“Life in the Van” took on a whole new meaning this past week as my crew took a road trip to Tennessee. After the completion of twenty-two hundred miles of driving, we were left with some awesome memories, ones that I know we will not soon forget!
The reason for our trip? The 47th Pillsbury Bake-Off rolled into Nashville, and I was fortunate to have been selected as a finalist. This would be my second consecutive year as a finalist. Last year’s trip to Las Vegas was a whirlwind of epic proportions! I was incredibly nervous and so tired that I truly didn’t take in the whole Bake Off experience as I should have. This year I vowed to leave my nerves at home and to allow myself the time to absorb as much of this iconic event as I could.
How does one become a Bake Off finalist? Well, I don’t believe in luck. I believe in providence. God has everything orchestrated. He gives us all abilities and skills. He puts us where He wants us to be, when He wants us there. There are individuals who have entered their recipes into the Bake Off for years with no result. Then there are those who enter one recipe, one time, and they are named to the final one hundred. I’m somewhere in the middle. It’s hard to say what the powers-that-be at Pillsbury are looking for, but it’s safe to say that a simple recipe with a creative twist gets their attention. Pillsbury has always been vague about the number of recipes they receive for each Bake Off, however, a few finalists reported that they were told that nearly 60,000 recipes were submitted this year. Whoa! That’s insane! When I heard that I was even more amazed that I was in Nashville.
My recipe for the 46th Bake Off was on the creative side, but not particularly quick and easy to put together. It was delicious but possibly too labor intensive. I walked away from last year’s experience thinking that future submissions should be simpler to prepare and a bit more straight-forward. I put together twelve recipes for consideration this year. All of them were simple and easy and a bit of a departure from how I normally cook at home. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised by the recipe they selected: a humble muffin. This recipe featured Pillsbury’s new gluten free cookie dough. The recipe utilized the cookie dough as both the base for the muffin, as well as the base for the crumb topping. I was unsure if a gluten free recipe could win at the Bake Off. I have to admit, in my gut, I knew that this year’s recipe would not be a contender for the big prize. In a way, knowing that up front was a bit freeing. I went into the Bake Off not expecting a single thing to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I was still hoping and praying, but I wasn’t consumed with winning. I had resigned myself to just go and have fun.
I was thrilled to have my family along for the ride this year. While we didn’t purchase full access passes for them, I knew that they would be able to share in some of the excitement. After checking into The Omni Hotel, we made our way to the second floor to check in with Pillsbury. You could literally feel the excitement in the air. Banners, various displays, and one smiling face after another decorated the halls. I was handed my “goodie bag” and then proceeded to meander about embracing old friends and making new ones.
The afternoon would be filled with interviews, appliance orientation, a question and answer session, and group photo. It was busy, but somehow relaxed as well. In between, I would check in with my family. My youngest son was thrilled that he saw the Doughboy. Before arriving at the hotel, he was quite persistent in asking me whether or not there would actually be a Doughboy there. I assured him that the Doughboy wouldn’t miss this event.
The night would end with a wonderful dinner reception featuring some delicious southern fare.
I opted to cut the dinner reception a bit short and head back to my room. I knew tomorrow would start early. I put in my wake up call request for 5:00 a.m., then headed off to sleep.
Little did I know that a freight train rolls through Nashville at regular intervals through the wee hours of the morning. The first blast woke us all up. The second escaped the ears of my kids. When I heard the train horn blast at 4:00 a.m., I knew the time for sleep had ended. I got ready and met up with a new found friend for a few moments of prayer before breakfast. But before heading out the door, I left one prayer request with my family: “Please pray that I can put out a good product for judging.” For the first time, I felt the butterflies begin to flutter in my belly. I knew I wasn’t alone because the majority of my breakfast mates commented on how they didn’t have much of an appetite.
The time was here. All one hundred finalists congregated outside of the ballroom. We were lined up according to our range number. I would be at range ninety-two. Again, there was a lot of energy and excitement to be felt. Big, deep breaths! Big, deep breaths! In just moments we would wind our way around the ballroom as part of the traditional Grand March. To add to the exuberant air, our host, Carla Hall, made an appearance. She was so friendly and warm, and talk about energetic! She was going to be a great host. With that, it all began. The fiddler started fiddling, and we began making our way around the ballroom. You couldn’t help but smile and clap your hands. High fives with Carla and the Doughboy for everyone. Waves to the crowd. I was smiling so much that my cheeks hurt…literally! And when the last person made their way to their range, we were given the go ahead to get started. We’d have the next three and half hours to make our recipe.
My recipe was quite straight forward. No fancy techniques or finicky ingredients this year. I used the first few minutes to inventory my equipment and ingredients. I was missing one item. Within a minute, someone from Pillsbury swooped up the missing liners and handed them right to me.
