One of my biggest dreams was born in the summer of 2000 from the pages of the July/August copy of American Girl Magazine. In that issue was an article called “Dough Girl”, about an 11-year-old named Lauren Eggeman who was one of the 100 finalists baking in the annual Pillsbury Bake-Off competition. For the next three pages, I savored (quite literally) Lauren’s story of getting to the Bake-Off, her recipe of black pepper cookies and the overall mood of the competitive but highly fun event that was held in San Francisco in 2000. I’ve never forgotten Eggeman or the Bake-Off because I’ve kept that issue of AG with me ever since.
Part of the reason why I kept it on me was also because said article included a photo of a life size Pillsbury Doughboy. The Doughboy, whose real name is Poppin’ Fresh, is hands-down one of the greatest loves of my life. And while I kind of don’t need to fulfill my 1st grade wish of being Mrs. Poppin’ Fresh anymore, the need to be able to attend the Pillsbury Bake-Off and see him up close in person was a decade long dream that came true last month when I went to Orlando, Florida to attend the 45th Annual Pillsbury Bake-Off at the Peabody Hotel.
A very blissful couple of days filled with disturbingly delicious food, an intense cornucopia of recipes that was the actual Bake-Off competition, dinner with Martha Stewart and oh yes, my true life encounters with Poppin’ Fresh in the flesh (flour?) – I may not have the culinary skill set to be able to actually compete in the Bake-Off, but after attending for the first time to write about it, you can bet your tiny chef’s hat I want to keep going for the rest of my life to come!
1) Let’s Talk Eats
When you first arrive to the Bake-Off, you get a schedule of events. Depending on whether or not you’re a finalist, a member of the press, a sponsor or one of the food industry executives, your schedule will vary slightly more than others. The part that does not vary? THE INCREDIBLE AMOUNTS OF FOOD EVERYWHERE. In the days leading up to the Monday of the Bake-Off competition, the members of the press all went to restaurants and food tasting seminars. And even though you had to wake up as early as 7 AM for some of these events (I was operating on the PST time zone and readjusting to EST was killer), it was always, always, ALWAYS worth it to suck up your exhaustion and go.
In some cases, you didn’t even have to get up and get dressed. On Sunday morning, I had breakfast in bed delivered to me.
Orange juice, yogurt parfait with granola, vegetable tartlet with herb cherry tomatoes, maple caramelized ham brochette, pecan and raspberry pastries and sliced fruit.
I’m not kidding you when I tell you this meal was the ultimate breakfast. It is very, very rare for me to say this but I could have eaten two of them. I really could have.
Being surrounded by foodies 24/7 turned me into one for the weekend. I expanded my edible horizons by tasting and enjoying so many different meals outside of what I usually eat. I developed some snobbery with what I ate too, noticing the different textures and layers and balances buried deep within the recipes. It was an eye-opening experience with everything from the buttery and delicate California Delta asparagus to the tough ‘n savory pulled chicken sandwiches, an earthy mixed greens salad spiced up with wine vinaigrette and in the drink drinks category, the wholly delightful vodka and champagne “Spring Fling” martini.
2) Dinner with Martha Stewart
More food talk? Dude, aren’t you full by now?
There was something insanely remarkable about the overall eating process during the Bake-Off. There was always enough time in between meals to digest what you ate and have a moment to wonder when the next time you would eat would be. I will never be sure of how they did it, but this is a higher power I don’t think I’m meant to question.
Dinner with Martha Stewart was held at Emeril’s Tchoup Chop and featured a menu of wok-seared edamame, mixed Asian greens and slow roasted Kalua pork shoulder. The dessert was in trio form and included the following masterminds: coconut crème brulee, Kahlua chocolate cake and fresh apple strudel.
Martha sat at the table right behind ours. In person, she’s pretty much one of the most salt of the earth women you’ll ever see. Meryl Streep could easily play her in a biopic. She’s unexpectedly funny, too. During the pre-dinner welcome speech, she told everyone a story about a Southwestern restaurant she went to that had over 70 types of tequila on the menu. “Needless to say, we all left in worse shape than when we arrived!” was the awesome punchline.
Getting drunk with Martha Stewart seems to be one of my new future life goals, y’all.
3) The Morning After: The Bake-Off Competition
Monday morning, I was en route to the lower wing of the Peabody Hotel where the Bake-Off competition would be held. As a logistics rule of thumb, the Peabody has over 15 floors, one of which contains several conference halls and rooms. Since the Bake-Off requires the use of 100 ovens, finding the right space to house said ovens, contestants, press and y’know, not letting the whole thing overheat or blow the fuses is a harder task than it looks.
I immediately updated my Facebook and felt unnecessary rage that my West Coast friends weren’t awake yet to view it since my update was made at 7:30 AM EST. Wake up you lazy bums! Don’t you realize a dream of mine since I was in middle school is coming to life and your only reply back to me is going to be that you were still asleep?? At 8 AM, the finalists all came running out as part of the Grand March, donning their fancy new aprons with huge grins on their faces. For the next twenty minutes, they’d work at their ovens assembling ingredients, checking temperature settings and getting started on their finalist recipe creations before the press was set loose to check in on what they were up to.
Salmon crescent sushi rolls, Southwestern corn poppers, orange marmalade cornmeal muffins and kickin’ chicken sandwiches with cucumber topping were abound all around me along with the overall mood of pure fun. Initially I had worried that everyone would be too deep within their cooking zone to let me ask them any questions, but in actuality all of the chefs from guys (the few, the proud) to gals were really friendly. You could tell that they really found their place in the world by bringing joy to the kitchen.
The winner, I met at station #33 – the lovely Christina Verrelli with her Pumpkin Ravioli with Salted Caramel Whipped Cream.
But I gotta give honorable mentions to these two: Christina’s station neighbor Amber Schofield and her Mango-Lemon Drop Sunshine Puffs
And the Cappuccino Toppers from station #97 by Dawn Onuffer, AKA the only recipe to utilize a coffee base in it!
4) The Big Time
My feelings right before this picture was taken included:
1) Anticipation. HE WAS IN THE BUILDING PEOPLE.
2) Worry. It was 9:30 in the morning and no sightings had been made yet.
3) Interrogation. I went to at least 5+ General Mills employees inquiring about his whereabouts.
4) Physical Exertion. Me running to the door when I was told at 9:45 that he was just right outside of the conference hall.
5) Hysterical laughter combined with some tears. Picture Kristen Bell in the sloth video and you’d have me and my emotions but to a lesser degree. I didn’t need to lie down or anything, but my head felt very light. Almost like a balloon that was about to float away from my body.
6) Post-Photo Op, I poked him in the belly and he giggled. My balloon head went up, up and away. Then I proceeded to (at a distance) follow the Doughboy around the Bake-Off floor and take semi-discreet, more like creeper photos of him as he made the rounds. Along with a brief video I made of him dancing with my extremely starstruck voiceover. Ahhh, sweet sweet Bake-Off memories.