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LET'S COOK: Pillsbury Bake-Off turns 70 this year
December 20, 2019

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Long before there were cooking shows such as Cake Boss, The Great British Bake Off and Barefoot Contessa, bakers from across America took an interest in the Pillsbury Bake-off. 2019 marks 70 years since Pillsbury first introduced this baking contest. Pillsbury introduced what they called the Pillsbury Grand National $100,000 Recipe and Baking Contest, and in time, it became the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Pillsbury started this tradition in 1949 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Pillsbury and as an effort to promote Pillsbury Best Flour. Why not mark an anniversary with a delicious homemade cake?

They came up with jingles and clever marketing phrases to promote Pillsbury such as "Nothin' Says Loving like Somethin' from the Oven" and "Pillsbury Says it Best!" They wanted more bakers to use their flour so they started promoting it with jingles and a contest. They gave generous cash prizes for the following six categories: breads, cakes, pies, cookies, entrees and desserts. The grand prize the first year was $25,000, and if you included the seal from the Pillsbury Best Flour which was used in the recipe, the prize money could be doubled! Wow! Second, third, and fourth places, along with Best of Class winners, were all awarded healthy cash prizes; thus the reason Pillsbury could market it as a $100,000 contest from the start.

Contests and good cash prizes go together like lutefisk and lefse. At one point in the Bake-Off, the grand prize was 1,000,000! Since 2018, the grand prize has been 50,000 plus a kitchen makeover from GE Appliances. It has been estimated you are 18,550 times more likely to win the Bake-Off than the lottery. The math has been done and since its inception in 1949, there have been 53 Bake-Off Contest Winners out of more than 500,000 entries. According to the Huffington Post, your odds of winning the lottery are 1 in 175 million. So set out the mixing bowls, create a recipe, and enter the next Bake-Off Contest instead!

The first Bake-Off contestants were selected by a panel of home economists from a vast pool of entries which they narrowed to 100 finalists. These lucky folks were then invited to New York City where the contest was held at the impressive Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The ballroom gave way to 100 cooking ranges with each one being numbered and labeled with contestant's name. Things almost didn't heat up at the premier because organizers had failed to realize the electrical current that 100 electric ranges would need! During the middle of the night, Pillsbury had electricians stirring things up by breaking a hole in the wall and dropping a cable down into the subway system to tap into the alternating current cable there. The contest went on the next day like a hot knife passing through butter.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the guest of honor at the first Bake-Off. She had been invited by Philip W. Pillsbury, then president of Pillsbury Mills, and she paid tribute to the housewives of America and praised them for the daily efforts of fine cooking and baking. Over the years the contest has had many celebrities such as Arthur Godfrey, Art Linkletter, Bob Barker, Willard Scott and Martha Stewart to name a few who have hosted the event.

The Bake-Off has been held most often in New York City but Los Angeles, Washington DC, Honolulu, Hollywood, Boston and other major cities have hosted it as well. Once the contest is over, booklets are printed featuring the winning recipes. I will admit that I do not have a fine collection of cars or coins, but I have almost every Bake-Off booklet! These booklets feature pictures of the winners, hosts and panel of judges. Looking back on some the earlier books is a fine treat. These booklets show contestants in vivid 50's aprons and hats showcasing their best baking and current fashions as well.

Both men and women enter the contest, with women being the most common dominator as winners. Only one male has won the grand prize. His name is Kurt Wait of Redwood City, Calif., and he won in 1996 with his Macadamia Fudge Torte. It is interesting to note that there has been a Bake-Off winner from every state. Yes, every single state has at least one finalist or grand prize winner. California has claimed the most with 132 winners and next comes Pennsylvania and Texas claims third place. The three states with the fewest number of winners are all tied with one each and they are North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. With all the good cooks in North Dakota, I look for this to change! Enter and you may win!

Are you a fan of Bundt Cakes? How about Peanut Blossoms? Well, you can thank the Pillsbury Bake-Off because both of these classics made their appearance there. In 1966 winner Ella Helfrich used a little-known baking pan to feature her Tunnel of Fudge Cake recipe and that was the Bundt pan. After the release of the booklets the recipe was so popular that it quickly became Nordic Ware's number one selling pan! Pillsbury picked up on this trend and developed a line of special cake mixes for Bundt pans. Many folks at funeral lunches continue to thank Helfrich for her inspiration.

It was Freda Smith who made the Peanut Blossoms and entered them in the ninth Bake-off in 1957. Her efforts only made it to the finalist stage, and she received no prize money. However in 1999 Peanut Blossoms were one of ten recipes inducted to the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest Hall of Fame at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

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