I loved my range location. I was in the middle of the back row. I had a great view of the entire ballroom. I would be sure to occasionally lift my head up to simply look around, to see everyone else basking in the moment. In the busyness, there was calmness, a sense of joy, like we all were keenly aware of just how cool this was. My family was in the spectator area right behind me. They weren’t supposed to be there; they were supposed to be at the nearby football stadium walking around. That was the plan. We had trouble with the purchase of spectator tickets, so we just decided to forgo any tickets. I would find out later that my husband and boys were simply hanging out outside of the ballroom. My husband, who talks to everyone, was shooting the breeze with someone who was monitoring the ballroom doorways. That individual found out that I was in there competing. My husband was told to go inside so the boys could see their mom compete. Needless to say, I was thrilled to turn around and see their excited faces!
I very methodically worked on my recipe. My first batch of muffins went into the oven, and I promptly began the next batch. I was hoping to have enough time to bake all three batches, sample them, then decide which one I felt most comfortable sending off to the judges. That’s exactly what happened. By hour number two, I had muffins lined up all over my workstation. They all looked and tasted just as they should. I felt such a sense of relief to know that whichever batch I selected, the judges would receive a good representation of my original recipe. That’s really all I had prayed for.
When Pillsbury assigns finalists to their ranges they group them according to the product they are using. Roughly three-quarters of our row was comprised of finalists using Pillsbury’s Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. All was relatively quiet on “Gluten Free Row”. I had the opportunity to speak with a writer for a gluten free magazine. I told her that I actually do cook gluten free at home due to my youngest son’s gluten intolerance. There were other bloggers and Pillsbury personnel who casually made their way down our row as well. Photographers came and snapped away, but the flurry of media and television cameras following the event host, Carla Hall, never actually made it to our area. At one point I remember chuckling to myself. See last year’s experience was quite different. Last year there was nonstop traffic at my station. Something about those little meatball skewers caught everyone’s attention last year. But this year, my humble muffin was not a show stopper. I will say my range neighbor April, who had a simply delicious gluten free cake, had her fair share of interest. There were plenty of cameras catching her every move.
With about one hour left to the competition, I selected batch number two as the one. I arranged the muffins on a platter and headed over to the table nearest the judging room. After signing a legal document stating that I made my own recipe and did in fact turn it in for judging, I went back to my station, cut up the remaining muffins for samples, and exhaled. My husband was trying to flag me down to bring him some samples. I told him that I wasn’t allowed to do so. No sharing samples with the crowd (which seems kind of cruel)! I took some time and walked the Bake Off floor sampling a few other recipes, mostly from our gluten free zone. They were all so good. And soon there after came the announcement that the 47th Pillsbury Bake Off was finished. That’s it, all done.
With a bit of free time before dinner, my family drove around Nashville passing by the Grand Ole Opry, visiting Antique Archaeology (from the show American Pickers), and walking around LP Stadium, the home of the Tennessee Titans.
I was really taken back by how clean the city of Nashville was; I mean it was immaculate. I was also impressed with how friendly everyone we met was. I’m from the Northeast. Things move quick here; people move quick here, but the pace here in Nashville was different. People actually took the time to not only say “hi”, but to also talk to you. I loved it! With a fun afternoon behind us, it was back to the Omni. At this point, I would head off to dinner on my own.
Dinner was a delicious sit down meal. It was at that meal that I was reminded that the Lord directs our paths and allows those paths to cross with others providentially. Sharon, a fellow finalist from Pennsylvania, sat next to me at dinner. It was uncanny how much the two of us had in common: the same beliefs, the same sense of calling with regards to our family, even some of the same challenges. Meetings like this are not coincidence or happenstance; they’re orchestrated! I left dinner feeling very blessed!
After dinner we made our way to a dessert reception. Then it was off to the Country Music Hall of Fame for the awards ceremony. Carla Hall was the host, and she still seemed to be full of energy and excitement. There were several special sponsor awards to be handed out before naming the four category winners. Sadly, there were no awards to be found for my little muffin, but how wonderful it was to see the surprised faces of those who did walk away with prizes. You can’t help but celebrate with each of them! Each winner received a cash prize and a little golden Doughboy!
Well, the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived: the naming of the four finalists who would be in the running for the million dollar prize. And the category winning recipes are:
Congratulations to each finalist!
This year there is a little twist to the Bake Off. For the first time, the scores of the judges will be combined with the voting results from the public. That means America has the opportunity to cast a vote for the recipe they feel deserves the million dollar prize. You can head over to the Pillsbury website to find out how you can vote.
With that, I said my good-byes and headed off to my room to pack. We’d be heading for home in the wee hours of the morning. I walked into the hotel room and let my kiddos know that there was no win this year. I made sure to remind them that in order to attempt to win, you have to be willing to lose as well. I also reminded them that the Lord has plans for us, maybe not plans for earthly riches or a healthy bank account, but plans that are far more valuable.
The morning would find us watching the sun rise from the van window, while the evening would find us watching the same sun set out the opposite window. I was a little sad to see the last “Buckle Up Y’All, It’s the Law” sign pass by, but it was also so good to heading back home.
It was a long ride home but a fun ride home as we recounted our newest family adventure.