The big day started bright and early, with a buffet breakfast at 6:15 a.m. We lined up in two rows for the Grand March onto the contest floor. Right away, Gloria, the woman in line in front of me, pointed out a logistical problem: we were on the right side of the line, but our ranges (also called an oven) were on the left. Would we cross over the others walking in to get to our ranges?
"Don't worry," I said. "They'll tell us where it go and it will be fine."
We walked in ("happy and clapping," as directed) to clapping and cheers. If you look at the guy just to the right of the Doughboy's hat, that's the male half of Tom's and my favorite contesting couple, Edwina and Bob. They are fun, interesting, down-to-earth people.
Anyway, Gloria and I turned the corner ... and photographers and TV cameras are positioned right in front of our ovens. We would have started a traffic jam if we had tried to cross over the line on our left get to our ovens. Nobody was directing us, so we just kept walking ... and found ourselves in the back of the room with the march over! (So in other words, this contest veteran advised Gloria wrong.)
What else was there to do but jog back to my oven? I felt ridiculous.
We clapped to the music for what seemed like an eternity, and the baking started promptly at 8 a.m.
When I opened up the bag of my refrigerated groceries to begin making my Jalapeno Popper Cups, I was dismayed to see that they provided me with mild cheddar cheese -- and I always had made the recipe with sharp cheddar. I looked at my ingredient list and sure enough, I hadn't specified mild or sharp. What to do?
Given that they require you to approve an ingredient and equipment list months before the Bake-off, I knew they wouldn't be eager to make a switch for me. I decided that I'd make my first batch with the mild cheese and taste them. (We were required to make it two times -- one for judges and the other for photography and display, but could make it a third time for sampling). I hadn't planned on sending my first batch to the judges anyway, because I thought jalapenos would be too much for the judges before 9 a.m.
Sandra Lee, the host of this year's contest, gave me a quick break from fretting about my cheese. I know there are plenty of people who don't care for Sandra Lee or her show. But after being around her, I am now a fan. She is beyond gorgeous -- "a tall drink of water," as my husband described her. She's very friendly -- she introduced herself to me as "Sandy" and gave me a firm handshake. And she is an absolute cut-up. I asked her if she could look at my husband, standing in the spectator area, and smile for a picture.
Sandy asks me Tom's name, then yells over to my quiet, unassuming husband as he's taking the picture,
"Hi Tom, do you clean?" she calls out to him in a boisterous voice.
He nods his head as he's taking our picture. (And I agreed -- he does clean.)
"Well, there's nothing a woman finds sexier than a man who cleans," she quipped.
So this tall drink of water implied that my husband was sexy. To him, that made the event worth the $525 guest fee.
Back to the popper cups (I'm in the front right in this photo) ... I went ahead with the plan to use the first batch for photography and display. I was the first person to get my entry to the photographers, at 8:45 a.m. They must have taken a dozen photos of me, trying to get my nametag and button not to reflect, and having me to tilt my dish toward the camera -- which was hard to do without them toppling over.
When I returned to my range, the six or so appetizers I left for sampling had disappeared, so clearly there are people who don't have a problem with jalapenos before 9. I tasted the one I set aside to taste, and was not happy with how they tasted with the mild cheddar cheese. The taste was blah (which may be why a few reviews on the Pillsbury site said it needed more flavor.)
I explained my dilemma to my runner. I said I knew it was my mistake that I didn't specify it, and I didn't have a leg to stand on, but would be possible to get sharp cheddar. He went and asked the grocery manager, and came back with an answer of "no." Lesson learned, I thought.
I started on my second batch, which would most likely go to the judges (I didn't want to take the chance of my third batch not turning out). I made the filling, then carefully lined the mini muffin cups with the biscuits. Just as I was about to start filling the cups, my runner showed up with a package of sharp Cheddar cheese. He said the grocery manager had run to the store to get it (thanks grocery manager, whoever you are). But I wouldn't be given additional ingredients for other batches, and could only make three.
The second batch turned out good enough. I carefully placed the best dozen on a platter.
Then it was the long walk to the room where the judges were sequestered. (You can see a black curtain covering the door where the were.) When I saw this photo, I asked my husband why in the world he took a photo of my fat ass, but it gives you a sense of the long walk to the judges, with the camera crew running ahead of me. A corporate attorney and a man from the judging company greeted me there, and I signed a statement that I had made the dish on my own.
Once that was done, the pressure was off. I made my third batch and handed them out as samples and my cooking was done.
After that, I walked around the Bakeoff floor. I checked out the other recipes, sampled some of them, and chatted with other finalists and guests. That included Sally Pillsbury, who I'm talking to above. She is a real pip. She hadn't heard of jalapeno poppers so I explained what they were and why my cups were easier.
Gloria, to the right, cooked Poblanos Florentine Casserole at the range next to me. I tried it and it was delicious.
That night, everyone involved with the contest was treated to a fun party at a place called Eddie Deen's. (People have asked me if it's Paula Deen's son's place. I don't know but I don't think so.) Lots of good food and drinks.
Even the Pillsbury Doughboy tried out line dancing! I did too. It was lots of fun and we closed the place at 10 p.m. We struck up a conversation with a couple from Dallas on the bus, and chatted with them at the hotel bar until midnight.
The next morning was another early one, with breakfast at 6:15. Next was the awards ceremony. I was really happy when Vanda's name was called! I have to note a funny coincidence: for three years running, a Rochester contestant has been a category winner -- and has been standing right next to the million dollar winner! It brings to mind the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s -- we keep knocking on the door...
Anyway, Sandra Lee was a great host. Her off-the-cuff remarks were really funny. Everyone I talked to thought that Pillsbury should keep her on as host every year.
By now you know the winner was Double-Delight Peanut Butter Cookies. I didn't taste them while I was at the Bake-off so I plan to bake them tomorrow. I'll reserve judgment on the recipe until then (which I what I suggest everyone should do).
I didn't meet the woman who won, but she was adorable. I'm looking forward to watching her on the Today Show tomorrow.
We returned last night, loaded with gifts thanks to the tote bag we were given. My in-laws, nephew and sons all enjoyed their goodies.