It’s Not All About the Dough!

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For nearly eight months I had waited for this day to come, and now, here it was!  After breakfast all one hundred finalists filed into a small room off of the main ballroom.  We were carefully lined up in the order of our kitchen station location.   We also emptied our pockets of any personal belongings.  Nothing, and I mean, nothing personal was allowed onto the Bake Off floor.  No tissues, no phone, no camera, no lip balm, no pictures of the kiddos…nothing!   Hey, there’s a million dollars on the line here.  I get it; they mean business, so much so that we were told that we would not be permitted to use the restroom without an escort.

In a few moments we would make the grand entrance onto the Bake Off floor.  I soon realized that I would be one of the line leaders.  In school, the job of line leader was a pretty coveted position, but me, oh my, I wasn’t looking forward to being upfront.  What if I led the line the wrong way…with the cameras rolling.  Once those doors flung open and we began to make our way in, all of those worries faded away.  We were greeted with some really lively music courtesy of a very cool kitchen band.  These guys were so much fun.  Armed with nothing more than spoons, muffin tins, pots, pans, and buckets, they filled that ballroom with electricity!  The Grand March, a Pillsbury Bake Off tradition, would wind us around the ballroom and deposit each of us at our workstation.  Then with the words, “Ready. Set. Make”, everything started.

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We would have three and half hours to create our recipe up to three times.  It was my hope to send my recipe off to the judges as soon as possible.  For some people there is a lot of strategy that goes into the decision of when to send your final dish off to judging.  Some want to get in there right away before the judges’ pallets have been overwhelmed by so many dishes.  Others want to get their dishes in towards the end of the official time hoping to keep their recipe memorable.  I didn’t have a strategy; I just wanted to get my dish in so I could relax!

Although I didn’t have a judging strategy, I did go in with a cooking plan.  I needed to cook my spinach in the microwave, an item that would be shared among the finalists.   Since my work station was tucked away in the back of the room, at the end of the row, right next to the microwave, I decided that I would make a run for it.   While my spinach was off cooking, I got myself acquainted with my station and all of its contents.  I have to admit that my hands were shaking by this time and I was feeling a bit unnerved.   I kept telling myself that I had made this recipe many, many times.  I just needed to pretend that I was home.  This was no easy task.  Waiting on the outskirts of the Bake Off floor were members of the media who, in just a few minutes, would descend upon us.  There were photographers, bloggers, and sponsors who were free to meander about, ask questions, take pictures, and sample our food.

I had laid out all of my ingredients and got to work.  I had to roll out thirty six miniature meatballs and assemble my skewers.  I had hoped to have had most of this completed before the media began to roam but did not.  Someone from General Mills made their way over to me just as I was beginning my skewers.  He asked if he could interview me.  I looked at him and apologetically told him that this would not be the best time and asked if he could come back later.  He was very understanding and made his way down the line.  I had finished my first batch of skewers and promptly sent them off to the oven to bake. I wasn’t thrilled with the look of my first batch but hoped that once they were cooked, my skewers would be worthy of the judges’ table. I set the timer on the oven and waited.

I released a huge sigh and felt my nerves begin to calm.  The gentleman from General Mills returned and interviewed me.  He was so nice and friendly; he made me feel completely at ease.  This was getting kind of exciting.   While I waited for my recipe to finish cooking, I scanned the room.  Although there was so much going on, there was also great calmness. Everyone was just doing their thing, rolling with the punches, doing what they love…cooking, just on a much larger stage.

I heard the timer for the oven go off.  I grabbed my oven mitts and removed the baking trays from the oven.  I set them on top of the stove.  Then I think I audibly gasped. I couldn’t believe it!  There were my skewers bathing in a pool of liquid.  They were a soaking, sopping, wet mess.  What in the world had happened?  I mean, I could make this recipe in my sleep.  I had made it so many times at home and never, I mean never, had a problem.  I have to admit that I was completely stunned.  I obviously was not going to turn this recipe into the judges.  I set them off to the side for samples and tried to regroup.  I had two more opportunities.

