At the Bake-Off, A Hundred Different Recipes for Dough

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

KISSIMMEE, Fla., March 22 -- Ronna Farley's fling with the Pillsbury Doughboy began more than 30 years ago, when she was a young bride and the Doughboy demanded nothing more of her than a place on her spotless kitchen counter. He appeared as a trivet here, a towel there, as plump white salt and pepper shakers cozying up to collectible canisters.

But more recently, Farley's casual affection turned to mild obsession. The Doughboy began to nudge her awake at night. He followed her to work. The 51-year-old Giant clerk couldn't get him out of her mind. The Doughboy had a million dollars, and Ronna Farley wanted it.

Wanted it so badly that the Rockville resident entered dozens of recipes in this year's Pillsbury Bake-Off, making them up as she went, not trying a single one before hitting the "submit" button on the online entry form. When Pillsbury called last September to say she'd earned a free trip to this week's finals, her first reaction was "Gee, what did I put in that one?" In fact, Farley's Choco-Peanut Butter Cups had only a handful of ingredients -- two kinds of chocolate chips, peanut butter, crushed granola bars and a tube of refrigerated Pillsbury peanut butter cookie dough.

She studied the concoctions of her 99 rivals in the glossy booklet of finalist recipes that Pillsbury published to promote the competition. There was chocolate fudge made with melted sugar-cookie dough, and peanut butter custard bars from an Iowa woman who racks up prize after prize on the cooking contest circuit. There were enchiladas stuffed with black beans and pineapple, and Caribbean cassoulet.

"Maybe they'll want a savory dish this year," Farley mused. "They've had a lot of sweet ones winning in recent years."

Still, she was confident. "I just think mine's a winner. You know when you just have a feeling?"

That winning feeling quite literally feeds a uniquely American subculture of competitive cooking, where a sociology professor is as likely as a housewife to seek glory for a cookie. Where a canape can send you to France, and the quest for something unique can put garlic in your cheesecake.

For the most part, its inhabitants insist, Contestworld is warm and nurturing. But every once in a great while, that sweet glaze can be pierced by a swift carving knife to the back.

Including Farley, a full quarter of the Bake-Off's hundred finalists belonged to an online forum called Cooking Contests Central, where they exchange cyber high-fives and spread the word about hundreds of competitions. They offer prayers for sick relatives. They mail gourmet ingredients to contest buddies in remote culinary outposts, and even submit entries for each other when someone's computer crashes.

They sounded the battle cry when two veterans got only runner-up cookie jars in a butter company's debut cookie contest. Forum members didn't recognize the name of the $2,500 winner, but insisted they recognized the recipe: It was virtually the same shortbread that won the 1957 Pillsbury Bake-Off. Outraged e-mails were sent to the creamery, which denied any plagiarism, and to Pillsbury, which is still investigating the case of the purloined madeleine.

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, when the Doughboy ushered this year's contenders into the hotel ballroom where the Bake-Off was held, Farley assumed her position at Range 97 and greeted her neighbors, the very pregnant Peanut Butter Truffle Tart and the anxious Butterscotch Crackles.

The contestants found all the ingredients and equipment they needed at their stations, including 20 dozen eggs, 24 pounds of butter, 21 large mangoes and a couple of jars of marshmallow fluff. (Recipes had to use at least two of 65 eligible Pillsbury ingredients to qualify for the Bake-Off).

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