DALLAS -- Carolyn Gurtz's double-delight peanut butter cookies beat out all four North Texas finalists for the Pillsbury Bake-Off's $1 million bonanza Tuesday in Dallas, but Gwen Beauchamp of Lancaster captured the popular vote with her toffee-banana brownies.
Beauchamp's recipe got the most votes in Pillsbury's online consumer poll, winning her $5,000 and the bake-off's America's Favorite Recipe Award. But it was Gurtz, a sweet-faced homemaker from Gaithersburg, Md., who was the center of attention at Tuesday morning's awards ceremony.
"I'm speechless for once in my life," gasped Gurtz, blinking amid a blizzard of confetti, after Food Network's Semi-Homemade host Sandra Lee proclaimed her the grand-prize winner.
The announcement was the culmination of two years of planning, recipe-culling and kitchen testing for Pillsbury, which holds its bake-off -- the biggest and most lucrative of America's cooking contests -- biennially. This bake-off, the 43rd, was the third to be held in Dallas.
Lots of cooks in the kitchen
The 100 finalists, along with a vast crew from Pillsbury and a swarm of media and food industry bigwigs, practically took over the Fairmont Dallas hotel for three days of hoopla. Finalists and media were wined, dined and given a taste of Dallas -- including line-dancing to "Achy-Breaky Heart" with the Pillsbury Doughboy at Eddie Deen's party hall -- but it was all business at Monday morning's bake-off.
The hotel's vast Regency Ballroom was lined with three double rows of mini-kitchens -- each with a GE range and a 36-by-24-inch counter with storage below. Finalists worked almost shoulder-to-shoulder as the aromas of baking chocolate and vanilla mingled with those of sauteing onions.
Blue-shirted runners fetched ingredients from the refrigerators at one end of the ballroom, ferried bowls and equipment back and forth and refilled water pitchers — no sinks in the mini-kitchens — for the intently working cooks.
Pillsbury provided all the ingredients, tools and serving ware for the finalists, who weren't allowed to bring anything but what they were wearing on the contest floor. Even their purses were bagged in big blue Zip-Locs and hung on racks at the entrance to the contest floor.
A flurry of activity
Contestants were given enough ingredients to make their recipes three times. One finished dish went to the sequestered team of judges and one to the photo booth, then later to a display table. Finalists had the option of making a third version as a back-up, or for sampling, a popular activity among the schools of food-industry guests who roamed the bake-off aisles checking out recipes or interviewing finalists as they cooked.
A black-clad Food Network crew bristling with equipment moved from station to station, shooting for a future special.
By noon, an hour before the bake-off's close, most of the contestants had made the tension-filled walk down a long hall to the judges' receiving table, balancing their painstakingly arranged dishes.
It would be 20 hours before they returned to the ballroom to find out whether they'd be planning recipes for a hoped-for return two years hence or whisked off to the press conference as a brand-new Pillsbury millionaire.
Amy Culbertson is the Star-Telegram food editor, 817-390-7421
2008 Pillsbury Bake-Off winning recipe
Double-delight peanut butter cookies
The recipe calls for specific brands because finalists are required to include certain branded ingredients in their recipes.
Yields 24 cookies
1/4 cup Fisher dry-roasted peanuts, finely chopped
1/4 cup Domino or C&H granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup JIF creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup Domino or C&H confectioners' sugar
16.5-ounce roll Pillsbury Create ‘n Bake refrigerated peanut butter cookies, well chilled
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. In small bowl, mix chopped peanuts, granulated sugar and cinnamon; set aside.
2. In another small bowl, stir together peanut butter and powdered sugar until completely blended. Shape mixture into 24 1-inch balls.
3. Cut roll of cookie dough into 12 slices. Cut each slice in half crosswise to make 24 pieces; flatten slightly. Shape 1 cookie dough piece around 1 peanut butter ball, covering completely. Repeat with remaining dough and balls.
4. Roll each covered ball in chopped-peanut mixture; gently pat mixture completely onto balls. On ungreased large cookie sheets, place balls 2 inches apart. Spray bottom of drinking glass with nonstick cooking spray; press into remaining peanut mixture. Flatten each ball to 1/4-inch thickness with bottom of glass. Sprinkle any remaining peanut mixture evenly on tops of cookies, gently pressing nuts into dough.
5. Bake 7 to 12 minutes, or until edges are golden brown. Cool 1 minute on cookie sheets before removing from cookie sheets to cooling rack. Store tightly covered.
The recipes of the grand-prize winner, the category winners and all the other finalists can be found at www.bake-off.com.