Before I began my next batch, I thought about what could have gone wrong.  In my testing at home, I had used standard whole wheat sandwich bread, the type you would find in any bread aisle.  This bread was from a bakery.  The slices were thin and lacking in substance.  Bread was an important piece of my recipe.  It’s purpose was to absorb moisture.  Next, the ground meat that I was given was packaged in a tube and was quite wet upon opening.  I had never seen ground turkey packaged this way.  There was little I could do to change things.  We were not permitted to deviate from our original recipe one bit.  I approached my runner and told him my trouble.  He came back and informed me that I would be permitted to dab the meat with paper towels to try to remove some of the moisture.  So, I set off to work on my second attempt.

People continued to stop by and ask questions.  It seemed that every time I turned around there was a camera taking pictures.  Pictures of me smiling.  Pictures looking natural.  Pictures peering into the oven.  Pictures assembling skewers.  Pictures rolling meatballs.  Pictures sprinkling cheese.  You get the picture. It got to the point that my poor kitchen neighbor, Sandy, was being pushed aside from her own workspace in order for people to get their shot.  Sandy would later say that it felt like she was cooking next to Madonna.  It was kind of crazy!

These little skewers had received a lot of pre-Bake Off hype.  During the course of my eight month waiting period, I would occasionally do a search for my recipe to see where it had turned up.  In the beginning the majority of the coverage came from local media sources.  Stories like, “Hometown Woman To Compete for the Big Dough,” were the trend. Then I noticed that Pillsbury had used the recipe in some of their promotional releases.  The recipe started popping up all over the country.  It was popular on Pinterest and Facebook.  But the thing that really took me back was when we saw mention of the recipe in an online newspaper out of Manilla…in the Philippines. The Philippines?  Really? Now this was getting really strange. All of this attention really gave me some hope that this recipe may have a chance, that it could be a serious contender for the grand prize.  All of the hype came down to this:  what would I see when I opened the oven door for the second time?

What did I see?  Another soggy mess.  Really?  You want to talk about the wind being knocked out of your sails.  I knew at that moment there would be no contender here, no living up to the hype, no winning experience.  I was deflated.  I hadn’t come here to fail.  I hadn’t flown across the country to experience a kitchen disaster.   As I put it to my husband before I left, “I’m not going to make friends; I’m going to win.”  See, now removed from the situation, I can see the ugliness of that statement.  The emptiness of it.  My eyes had truly been clouded by the lure of big money.  That amount of money is life changing, but life changing in a good way?  Life changing in a way that would honor the Lord?  Not likely with the attitude I was carrying around.  Had those little skewers won, I was prepared to give all glory to the Lord publicly, but inwardly I think my heart would have been swelling with pride.  In my heart there wasn’t a whole lot of humility going on.  The Lord’s not going to compete with pride.  When you have pride in your heart, there is simply no room for Him to reside. He’ll knock you down.  And down I came!

I contemplated trying my recipe for a third time, but my time was tight.  I wasn’t sure that I would make the final deadline.  I knew I wanted to turn something into the judges.  I dabbed some of the moisture off and sent the skewers off to the judges.  At that point, I cleaned up my kitchen and wandered around the Bake Off floor trying a few samples from the other contestants.  Lemon Pistachio Blackberry Thumbprint Cookies were so, so good.  I loved the Ham and Cheddar Scones with Rosemary Cherry Sauce as well.  There were so many good recipes and talented cooks!  There were so many smiles, such fun in the air, it was infectious.  My frown was turned around.

I met up with my friend and we decided that we would take the few hours of free time I had, to walk around Vegas.   What an experience that was!  Vegas was a land of extremes and contrasts.  There was the opulent Bellagio with its lobby of Chihuly glass and stunning fountain show.  Then there were the streets full of what appeared to be immigrant women clad with t-shirts and flyers advertising the area’s adult attractions. There were no smiles on their faces .  No sense of joy there, just the look of women who were being used and who knows what else.  There was the over-the-top pool at Ceasar’s Palace adorned with towering pillars and golden statues. Then there was the beggar on the street, the disabled vet, looking for a little bit to help them get by.  There were the indoor canals complete with gondola rides at The Venetian. Lovely inside, whisking you away to another place, a ceiling that changed with the sky, dotted with glittering stars and the hues of dusk.  Outside, the streets were littered..literally, with such trash.  A scan of the area revealed that there was no beauty here.  I continually thought about my kids and thanked the Lord above that he closed the doors for them to come.  Those few hours walking around Vegas left me with such a profound feeling of sadness.  This is what the world deems fun, an escape?  They must be running away from a lot of pain if this is what it takes to escape.  There is so much more joy to be found, but it’s only going to be found in Christ.  Anyone want a mission field?  Head to Vegas!

