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Pillsbury Bake-Offs

Pillsbury Bake-Offs

Pillsbury Bake-Offs
© General Mills

The Triple-Crown of American cooking contests consist of the National Chicken Cooking Contest, the National Beef Cook-Off, and the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

The Pillsbury Bake-Off contest started in 1949, and until 1976 was held annually. Starting in 1976, the Pillsbury Bake-Off takes place in even-numbered years. The prize, increased to $1 million US in 1996, is not paid in a lump sum: it's paid $50,000 a year over the next 20 years, and in America, prize money is subject to income tax.

The contest starts with recipes being submitted from all across America (only American residents are eligible.) Recipes submitted become the property of Pillsbury. The recipes are handed to the screening committee stripped of all identifying information to ensure impartiality. In 2006, they received over 10,000 recipe submissions.

Recipes sent in are eliminated if they weren't submitted in the correct format, if incomplete directions are provided, or if precise measurements aren't given. After recipes pass that first culling, there is an entire team dedicated to tracking down copycats to ensure the recipes submitted are substantially original, and not just copied out of a magazine, book or off the Internet.

Selected recipes are then prepared in test kitchens at Pillsbury's in Minneapolis, Minnesota and given to a taste panel.

From this taste-test stage,100 finalists are selected, and flown to where the Bake-Off is being held that year.

All the shopping is done for the contestants. The contestants are given their ingredients, and mini-kitchens, and directed to prepare their recipes. Judges are then sequestered as they do their evaluation of the results.

Members from the Pillsbury family still attend.

The Bake-Off organizers aim to prevent family legacies from forming amongst the contestants. If a person has been a finalist three times, not only can she or he never enter again, but also his or her relations through marriage will also be barred as well as all descendants, yeah, even unto their children's children's children. Consequently, most families have a "two-times" only rule of honour amongst themselves, to keep the door open for their progeny.

Every year a book is published with recipes from the Bake-Off.

History Notes

The first Pillsbury Bake-Off was held on Monday, 12 December 1949 in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Electric ranges and work-tables were set up for each finalist in the ball room. Power was brought in from subway tracks nearby. There were three male entrants (it would take 47 years for a man, Kurt Wait in 1996, to win the contest.)

Pillsbury's called it the "Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest." (In later years, the media started referring to it as the "Bake-Off Contest", so Pillsbury's claimed the name and registered it.) The 1949 contest was held to celebrate Pillsbury's 80th birthday, and was meant to be a one-time event. The winner of that first ever Bake-Off was a Theodora Smafield of Rockford, Illinois. Her recipe had you wrap your dough in a tea towel, and put it under warm water for the rising. It was odd enough to catch the judges' attention, and hold it.

She won $50,000, which was actually double the advertised prize money of $25,000 because she had a plastic advertising token. These tokens to promote the event had been distributed in October. If you got one and held onto it and won, your prize money would be doubled. Smafield produced hers, and doubled her winnings.

The recipes were released in the first week of January 1950 by Ellen Pennell, director of Ann Pillsbury home service activities.

Eleanor Roosevelt in her newspaper column wrote of the first contest: "This is a healthy contest and a highly American one. It may sell Pillsbury flour but it also reaches far down into the lives of the housewives of America. These are women who ran their homes and cooked at home. They were not professional cooks."

  • 1954 -- Dorothy Koteen's winning "Open Sesame Pie" created a run on sesame seeds across America, an item which hitherto had mostly only appeared at grocery stores in the southern states.
  • 1962 -- The award was presented by Mamie Eisenhower and Eleanor Pillsbury.
  • 1965 -- No contest held.
  • 1966 -- The early contests just required you to use Pillsbury flour; in 1966, other Pillsbury products became eligible ingredients. Women were getting busier. Pillsbury wanted to promote its convenience items, and so those became items that could be included in the recipes. The contest was referred to as the "Pillsbury Busy Lady Bake-Off". Ella Rita Helfrich's Tunnel of Fudge Cake (second prize winner that year) caused Pillsbury's to be inundated with more than 200,000 requests from people asking where to buy the Bundt pan she used.
  • 1968 -- Phyllis Lidert's winning "Buttercream Pound Cake" brought poppy seeds out of their Eastern European cooking ghettos and into general popular use.
  • 1976 -- After this year's contest, the contest switched from being held annually to being held every two years.
  • 1984 -- A microwave cooking category was created.
  • 1996 -- The prize money was raised to $1 million US.
  • 1998 -- A call for recipes for the 1998 Bake-Off asked contestants to centre on "30-minute main dishes."
  • 2004 -- By this year (if not before), recipes had to include at least two ingredients from a list of approved General Mills products (Pillsbury was acquired by General Mills in October 2001.)
  • 2005 -- Bravo TV did a documentary about the 2004 Pillsbury Bake-Off, entitled "The Million Dollar Recipe."
  • 2006 -- Anna Ginsberg of Austin, Texas won for her recipe that stuffed a chicken with waffles (Pillsbury® Dunkables® frozen homestyle waffle sticks.) The official name of the recipe was "Baked Chicken and Spinach Stuffing". The winning announcement was made on 22 March 2006 at the Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando, Florida.
  • 2012 -- The Bake Off Finals session is reduced an hour, from 8 am to noon. Recipes in the "Dinner Made Easy" category are allowed 35 minutes prep time. The stoves used are "GE Profile Induction" freestanding ranges.

