I popped that ham into a big stock pot of water, covered it, and cooked it…for a very   l – o – n – g – g – g  time.  I wanted to be sure that any of the residual fat that I had missed was boiled off.

By this time, the kitchen was filling with the aroma of seemingly delicious food.  I turned my attention to my box of Pillsbury Pumpkin Bread.  This was a special meal so I knew that I wanted to spruce up the bread a bit.  I prepared the batter and added in some fresh apple and a handful of raisins.  I took a swipe at the batter and was surprised at how good it tasted.  I thought that the next time Pillsbury was looking for recipes for their Bake Off, I would submit this one.  It was so creative. I mean, who would think to put some apples and raisins into a pumpkin bread.  Ahem.  Now as I write that, I shake my head and chuckle at how absurd that was, but back then, I was serious (or maybe clueless).

The table was set.  Appetizers and snacks were at the ready.   Guests were arriving.  The bird was resting, and the ham was still simmering…no joke.   My husband began to carve the turkey, which appeared to be quite dry.  I made sure that I made plenty of gravy because gravy could cover a whole world of wrongs.  While my husband began to assemble the dishes on the buffet, I finally removed the ham from the pot and laid it on the cutting board.  When my husband walked back into the kitchen and saw the gray mound sitting atop the board, he asked “What is that?”  I assured him that it was the ham.  We both commented that we had never seen gray ham…ever.  I encouraged him to slice it up.  We placed the ham on the buffet and offered a disclaimer to our guests.  I admitted that I had never cooked a ham and believed that I overcooked it (boy, that was an understatement).

Our Thanksgiving meal was a fun and joyous time. Our entire family was there.  I recollect that there wasn’t much talk about the food at the table.  Not any comments like, “This turkey is so moist and flavorful.” or “You have to give me the recipe for …”.  Yeah, no, there was none of that.  However, many people did comment on how good the pumpkin bread was, and I was more than willing to offer up my secret.  At the end of the day I remember thinking how cool it was that everyone enjoyed that bread so much, and at that point, I convinced myself that I would one day enter the Pillsbury Bake Off.

Fast forward 16 years.  November 4, 2013.  Las Vegas.  The Aria Hotel.  The Ironwood Ballroom.  Workstation number 83.  The 46th Pillsbury Bake Off.   Me, a finalist, cooking my recipe with 99 other hopefuls for the judges.  And, no, I was not preparing pumpkin bread!

A lot happened in those 16 years.  Somewhere along the way I picked up some food sense and cooking skills.  I developed a passion for good food, food that was prepared with my own two hands and required more than pulling open a box or setting up a crisping sheet in the microwave.  Food became one way, not the most important way, but one way for me to show my family and friends that I loved and cared for them.

I was fortunate to have been a finalist in the Bake Off last year, and find it utterly amazing that I will be returning to the Bake Off as a finalist this year as well.  I want to take the next few blog posts to chronicle my journey from last year and to keep you up to speed on this year’s venture.  More than anything it will be a way to have a written record for my kids to look back on one day.

So, if you dare, peek back every few days to see what I’ve added.  Although the topic will be about the Pillsbury Bake Off, I’ll be sharing some lessons I learned along the way, lessons that have nothing to do with food.

The Journey Begins

Welcome to my new blog, my first blog, Life in the Van.  Let me explain the title.  No, we don’t live in a van.  My kids were concerned about that one.  However, as the mom of three active boys, I do feel like I live in the van at times.  Life happens in that van.  Great talks.  Laughter.  Off key singing.  Often the van is the first seat after a celebration.  It’s the place we exhale.

This blog is meant to be a way for me to share the things that are on my heart, a way to pass along some encouragement, and a way to remind each of us that there is great joy to be found in the simple things in life.  For me, those things are faith, family, food, and fun!

So who is the one behind the wheel of the “van”, behind the words on the page?  Here’s me in a nutshell:

Faith: For me, it’s all about my faith in the Lord, my relationship with the Lord, and my daily walk with Him.  It’s about knowing that only by His grace, only by His love, and only by His forgiveness can I get up each morning to a fresh new day where his mercies are new.  Under the Faith category I’ll share what the Lord’s been teaching me, what I’ve been wrestling with, and some encouragement for our daily lives.

Family:  These are the people you laugh with, cry with, grow with, and learn with.   For me, that’s my husband and three boys.  We’re a simple family, kind of down-to-earth.  We love to laugh and goof around.  Our house doesn’t look like a Pottery Barn catalog; we don’t dress in designer duds; we don’t travel the world.  We’re focused on building relationships that will last a lifetime, working through life’s challenges, and having some fun while we are at.  I guarantee that we share many of the same struggles as you do, too.  Under the Family category I’ll write about topics like marriage, parenting, and home life.

Food:   I’ll be up front here: there is no gourmet food rolling out of my kitchen.  You won’t see my favorite foie gras recipe because I don’t have one.  There won’t be photos of exquisitely set dining tables.   There won’t be reviews of our favorite high-end restaurant.  What you will see are family friendly meals that are satisfying, fresh, nutritious, and budget friendly.   I will also share allergy friendly recipes, as we deal with several different food related allergies in our family.  I firmly believe that you can have “safe” food that is also delicious and nutritious.

A few years ago as I was looking to earn some extra money from home, I stumbled into the world of competitive cooking.   I’ve been blessed with a few successes here and there, and it always seems that a win comes at just the right time.  I’ll share some of my competitive cooking adventures and give you a backstage pass to some of the coolest cook-offs around.

Fun:  Tossing a ball in the yard.  Long bike trips.  Hiking a new trail.  Dropping a line in a local river.  Camping.  These are some of the things that we call fun.  Our family is most comfortable outside enjoying whatever the season has to offer.     Board games.  Movie nights.  Football.   Yep, those are some of our favorites as well.   Entertainment for us is simple and low-tech.  We have one television, one family computer, no smart phones, tablets, iPods, iPads, or the like.  We think getting back to basics is where it’s at.  I’m all for kids filling the yard, building forts, and digging for worms.

So there you have it.  Me.  Dry sense of humor, sarcastic at times, happy with life’s simple treasures.

I hope you will check back regularly to see what’s new.