Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Finding THE nuts

Readers have called and e-mailed me in their search for the Fisher Dry Roasted Peanuts called for in the Double Delight Peanut Butter Cookies recipe that won the Pillsbury Bake-Off. In Dallas Carolyn Gurtz of Gaithersburg, Md. walked away with the $1-million prize on Tuesday. Yesterday's Food story shared her clever recipe. It mixes balls of peanut butter and powdered sugar, wraps slices of refrigerated peanut butter cookie dough around them and tops them with a mixture of chopped peanuts, sugar and cinnamon.

Own own local finalist, Linda Bibbo of Bainbridge Township, also had problems locating the Fisher Butter Toffee Peanuts in her Caramel Latte Crunch Cups.

"Would you believe?" she told me. "I finally found them at Staples, of all places."

I'm quite sure that any old dry roasted peanuts would substitute quite nicely in the peanut butter cookie recipe. But one never knows. I was quite surprised, for instance, at how good the cookies really are. And could be it's just the way the ingredients combine tha made it a winner.

So I rifled through my inch-thick package of press material I brought back from Dallas and found the name of the Fisher spokeswoman. I've now e-mailed and left a phone message asking her the big question:
Where in Lake and Geauga counties are these nuts sold?
Stay tuned to this blog for the answer. And feel free to ask me your questions by clicking on the box at the bottom of this posting. That's the only way I know if you are getting this.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

and the winner is...

Carolyn Gurtz of Gaitherburg, Md. is the newest Pillsbury Bakeoff millioniare. Her Her Double-Delight Peanut Butter Cookies are brilliantly simple..they build upon a roll of Pillsbury Create 'n Bake refrigerated peanut butter cookies, adding Jif peanut butter and chopped dry roasted peanuts. Wednesday's Food section will have the recipe.

Her win proves that tasting is believing. In doing my homework for this trip to the Pillsbury Bake-Off, I carefully looked through all the recipes and tried to guess which ones would be judged as tops. When I looked at the ingredients in Carolyn's cookies I dismissed them, thinking they'd be way too peanut buttery tasting, perhaps even gritty.

But that just goes to show that the proof is in the tasting. They are delicious...sort of like snickerdoodles in the way they hold together.. a little like the pleasant texture of a molasses cookie. I'm no baker, so the chemistry of the taste and texture eludes me, but I am guessing it has something to do with Carolyn's use of both confectioners sugar and granulated sugar. Tasting these babies made me a believer. You'll love them!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Big sigh of relief

Tonight's western style dinner at Eddie Deen's party center here in Dallas was the first event in which finalists, media, food industry executives and supermarket consumer affairs directors were all together. Food and drink stations were set up around the huge room serving lots of beans, salsa, chips, carved beef brisket and smoked turkey, lamb chops, shrimp and lots more. Good appetites are one things most of these people have in common. Finalists, relieved to have the long-awaited competition behind them, were among the first on the dance floor doing line dancing. Even Pillsbury president, Juliana Chugg, a 40-something young woman from Australia, mixed and mingled with the rest of us. She and I agreed that Melbourne, where she lived for six years, is a fine food town. We even have enjoyed some of the same restaurants.

Fun as it was, lots of us headed back to the hotel early, since we have another 6;15 a.m. breakfast tomorrow, followed by the awards ceremony at 7:30. It's not so hard for those of us from the eastern time zones since the time is just an hour earlier, but it's like getting up in the middle of the night for finalists from California and other western states.

Log on tomorrow and we'll let you know who is the $1 million winner of the 43rd Pillsbury Bake-Off and we'll give you the winning recipe. In Wednesday's Food section you'll read more about the Bake-Off and some of the interesting people I got to know here

Bake-Off strategies

The 100 finalists have just finished cooking and submitted their recipes to the judges, who are sequestered away in a room carefully guarded by security. I spent four hours walking among them watching their techniques and asking questions. Linda Bibbo has attracted lots of attention from the Food Network and others who researched the recipes before they came to Dallas. She has the same kind of GE oven at home that was provided in her mini-kitchen here in Dallas and even bought the same cookware used by the Bake-Off. It's obvious she's tested her recipe many times. She was in South Carolina with her daughter when the Bake-Off cook book came out and was stunned when her husband told her the Caramel Latte Crunch Cups she entered were not only on the cover, but got a centerfold spread as well.