Chronology of the Pillsbury Bake-Offs

Contest #
YearWinner and recipeLocationHost
Christina Verrelli of Devon, Pennsylvania. Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped CreamPeabody Hotel, Orlando, Florida.Martha Stewart
Sue Compton of Delanco, New Jersey. Mini Ice Cream Cookie CupsHilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, Orlando, Florida.Sandra Lee, of The Food Network
Carolyn Gurtz of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Double-Delight Peanut Butter CookiesFairmont Hotel, Dallas, TexasSandra Lee, of The Food Network
Anna Ginsberg of Austin, Texas. Baked Chicken and Spinach Stuffing.Gaylord Palms Resort, Orlando, FloridaJoy Behar
Suzanne Conrad of Findlay, Ohio. Oats 'n Honey Granola PieRenaissance Hollywood Hotel, Hollywood, CaliforniaDick Clark
Denise JoAnne Yennie of Nashville, Tennessee. Chicken Florentine PaniniPortofino Bay Hotel, Orlando, Florida Marie Osmond
Roberta Sonefeld of Hopkins, South Carolina. Cream Cheese Brownie PieSan Francisco Marriott Ballroom, San Francisco, CaliforniaPhylicia Rashad
Ellie Mathews. Seattle, Washington. Salsa Couscous ChickenOrlando, Florida Alex Trebek
Kurt Wait of Redwood City, California. Macadamia Fudge TorteAlex Trebek
Mary Anne Tyndall of Whiteville, North Carolina. Fudgy Bonbons
Gladys Fulton of Summerville, South Carolina. Pennsylvania Dutch Cake and Custard Pie
Linda Rahman of Petaluma, California. Blueberry-Poppy Seed Brunch CakePhoenix, ArizonaWillard Scott
Julie Bengtson of Bemidji, Minnesota. Chocolate Praline Layer CakeSan Diego, CaliforniaGary Collins
Mary Lou Warren of Medford, Oregon. Apple Nut Lattice TartBob Barker
Susan F. Porubcan of Jefferson, Wisconsin. Country Apple Coffee CakeBob Barker
Elizabeth Meijer of Tucson, Arizona. Almond-Filled Cookie CakeBob Barker
Millicent (Caplan) Nathan of Boca Raton, Florida. Italian Zucchini Crescent PieBob Barker
Mrs. Esther Tomich of San Pedro, California. Nutty Graham Picnic Cake. AND Linda Mowery of Worthington, Indiana. Chick-N-Broccoli Pot PiesBob Barker
Mrs. Lois Ann Groves of Greenwood Village, Colorado. Crescent Caramel Swirl. AND Lenora H. Smith of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Whole Wheat Raisin LoafBob Barker
Mrs. Barbara S. Gibson of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Easy Crescent Danish Rolls AND Mrs. Luella Maki of Ely, Minnesota. Sour Cream Apple SquaresBob Barker
Francis I. Jerzak of Porter, Minnesota. Chocolate Cherry Bars. AND Mrs. Doris Castle of River Forest, Illinois. Savory Crescent Chicken SandwichesBob Barker
Albina Flieller of Floresville, Texas. Quick Crescent Pecan Pie Bars. AND Bonnie Brooks of Salisbury, Maryland. Banana Crunch CakeBob Barker
First tie. Rose DeDominicis of Verona, Pennsylvania. Streusel Spice Cake. AND Isabelle Collins of Ramona, California. Quick 'n Chewy Crescent BarsBob Barker
Mrs. Pearl Hall of Snohomish, Washington. Pecan Pie Surprise BarsHawaii Bob Barker
Mrs. Nan Robb of Huachucha City, Arizona. Onion Lover's TwistHotel Del Coronado, San Diego, CaliforniaBob Barker
Edna M. Walker of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Magic Marshmallow Crescent PuffsBob Barker
Phyllis Lidert of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Buttercream Pound Cake
Maxine Bullock of Spring City, Tennessee. Muffin Mix Buffet BreadBob Barker
Mari Petrelli of Ely, Nevada. Golden Gate Snack Bread
(Bake-Off missed over to date being shifted from October that year to February of the following year)
Janis Risley of Melbourne, Florida. Peacheesy Pie
Mira Walilko of Detroit, Michigan. Hungry Boys' Casserole
Julia Smogor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Apple Pie '63
Alice Reese of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Candy Bar CookiesBeverly Hilton Ballroom, Los Angeles, CaliforniaArt Linkletter
Leona Petsch Schnuelle (1904-1988) of Crab Orchard, Nebraska. Dilly Casserole BreadWashington, DC
Eunice G. Surles of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Mardi Gras Party Cake
Dorothy DeVault of Delaware, Ohio. Spicy Apple TwistsArt Linkletter
Mrs. Gerda Roderer of Berkeley, California. Accordion TreatsLos Angeles, California
Mrs. Hildreth H. Hatheway of Santa Barbara, California. California CasseroleNew York City
Bertha Jorgensen of Portland, Oregon. Ring-A-LingsNew York City
Dorothy Koteen of Washington, D. C. Open Sesame PieNew York CityArt Linkletter & Arthur Godfrey
Lois Kanago of Denver, Colorado. "My Inspiration" CakeNew York City
Beatrice Harlib of Lincolnwood, Illinois. Snappy Turtle CookiesWaldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York CityArt Linkletter & Arthur Godfrey
Helen Weston of La Jolla, California. Starlight Double-Delight CakeWaldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York CityArt Linkletter
Lily Wuebel of Redwood City, California. Orange Kiss-Me CakeNew York City
Theodora Smafield of Rockford, Illinois. No-Knead Water-Rising TwistsWaldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York City

