The 47th Pillsbury Bake Off

“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.

E75FF434AAC24F0BBA9F77C1D53B55C4      D5DE3DDD7CC744ECAA5F83C8BE2B625A

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.

 Tennessee & Bake Off 278            Tennessee & Bake Off 295


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.

Tennessee & Bake Off 321         Tennessee & Bake Off 324

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!

7AF36524C7B34653B07DF6DFA93A1EC1    D3EA479CA8FD4D3CA47FB42FD20CBF8D

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.

It’s Not All About the Dough!


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.

B3FC9E91DA66409184CA710D40EE24A7  30F38EB9F0CE4D19AB54D0F7BC541DEC

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!


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.


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!