A past Bake-Off judge tells you how the Bundt cake is made
Some good news is on the rise. The previously annual or biennial Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest will be back in October after a three-year hiatus.The company has announced a partnership with the Food Network to "modernize" the event for a new generation of home cooks and offer a prize package including, per a press release, an experience that money can't buy. The monetary reward for top Bake-Off winners since 1996 has been an eye-popping $1,000,000, so that's likely to be one heckuva reward.
The contest has been part of American culture since 1949 when the first batch of 100 amateur bakers were invited to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City to compete for a grand prize of $25,000. In years since, winning dishes that were developed specifically for the contest have become part of the home baking lexicon: Tunnel of Fudge Cake (1966), Peanut Blossoms (1957), Chocolate Silk Pecan Pie (1986), and more.
Though the rules for the 2017 contest have yet to be disclosed, in the past they have included a required minimum of pre-approved Pillsbury products. The entries also had to fit into several categories depending on the year, such as desserts, breakfast, dinner, and snacks. Each of these recipes was rigorously sampled and evaluated before making their way to a semi-final round to determine the top four entries, which in later years went on to a final round with the winner being determined by an online vote. The move proved to be not especially popular with entrants, and it remains to be seen if this popular vote will remain part of the contest's structure moving forward.
With a million bucks at stake for the winner, the in-person judges take their job painfully seriously. I know this firsthand because I was one of them in the most recent Bake-Off, which was held in Nashville in 2014. When you are asked to serve as a Pillsbury Bake-Off judge, you show up. It's one of those odd and wonderful life opportunities that you never imagine you'll get to partake in, and it's pretty delightful—and physically grueling and emotionally intense. We judges were essentially sequestered in the contest hotel and at carefully guarded outings to local restaurants. We were told not to disclose our judge status to anyone, especially on social media and to any contestants so as to remain completely impartial and prevent any contestants from reaching out to influence us.
Try as you might, you still hear things: a conversation at a nearby table with contestants cattily trashing those not in attendance (people can be eligible for several years and it can get cliquey), or chatter in an elevator about how earnestly another has prepared and what the prize would mean to them. I tried as best I could to block it all out and judge with my own tastebuds (and a detailed list of criteria provided by Pillsbury).
Here's how that works: Each judge is assigned a category—which may have several dozen entries in it—and they must try each dish, evaluate it on its own merits, give it a score, and winnow down to compare it with other dishes in the category. Re-tasting and reheating are allowed. So is spitting it out, which became necessary several times throughout the day. It seems like heaven to have a seemingly endless bounty of award-winning desserts laid out in front of you with a mandate to eat them all, right? Try having to sample several dozen of them—in wildly varying degrees of quality—in the course of a couple hours and go back for seconds or thirds to determine which stack up highest in the category. Then also sample the finalists from all the other categories—and until the discussion part commences, refrain from vocalizing your opinion or warn anyone away from potential disaster.
But then comes the deliberation, and it is intense. There's a life-changing amount of money at stake, and we as judges felt the gravity of that. There was heated discussion—not quite yelling, but almost—and possibly even a few tears as we each stated our case for what we believed to be right and good. The Pillsbury Bake-Off is, yes, a corporate-sponsored event, but it's part of American culture, and we were entrusted with a decision that was going to have a direct effect on the shopping, baking, and hosting habits of the public for at least the next few years, as well as making someone into a millionaire. We voted our hearts. We went to dinner (reader, I ate only salad), and attended the finals. Then, with my stomach and conscience full, I retired to my hotel room. And I didn't eat another baked good for the rest of the calendar year.