Literature & Lore

"A Twist and Mystery Token Won Big Sum For Nation's Top Home Baker".
A twist — a winning twist — and a Pillsbury mystery token won $50,000 in cash for the nation's top home baker, Mrs. Ralph E. Smafield of Detroit, Michigan, in the biggest Bake-Off ever held. If she hadn't had the token she would have won only $25,000.

Mrs. Smafield, an attractive young mother, competed against a hundred top cooks of the country — 97 women and 3 men, from 37 states, the District of Columbia and Alaska — Monday in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria.

The know-how of making the "water-rising nut twists" which she entered was handed down to her by her mother and is one of the thousands of cherished recipes hitherto disclosed to only a few.

The $50,000 top Pillsbury award won by Mrs. Smafield was presented by Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt at a luncheon honoring all 100 contestants Tuesday.

The eight other top winners in the Pillsbury Bake-Off are: Miss Laura Rott, Naperville, Ill., won second prize of $10,000 for her "mint surprise cookies." She lives on a 70-acre farm with her parents and is employed at the Kroehler Manufacturing company.

Third prize of $4,000 went to Mrs R.W. Sprague, San Marino, Calif. She submitted to the seven food editor judges "Carrie's chocolate cake." She is a graduate of the University of Arizona.

Six class prizes of $1,000 each were awarded to: a Des Moines kindergarten teacher, Mrs. C. Arthur Reseland, for her "crusty rolls." Her husband is a United States department of agriculture statistician.

A petite, dark-haired Bryan, Texas housewife, Mrs. Eddie B. Wagoner, turned in "seafoarm (sic) cookies." A former civil service secretary, she has a four-year old son.

A California grandmother from Los Angeles, Mrs. Estella Worley, baked a "Golden glow cake," the pride and joy of her two daughters and granddaughters.

"Savory dumplings," entered by Mrs. Joseph F. Maley of Osborn, Ohio, won first place in the entree class. A young mother of two, Mrs. Maley is in New York as the guest of Pillsbury Mills, as are all other 99 contestants. This is her first trip to New York.

Mrs. Robert Monroe, wife of an Atlantic City hotel manager and mother of two children, won the class prize for pies with her "black and white pie." Since childhood, she has always been 'interested' in making up recipes, and her pie is a startling new version of a chocolate cream pie.

Mrs. Harry W. O'Donnell, a Sunday school teacher and mother of four children from Crandon, Wisconsin, who also taught home economics during the war-time teacher shortage, won the dessert class prize for her "glorified cherry upside down cake," which she concocted as a special treat for her bridge club.

The three men who competed with the 97 women found out who wears the aprons in the family and chivalrously congratulated the nine feminine winners as their betters with the batter.

Youngest of the hundred prize cooks in the Pillsbury cooking tournament is 22 year old Texan Mrs. Price C Campbell, married "just six months ago". Eldest is 74 year old Mrs Rhoda Marquart of Beaverdam, Ohio, wife of a retired farmer.

-- In "Of Interest to Women" column. Zanesville, Ohio: The Times Recorder. Friday, 16 December 1949.


Dickerman, Sara. Dough Boy Showdown: Why we love the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Slate Magazine. Friday, 29 April 2005.

Hanson, Gayle M.B.. Let the Bake-Off begin - just keep it to 30 minutes. Washington, DC: Insight on the News. 10 November 1997.

Mills, Karren. Pillsbury Bake-Off reflects 50 years of American trends. Elyria, Ohio: The Chronicle-Telegram. Wednesday, 2 June 1999. Page C7.

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Oulton, Randal. "Pillsbury Bake-Offs." CooksInfo.com. Published 15 June 2006; revised 17 June 2012. Web. Accessed 03/19/2018. <http://www.cooksinfo.com/pillsbury-bake-offs>.

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