By Heather McPherson
With $1 million at stake, the heat is on — and not just for the 100 contestants at the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off this week in Orlando. The baking giant dedicates thousands of hours and two years of planning to the nation’s oldest and most lucrative cooking contest.
On Saturday, finishing touches were put in place for a pop-up kitchen like no other at The Peabody Orlando on International Drive.
It’s a recipe of head-spinning proportions: 2 miles of electrical cable, 996 measuring cups, 344 mixing bowls, 335 spoons, 279 eggs, 269 rubber spatulas, 104 pounds of sugar, 102 sticks of butter and the all-important 100 mini kitchens.
By the end of the day, the hotel’s Windermere Ballroom was quiet and cool — 65 degrees, to be precise. One hundred ovens had been perfectly calibrated and 28 refrigerators had been packed with essential ingredients, ranging from wasabi paste for Julie McIntire’s Salmon Crescent Sushi Rolls to tangy Mexican cotija cheese for Naylet LaRochelle’s Sloppy José Gorditas.
Within a few hours of the Bake-Off’s 8 a.m. Monday start, the temperature in the 16,084-square-foot ballroom could be sweltering as it turns into a hotbed of activity: The cooks are at their assigned and numbered workstations, the ovens are on and the lights are shining bright and hot.
To avoid electrical hiccups, Bake-Off engineers have plotted the event’s power needs minute by minute, said Onju Sturlaugson, Bake-Off Contest Manager. Like most major convention hotels, The Peabody is prepared to handle the extra power load, as it often hosts manufacturing and electronic trade shows with electrical needs that far surpass normal levels.
But that hasn’t always been the case at contest sites.
At the first Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest in 1949, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City was ill-equipped for all those ovens. So a setup crew had to punch through a ballroom wall and drop a cable all the way down to the subway to assure enough power.
100 kitchens in the making
The cash-register receipt for groceries for this biannual contest could encase the iconic Doughboy. The million-dollar hopefuls have been assured they will have enough ingredients to prepare their dishes three times: once for the judges, once for a display area and another just to share with the other contestants and media.
And should an ingredient be forgotten, Pillsbury provides a runner whose only job is to dash to the nearest grocery to buy it.
Amber Schofield, 25, of Athens, Ala., isn’t worried about Pillsbury not coming through with the goods for her Mango-Lemon Drop Sunshine Puffs. She’s more worried about herself.
“I am a very clumsy, slow cook,” she said with a Southern drawl. “All of my potholders have burn marks on them, and I tend to break things.”
Contestants, who have four hours to prepare their dishes for the judges, will find out who won at 10 a.m. Tuesday during “The Martha Stewart Show” on the Hallmark Channel.
Each cook is assigned a volunteer who escorts the contestant to his or her assigned range, fetches ingredients from the refrigerators, troubleshoots unseen problems and calms jitters. There’s even more staff on the floor to help out when needed.
Cheryl Longlois, 65, is banking on that team making sure the frozen meatballs are properly thawed for her Marmalade-Glazed Asian Meatball Cups.
“Those meatballs have to be thawed overnight in the refrigerator to be the right consistency for the baking time,” said the 4-H leader from Jefferson, Wis.
This is her first contest, but Bake-Off fever runs in the family. Her sister, Patricia Schroedl, was a finalist in 1986, 1994 and 2002; and their mother, Betty Schroedl, was a finalist in 1998 and 2000.
“My sister knows the ropes, so she is coming with me to the contest,” said Longlois. “Mom died a year ago, so this will be a good time for the two of us to be together.”
Final and first times
For contestants such as Linda Bibbo, who has been a Pillsbury finalist twice before, this will be her last Bake-Off. Rules bar a three-time finalist from competing again.
“This year I am just having fun,” said Bibbo, 59, who has pinned her hopes on Almond-Macaroon Coffee Cake.
“In 2008, I was overwhelmed by the idea of winning. It’s such a consuming contest, and you can miss so much if you overthink it. I was more relaxed in 2010,” said Bibbo of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. “This year I am going to enjoy myself.
“If I don’t win the Bake-Off, I’ll still enter other contests from time to time. But I am not one of those people who has notebooks full of contest-ready recipes.”
Though this is Bibbo’s final year, it’s the first for Holly Deak and Maryann Rems in the finals. Each has a unique approach to cooking — and not just for contests.
Rems, of Windermere, hands out survey sheets to anyone who samples her food.
“I tell my friends: ‘I will cook for you, but you have to tell me what you think,’ ” said Rems, 50.
Deak has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and approaches the kitchen the same way she handles her lab work.
“When I was testing my entry [Savory Vegetable Tart], I separated the tarts into quadrants and made modifications in each to assess the best result,” said Deak, 37, from Brookline, Mass. “I applied structure activity relationship [the relationship between the chemical or 3-D structure of a molecule and its biological activity] to the recipe.”
That and a fair amount of Gruyère cheese.