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With the sites of Vegas behind us, my friend and I got ready for the evening’s  awards dinner.  Celebrities walk the red carpet.  Finalists at the Bake Off walk the blue carpet.

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We were seated in this lovely ballroom with our range neighbors from the contest floor.  It was so much fun to chat with each other, getting to know about the people behind the recipes.  Contrary to my earlier thoughts about not making friends, I did indeed meet up with some lovely people, some of whom I stay in contact with today.  The Bake Off is truly about so much more than the money, it’s not all about the dough; it’s about the people.

Various sponsor awards were handed out throughout the evening.  Then finally the time everyone had waited for arrived.  The grand prize contenders were announced.  I have to admit that I was still holding out just a small glimmer of hope that somehow, someway, my recipe would be called.  It wasn’t, and yes, there was a sense of disappointment, but once the grand prize winner was announced, and the confetti began to fly, those feelings washed away.  Glori Spriggs stood on stage stunned.  She was the winner.  Congratulations.  I had had the opportunity to have lunch with Glori, her daughter, and best friend.  She was a lovely woman, and I am genuinely happy for her!

So, early the next morning I walked through the slot machine lined Vegas airport to start my journey back home.  Home.  I couldn’t wait to get there.  That’s my place.  It’s the little slice of the world that the Lord has placed me in.   The Lord has taught me many lessons through my Bake Off experience.  I hope to head off to this year’s Bake Off with a far different mindset than I had last year.

Nashville. November.  New journey on the way!

The Road To Vegas

Now that my status as a finalist for the 46th Pillsbury Bake Off had been confirmed, my husband and I were left with a dilemma:  do we take the whole family out to Vegas, or do I head out solo?  The kids were eager to go; they wanted to see mom in action.  My husband and I were hesitant.  Las Vegas, a place neither one of us had ever been to, just didn’t seem all too family friendly to us.  To our surprise, many people told us to the contrary.  They provided a litany of kid friendly attractions that we were sure to love.  Even our pediatrician suggested that we take the kids along.  We prayed about it and simply asked that the Lord close the doors shut if it wasn’t His will.  Well, door after door was not only closed, but slammed in my face.  It was becoming abundantly clear that I would be traveling solo.

The structure of the contest was so, that I had nearly 8 months before I would actually compete at the Bake Off.    As a result, life continued on as normal.  I made sure to practice my recipe whenever I could.  Meal at church?  Kids over to play?  Family over for dinner?  Meatball and Breadstick Sub Skewers it was!  My recipe was a bit finicky so I welcomed the extra practice.  The skewers had to be assembled just so to insure that they would have the look I wanted.  I took every minute of the 30 minute preparation time limit to put them together.  After a few rounds of practice, I felt confident that I could make these skewers in my sleep.  I was also comfortable because the recipe was so reliable.  Each batch turned out exactly the same.  There were no variations or problems.   If I could keep my nerves under control at the Bake Off, I felt reassured that my recipe would be a success.

Reality finally crept in as September approached.   The Bake Off was only weeks away.  My airline ticket was booked.  A few extra meals were in the freezer for my family.  I had a pile ready for the suitcase. This was really happening.   I was very thankful that a friend from North Carolina had decided to fly out to Vegas to meet me.  The Lord had provided a friendly face for me.   I was a bit relieved.  I have to admit that the actual travel frightened me a bit.  I had never flown alone. Never navigated an unfamiliar airport alone.  Never traveled without my family.  Never had been a couple of thousand miles away from my loved ones.  Some people may look at those statements and think how sad that is, how sheltered I must be.  I look at those statements and see a tight-knit family that doesn’t like to be so separated.   Our family has always experienced life together,and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

It was 3:30 A.M. on Sunday, November 3rd, a bittersweet day, one that I was certainly excited about, but one that I knew would include more than a few tears.  I made sure to leave everyone a note as well as the instructions for a little scavenger hunt game I had put together for the kids.  I had hidden many little notes around the house; it would be their job to find each one before I returned home.  My husband and boys insisted that they wanted to take me to the airport.  So one by one, my pajama-clad boys came downstairs, popped on their shoes and jackets, and stumbled into the van.   We arrived at the airport and said goodbye.  I had to seriously work hard to keep the waterworks from coming on full force, but I kept it together.

