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Pillsbury Bake-Off pumps new life – and rules – into cooking competition

By Lee Svitak Dean
Minneapolis Star Tribune

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  • Modified Tunnel Of Fudge Cake

    The Pillsbury dry frosting mix originally used in this 1966 Bake-Off classic hasn’t been available for years. Though Pillsbury revised the recipe, not everyone was pleased with the outcome. This version, adapted from Cook’s Country magazine, is more involved than the original 15-minute recipe that Ella Helfrich of Houston created. But it’s well worth the effort.

    2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

    1/2 cup boiling water

    3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder, plus extra for pan (see note)

    2 cups all-purpose flour

    2 cups walnuts or pecans, finely chopped

    2 cups powdered sugar

    1 teaspoon salt

    5 eggs, at room temperature

    1 tablespoon vanilla extract

    1 cup granulated sugar

    3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

    1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for pan

    Glaze:

    4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

    1/2 cup heavy cream

    2 tablespoons granulated sugar

    ADJUST oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 12-cup Bundt pan and dust with cocoa powder, tapping out excess. Place bittersweet chocolate in a small heatproof bowl. Add boiling water, whisk until smooth, cool to room temperature and reserve.

    WHISK together cocoa, flour, walnuts (or pecans), powdered sugar and salt in a large bowl and set aside. WHISK together eggs and vanilla extract in a large measuring cup and reserve.

    USING an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat granulated sugar, brown sugar and butter in a large bowl until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add egg mixture and mix until just combined, about 30 seconds. Add chocolate mixture and mix until just combined, about 30 seconds. Add flour mixture and mix until just combined.

    SCRAPE batter into prepared pan, smooth batter with a rubber spatula and bake until edges are beginning to pull away from pan, about 45 minutes; do not overbake (do not use a cake tester, toothpick or skewer to test the cake).

    REMOVE to a wire rack and cool, upright, for 1 1/2 hours. Invert cake onto serving plate and cool completely, at least 2 hours.

    GLAZE: Place chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Combine cream and granulated sugar with 2 tablespoons water in a small saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Pour over chocolate and let sit for 30 seconds. Using a whisk or a rubber spatula, gently stir chocolate and cream in small circles, starting at center of bowl and working your way out in increasingly larger concentric circles.

    LEAVE glaze at room temperature until it thickens just enough to pour in a ribbon, about 20 minutes. Drizzle glaze over cake and let sit at least 10 minutes before serving. Cover tightly and store at room temperature for up to 2 days.

    NOTE: Dutch-processed cocoa is a richer, darker cocoa, treated with alkali to neutralize cocoa’s natural acidity.

    YIELD: Serves 12 to 14.



Is simpler better? That’s the goal for recipes in this year’s Pillsbury Bake-Off, which has launched major changes, not the least of which is the timing for entries. Still, if this is your kind of competitive event, you will need a virtual spreadsheet to keep track of the rules – the need to “simplify” doesn’t extend to the guidelines.

Regardless of the structure of the contest, the grand prize remains the same: $1 million (plus $10,000 in G.E. appliances).

It’s worth noting that some of the classic winners of past Bake-Offs – Peanut Blossoms and the Tunnel of Fudge cake among them – could never have been entered in this year’s contest.

The changes this year:

• Three categories only: Amazing Doable Dinners, Simple Sweets and Starters, and Quick Rise and Shine Breakfast.

• Each category has a different entry period. The first – for the dinners category – had a deadline of Feb. 7; the sweets and starters runs from April 4 to May 9, and the breakfast category is July 4 to Aug. 8.

• For the first time, the public will help determine the 100 finalists, based on entries narrowed down to 60 per category. Think of this as the “American Idol” of cooking contests. The public – that would be you – can vote on the recipes during a two-week period (for the first category, voting is open March 14-28). For more info, check out www.bakeoff.com, where you can also find all the rules. Voters will choose 33 finalists from the dinners and breakfast categories, and 34 from the sweets/starters category. The final judging will be by a panel of food experts.

• The recipes must be simple: no more than seven ingredients (not counting salt, pepper and water) and no more than 30 minutes for prep (doesn’t include baking or cooling time). Again, look to the website for more details.

• Each entry has to include two ingredients from two provided lists (List A, Pillsbury products; List B, those of associated sponsors). Even more complicated, at least one item has to be from List A and the other from either List A or List B, and there is a designated amount of product that must be used in a recipe entry. (There goes that spreadsheet!) The Peanut Blossom – the winning cookie recipe from 1957 that has made it onto most holiday cookie platters – couldn’t compete in this contest, what with its nine significant original ingredients (2 tablespoons milk appear in the recipe these days, though not in the original form as it appears in “Pillsbury BEST 1000 Recipes,” based on a 1959 cookbook).

The Tunnel of Fudge Cake, the 1966 winner that had to be reformulated after the dry frosting mix used in it was discontinued, also wouldn’t make it. It has too many ingredients and takes too long to bake.

• The event is held in the fall (Nov. 10-12) – unlike the longtime pattern of late winter, early spring competitions – and it’s held only one year and seven-plus months after the last Bake-Off, changing the usual two-year cycle. Also new: The destination for the event is Las Vegas. In this case, what happens in Vegas will not stay there, as the recipes are intended to blanket U.S. kitchens.

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