When you imagine what’s entailed for a Pillsbury Bake-Off contestant to make it to the final round of 100, do countertops strewn with blue paper curlicues from crescent dinner roll packaging come to mind? Hours or years of testing, friends’ focus groups and lots of scribbling to determine the most delicious-sounding recipe title? Maybe a gingham apron?
Springfield resident Samantha Miller cops to none of that. She’s our hometown pick to root for this weekend, when she’ll make her Chicken Cacciatore-Cheese Bread Sandwiches at the 45th annual event, held again this year in Orlando, Fla. More than $1 million in cash and GE appliances are at stake.
Puerto Rican-born Miller, 43, is an Army wife and mother of two children, ages 9 and 11. She teaches in Fairfax County’s adult community education program and puts a meal on the table just about every night; convenience items are a regular part of her repertoire.
She’d watched a TV show about the famous cooking competition, which went into biennial mode after 1978. So it was in her head as she scanned her pantry and fridge for dinner ingredients one night last April, grabbing a tube of refrigerated French bread dough, a store-bought rotisserie chicken, canned tomatoes and chicken broth. Contest rules require at least one Pillsbury product (from a list of 11) and one product from a contest co-sponsor brand (10 to choose from; it’s not just about the giggling Doughboy any more).
“I had planned to make a Mexican dish,” she says, “but I thought Italian might work better with the bread.”
She topped the bread dough with mozzarella cheese and dried basil before it went in the oven, then made a sofrito and stirred in shredded chicken, Italian seasoning and thyme. She split the just-baked loaf lengthwise, spooned the filling over one half, then topped it with the half smothered in melty cheesy and cut the thing into portions. Served it with a fruit salad.
Her family liked it, so she uploaded it into the Dinner Made Easy category. Miller made the cut. It was the first time she’d entered any kind of cooking contest. Since then, she’s only made the recipe “probably three or four times,” she says. Once submitted, it can’t be tweaked. Finalists have been kept in the loop via a Pillsbury portal online so they know what to expect in terms of setup.
She’s headed to Florida this weekend, flying solo, as it were, without family to cheer her on. “It’ll be like a little vacation for me,” Miller says.
What’s her game plan for Sunday, the big cooking day, with cameras and interviews and Martha Stewart on hand to emcee? “I’ll make my dish two times for the judges, then one more time, maybe,” Miller says. “It tastes pretty good. But I worry that by the time the judges taste it, it might be cold. Most people are worried about that, I think.” If she wins her category alone, she could receive $8,000 in cash and prizes.
Even sprinkled with first-timers’ fairy dust and facing a potential, pre-tax $50,000 for the next 20 years (which is how the winner’s $1 million gets allotted), Miller remains level-headed about her prospects. Last year’s winner was sweet: Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups. Finalists’ recipes have been on the Pillsbury Web site for a while, and hers has thus far earned a rating of 2.5 stars (out of 5), with the following comment: “An easy and delicious sandwich! It came together quickly and we all went back for seconds. I will definitely make this recipe again.”
“I have looked at some of the other recipes” on the site, Miller says. “Honestly, a lot of them sound like things I’d want to it eat. My chances of winning are pretty narrow.”
And the first thing Miller would do with all that green Pillsbury dough sounds practical as well: “I’d fix up my kitchen,” she says.