My flight would be six hours long.   I popped in my earbuds and zoned out!  I made sure to book a window seat.  I had only flown cross country once a few year ago when we traveled to Arizona.  That flight was at night, this one would be during the day.  I was excited to see the landscape of the country change below me.  And change it did!  I am convinced that the  people behind me thought I was completely nuts.  I kept snapping pictures out the window. I heard them question, “What in the world is she taking pictures of?”.  Plenty!  From cityscape to forest, farmland to the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam, it was all spectacular to me.

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Before I knew it, the desert sands of Nevada were beneath me and the bustling Vegas scene was in front of me.  And before my plane even made it to the gate, I realized that I would be grateful that my family remained home.  The billboard at the end of the runway gave me a little taste of what Vegas was all about.

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Finalists were whisked away to our hotel, The Aria.  What a stunning hotel.  The moment I walked into the lobby I was greeted with these lovely suspended autumn leaves.  I made my way to my room and kind of crashed.  I had been up since 3:30 A.M. and crossed over a few timezones;  this day was shaping up to be a marathon.  I’d also need to get up at the crack of dawn to get ready and make it to breakfast and announcements on time.

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I would make my way up to the conference center (which seemed to be located in another world) where I would check in.  We were given a goodie bag filled with some great treats.  I loved it!  It’s not everyday that mom actually walks away with a swag bag.  I had an appointment to do an interview with Pyrex, then made my way to the GE Orientation where I would get a quick tutorial on how to operate the stove and oven.  I knew the ladies had given their speech many times, but they were still so kind and gracious.  I was reminded to be careful not to turn the oven off when I turn the timer on.  Apparently it was a common mistake.

It was exciting to see the conference area filling up with the excited faces of the other contestants.  Lots of hugs, photos, and laughter were to be found.  I saw the familiar faces of two women I had met at a previous cook-off.  Everyone was so friendly; it really helped to take the nervous edge off.  Soon enough we were all ushered into the ballroom that would host the Bake Off.  Wow!  Oh, Wow!  What a sight to behold.  This huge ballroom had been transformed into 100 miniature kitchens. I could only imagine all the work, all the hands that had made this transformation possible.

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What would follow was a question and answer session that would make your head spin.  The Bake Off has many sides, we were all about to see the legal side of things.  Seemingly easy questions had either the most complicated response or one that was obviously something out of a memo from the Legal Department.  I walked away knowing three things:  follow your recipe exactly as you wrote it or you could be disqualified, do not accept or offer help to another contestant or you could be disqualified, and have your recipe into the judges on time or you will be in trouble!

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It was all starting to sink in…really sink in.  I saw the Doughboy…a life size Doughboy.  Not many could resist running up to him and poking that squishy belly!  I admit that I restrained myself, but I did chuckle at the sight.  Our recipes and pictures were up for display in the lobby.  Here we all were.  We hailed from all over the country, from different walks of life.  We were young and old, male and female, some who had done this dance once or twice before, and others, like me, who were clumsily stumbling through their first dance.  But now, we were all connected.  We shared a bond that couldn’t be broken.  We were finalists for the 46th Pillsbury Bake Off.  I know, I know.   That sounds a bit hokey, but it is just true.   Not many people get a chance to do this. The remainder of the evening saw us being entertained at a lovely welcome reception.  Delicious food, good conversation, and the start of new friendships were all enjoyed.

As I walked back to my room, I got to thinking about tomorrow morning.  I would be cooking, not for my family, not for friends, but for judges,  judges with the power to award $1,000,000.   I was supposed to sleep tonight?  Well, sleep I did, and might I add, with no problem courtesy of the most comfortable bed and pillows I had ever slept upon (Thanks, Aria!).

On to the Bake Off floor in the morning!