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Secrets to cooking contest success

Competitors last year’s Pillsbury Bake-Off get mixing. At stake contest: $1 million. (Courtesy Pillsbury Bake-Off)

Competitors in last year’s Pillsbury Bake-Off get mixing. At stake in the contest: $1 million. (Courtesy Pillsbury Bake-Off)

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MARK YOUR CALENDARS

The deadlines for the following recipe contests are fast approaching. Not quite ready this year? Start prepping for next year.

45th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest (held March 2012) Prize: $1 million Entry deadline: April 18 bakeoff.com

National Beef Cook-Off Prize: $25,000 prize Entry deadline: April 30 beefcookoff.org

Spam’s Dish This! Recipe Exchange Prize: $1,000 prize Entry deadline: April 11 spam.com/recipe-exchange

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Updated: May 7, 2011 12:15AM



Warning: Baking and cooking on the competitive circuit can be addictive.

Just ask Rick Johnson of Belleville, who entered the American Pie Council’s 2009 Crisco National Pie Championships by accident, scored two second-place wins with his German chocolate pie and apple fritter pie and went on to win blue ribbons at county and state fairs.

Johnson is entering 11 pies in this weekend’s National Pie Championships in Orlando. Yes, 11.

“I figure as long as I keep winning, I may as well enter,” says Johnson, 36, a marathon runner and gardener.

Johnson credits his winning ways to his mechanical engineering mind (“I weigh my ingredients instead of using measuring cups, I write my recipes on spreadsheets by metric weights”) and creativity (“I like to think outside the box and interpret ideas into pies”).

After initial successes, Amy Winters of Bartlett and Julie Beckwith of Crete, both finalists in last year’s 44th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest, also have become hooked.

There is no shortage of competitions. Contest organizers say the economy and a revival of home cooking and baking are driving an increased number of recipe-related competitions and a record number of first-time contestants.

Prizes range from a bottle of syrup to $1 million. The same criteria — taste, appearance, creativity and appeal — anchor most product-specific contests.

First-timers tend to be spurred on by praise from family, friends and co-workers. But competitive cook Laura Kew of Bolingbrook, who annually bakes 2,500 Christmas cookies with her two sisters, cautions, “It’s one thing to bake for friends and family and quite another … much harder … to bake for strangers, especially judges.”

Kew’s lemon-olive oil cake with blueberry filling won first place at the DuPage County Fair last summer. Her prize: a $150 gift card for King Arthur Flour products.

Kew, 43, says she hadn’t counted on high humidity, torrential rains and flooded roads when she had to transport her cake from home to the fair.

“My nerves were shot,” admits Kew, 43, an asset analyst.

But don’t expect behind-the-scenes animosity, sparring, jealousy or squabbling among contestants. Fellow competitors tend to be encouraging, helpful and willing to share their experiences and secrets, say these Chicago area contestants.

“Even before the finals, other contestants had found me on Facebook. And we’ve stayed in touch,” Winters says.

Adds Beckwith, a mother of two: “I used to be really shy, so this has been a huge jump out of my comfort zone, but I gain confidence from the supportive people at these events. We contestants have so much in common that we instantly become fast friends.”

Winters, 30, began baking her deep-dish sausage patty pizza five years ago for her family of five.

“Until I entered the Bake-Off, it never occurred to me to use refrigerated pizza crust. Now that’s how I do it. It’s a lot easier,” says Winters, who subsequently won $25 for her Chinese tacos entry in a Smart Chicken contest. She is entering the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off, which will be held next March.

Since her Bake-Off success with caprese pesto margherita stackers appetizers (“I love small, cute food”), Beckwith, 45, a speech-language pathologist in Park Forest, has won two all-expenses paid trips to California as finalists in both the Great Steak Challenge and the Kozy Shack Pudding Contest.

Competitive cooking is like the lottery, says Beckwith. “You can’t win unless you participate,” she says.

Sandy Thorn Clark is a Chicago free-lance writer.



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