Several finalists have been here before and the Bake-Off is a family affair for a West Virginia family. Sherry Smith (Banana-filled Caramel Chocolate Crepes)is competing against her son-in-law Will Sperry (Chicken-Asiago-Spinach Quiche)this year. In 1982 Sherry's daughter Janelle was the youngest ever finalist at age 10. Janelle was a finalist again in 2006 and Will was a finalist in 2004. They live within 3 miles of each other in Bunker Hill, W. Va. and taste tested each others entries. It's like Will says: "It's just not that hard becoming a finalist, and once you're here you have one in a hundred chances of becoming a millionaire. It's definitely worth making the effort."

the Bake-Off begins

The excitement level here in Dallas is high as the 43rd Pillsbury Bake-Off begins. We assembled for breakfast at 6:15 in the Dallas Fairmont host hotel, where just about every one of its nearly 500 rooms is filled with people connected with the Bake-Off. We were welcomed by Sandra Lee, whose 70/30 Semi-Homemade philosophy personifies the dishes made by finalists. Tomorrow morning she will the wolrd know who is the $1 million winner. After breakfast the 92 women and eight me finalists lined up for the Grand Parade into the hotel's Regency Ballroom, where three rows of mini-kitchens each numbered and named with both recipe title and contestant named are set up. It was touching to watch them say goodby to their signifcant others who accompanied them here. Husbands helped wives into aprons and made sure hair was in place and everything was in order before sending them off to where TV crews and photographers awaited. Each contestant had to go into the competition without purses and with pockets emptied. (No chance that our own Linda Bibbo of Bainbridge Township will be able to smuggle in any of her homemade vanilla!) A few minutes before 8 the Grand Parade began as the music cranked up and media were herded behind velvet roping to form an aisle. I stood next to a 3-person Food Network crew and talked to the producer. She told me there are four crews just like hers in various positions around the competition floor. During the four hours contenders have to prepare their recipes three different times, each will be interviewed by a Food Network crew. I finally spotted Linda Bibbo in the parade and gave her a thumbs up as she came past me. More than a few eyes twinkled with tears in the bright lights as the emotions of the last few days caught up with finalists. But now they've gotten down to work in their kitchens and in four more hours they'll be done. I'm headed back to the contest floor now to see what I can learn about their techniques and uses of ingredients.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

What's for dinner?

The increasing number of women in the workplace in recent years has changed the world, says Harry Balzer, whose NPD Group tracks consumer behavior in eating, meal preparation, and cooking trends. The majority of meals are still prepared by women, he said, although an increasing number of younger men are cooking. He was anoher of the professionals addressing the food writers assembled this weekend in Dallas for the Pillsbury Bake-Off. The 100 finalists will take to their individual mini-kitchens tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. to prepare the dishes that earned them finalist status. When the nine judges have finished their work tasting and ranking the dishes, the $1 million prize winner will be announced. I haven't yet encountered Linda Bibbo of Bainbridge Township who will be preparing her Caramel Latte Crunch Cups.
But I did meet fellow Buckeye Cynthia Holub from the J.M. Smucker Co. test kitchen. She presented a great seminar on how to parlay a few great basics into an endless number of dinners so we no longer have to fear the question "What's for Dinner?"
Stay tuned for that story. Tonight I'll be among those going to Fearing's to discover first hand what's for dinner there. It's considered one of the best restaurants in Dallas and is said to attract assorted movers and shakers and glamorous folks. I'm very much looking forward to Fearing's, although with all the tastes I've had today I am much more concerned about what to wear, than what to eat.

Red Bull, McDs, and fine chocolate..whew!

The 50 or so food writers here in Dallas for the Pillsbury BakeOff have attended a full day of seminars to help us with future stories as the 100 finalists arrive. Author Ron Rentel introduced us to some of the consumer types driving today's market trends, including food, and distributed copies of his book. He surveys thousands of consumers to better pinpoint market niches and has come up with protypes we all know. They include the Middlemen, the single college educated young men usually between 21 and 35 who still live at home with their parents. This group is a global phenomenon of the past decade that has had a huge impact. Middlemen have propelled Fantasy Football into a $600 million a year industry and have helped video gaming surpass TV. They've inspired beer brands, Red Bull and bars. "After all they have to hang out somewhere besides home," he said. The group is responsible for 70 percent of McDonald's sales. His book, "Karma Queens, Geek Gods & Innpreneurs: Meet the Nine Consumer Types Shaping Today's Marketplace" is based on thousands of hours of research conducted by his Consumer Eyes company. We then had a chocolate tasting led by John Scharffenberger, who told us about the percentages of cacoa in chocolate bars and what they mean. His Scharffen Berger Chocolate Co. in San Francisco is two words to differentiate it from his Scharffenberger Champagne Co. Since I recently did a News-Herald cover story on the chocolate exhibit at the Great Lakes Science Center, I thought I knew the subject well. But I learned a lot, including that the Swiss developed milk chocolate as a way to use their milk, keep it from spoiling and easily ship it. There was lots more - all of which has been captured in my notes, so if you are a regular reader of Wednesday Food you'll be reading more about these subjects soon.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Tex Mex is its own thing

Thats what Robb Walsh says. Author of the Tex-Mex Cookbook and The Texas Cowboy Cookbook, he spoke to the food editors gathered here in Dallas for our first Pillsbury BakeOff dinner. He's also the food critic for the Houston Press and came to dinner attired`in Levi's, a 10-gallon hat, cowboy shirt and Rayban sunglasses - his disguise when reviewing restaurants in Houston. He told us he gets tired of hearing Tex Mex food described as Mexican food gussied up by gringos. The Fairmont Hotel's kitchen did a fine job in interpreting the recipes from his cookbook for our dinner he said. Chicken fried steak, which one reader told me to be sure to try, was among the foods passed around on huge platters for the food writers' dinner. That's a typical Tex-Mex dish not found in Mexico but popular in Texas, he told us. "There are several stories about how it originated," he said. German settlers around New Braunfels, Texas started it all by preparing it as they did their weiner schnitzel, he says. They pounded round steak and dipped it in milk mixed with eggs, then dipped it into flour with spices before pan frying it. His Texas Cowboy Cookbook has several versions of the recipe, along with lots of history.
Food editors are here from all over the country, including a small group from Ohio. Excitement is building for the competition as the finalists arrive in Dallas. Food editors' activities, arranged by the Dallas Morning News Food Dept.,will include seminars about the consumer types driving today's food trends, a primer (and tasting!) about chocolates and a visit to a mozzarella factory for a tasting pairing cheese with beer- and that's just before lunch!

sunny dallas

Despite the grounding of hundreds of flights by Dallas based American Airlines, travel to this city for the Pillsbury Bake-Off went smoothly. My Continental flight was overbooked, probably as a result of American trying to get their many stranded passengers to their destinations. Continental offered a $400 voucher and a later flight via Atlanta to encourage four passengers to give up their seats - an offer that was quickly snapped up. Pillsbury met its Bake-Off guests at the airport and we were taken to the Dallas Fairmont, a top city hotel that is headquarters for this weekend's events. Finalist Kathy Sepich and her daughter Cassie, both from Portland, Oregon, sat opposite me on the bus. Kathy's Chicken Alfredo Gorgonzola Walnut Pizza made her a finalist - her second try for the $1 million top prize. In 2006, she competed with a blueberry muffin of her own invention. Cassie told me that her mom was always inventive in the kitchen and her friends always wanted to come to her house for a meal. Kathy said she grew up way out in the country so had to make do with what was on hand and was never afraid to experiment. "I don't remember not cooking," she said. The taste combinations in her pizza sound delicious and would, I'm sure, be appreciated at my house. Her recipe, on P 75 of the 43rd Bake-Off Cookbook makes me hungry just thinking about it. All I've had since my 6 a.m. breakfast was a tiny bag of inflight pretzels, so I'm off to see what the Dallas Fairmont and its West End neighborhod has for lunch. This will be just about my only free time in the next few days, so I'm going exploring.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Air travel woes

I'm betting the Pillsbury Bake-Off folks are mighty anxious in the face of the many flights being canceled by American Airlines. More than a quarter-million people have been affected in just the past few days as federal regulators step up their inspections of aircraft electrical systems. Dallas, where the Bake-Off action begins tomorrow at the Fairmont Hotel, has been hit by the double whammy of violent storms in the past few days. Dallas is also a major American Airlines hub.

I'm flying Continental, which I consider to be the best among all the airlines. I'd like to hope they've kept up their required inspections, but there are no guarantees they won't be the next to have flights grounded.

I've got a call in now to the Bake-Off headquarters to see if there's a Plan B. Since they are flying in 100 contenders and probably half that many food writers, I'm guessing they've thought of almost everything.

The actual cooking competition is Monday when 100 men and women from all over the country step up to the compact kitchens they've been assigned and begin preparing their recipes. So Bake-Off organizers have a time cushion to work with. But the Saturday and Sunday festivities for the 100 finalists are a big part of the treat for becoming a finalist.

For nearly 60 years, the Bake-Off contest has revealed what's hot in the nation's kitchens. It's given food lovers everywhere a glimpse of how American cooks and eats these days. I think our local contender, Linda Bibbo of Bainbridge Township, has a very good chance at winning the $1 million first prize. But I've looked through the just-published Bake-Off cookbook, which has all the recipes for this year's finalists, and can tell you all of them are very good.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Bake- Off bound

In just a few days I'll be headed to the 43rd Pillsbury Bake-Off in Dallas where I will watch as the 100 contest finalists prepare the dishes that won them the right to be there. To help me prepare, the Bake-Off folks have sent me a map of individual kitchens where each cook will work. We're most interested in Linda Bibbo of Bainbridge Township who will be at Range 19,near the end of one of three rows of identically configured kitchens. The Tennessee woman at Range 20 next to her will be making Mexican Stuffed Pepper Biscuit Tostadas. To my thinking, there's hardly a dish more different than Bibbo's Caramel Latte Crunch Cups. I am imagining the different scents that will fill that large room at the Fairmont Dallas Hotel headquarters for this year's contest.
Until 1980, the Bake-Off took place every year, but since then it's been held every two years. I was there 10 years ago in 1998 when a Salsa Couscous Chicken dish took the top award in Orlando.
Ill be taking a direct flight to the big D on Continental, a boy am I glad it's not American which is based there. They've cancelled flights right and left this week as they get their aircraft checked and up to speed mechanically.