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Young cooks hit the stoves brimming with recipe ideas at Pillsbury Bake-Off

Thursday, February 25, 1999

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

A Dixieland band did not play "When the Saints Go Marching In" Saturday when the 40 cooks from age 9 to 13 marched down the ramp to their stoves at the Carnegie Science Center.

Thomas Piltoff, 13, of Verona captured the Grand Prize in the Pillsbury Kids Bake-off with his Spinach-Blue Cheese Focaccia. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette) 

That song is the traditional call to cook at the mother of all Bake-Offs - the Pillsbury - when 100 women and men vie for a grand prize of $1 million.

But the tension seemed just as high and the cheering section just as intense when the young cooks competed in the Pillsbury Kids Bake-Off. They were randomly selected from about 500 kids who signed up with Giant Eagle for a chance to win four tickets to Orlando, a complete home computer and a $1,000 and $500 savings bond.

They were dressed for the job in white chef toques and Pillsbury-blue butcher aprons.

Devin Marshall, 9, brought a lucky apron of his own. His "World's Best" apron was created by his maternal grandmother, Jane York, who died five years ago. "I got tears in my eyes when he said he was going to do this - it was all his own idea," said his mother, Jayne Marshall of Uniontown. Devin was one of the four big winners. He received a $500 savings bond for his Egg Nests, a recipe the judges praised as a "neat idea." He used Pillsbury wheat biscuits as a nest for an egg topped with Isaly's chopped ham and shredded Cheddar cheese.

The Grand Prize dish was 13-year-old Thomas Piltoff"s Spinach-Blue Cheese Focaccia, simply, but tastefully, presented on a wooden cutting board. The judges liked the "creative use of nutritious ingredients and the interesting combination. It could be an appetizer or a meal."

Asked who he'd be taking with him to Disney World, the young gentleman from Verona said, "My family." Thomas is the son of Suzanne and Michael Komaniak. His grandmother Louise Rinchiuso and his sister Nina, 5 months, will also go to Orlando.

The winners circle gathered around their entries at the Carnegie Science Center on Saturday: from left, frand prize winner Thomas Piltoff of Verona, third prize winner Devin Marshall of Uniontown, second prize winner Ethan William Markel of Penn Hills and first place winner Kristin Klein of Hampton. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette) 

First place winner was Kristin Klein, 9, of Hampton. Her care in preparing fresh apples for her Apple Crunch Coffee Cake pleased the judges, who said "the texture of the apples came through, and the ingredients have distinct flavors."

"My dad got the recipe off the Internet," said the daughter of Jim and Linda Klein. Now she'll have a computer of her own.

Second place honors went to the Gourmet Pizza created by Ethan William Markel, 10, the son of Diane and Bill Markel of Penn Hills. Using a Pillsbury All Ready Pizza Crust, the exotic pizza was presented on a tray - napkin and all - and quickly disappeared.

A nice twist on a commonplace dish, this pizza had a base topping of pesto. The judges praised the "excellent presentation" and said the "pesto was a wonderful idea' "

Much of the fun was not in the winning, but the doing. There were no losers. The other 36 contestants received a $50 gift certificate from Sears.

It was a long wait for the families, some of whom arrived around 8:30 a.m. and didn't leave until 5 o'clock. Luckily, there's more than a day's worth to do and see at the Science Center.

After the 40 children - almost evenly divided between boys and girls - were chosen, it was up to the individual cook to make sure his or her dish would catch the eyes and taste buds of the three judges, Judy Dodd, nutrition consultant for Giant Eagle, Yvonne Zanos, consumer reporter for KDKA and me.

Dodd will do a double take next weekend when Giant Eagle sponsors another contest in Cleveland. Pittsburgh and Cleveland are two of the five cities nationwide to have a Pillsbury kids contest which require a local sponsor. The other cities are Sacramento, Rochester, N.Y., and Indianapolis.

Though some may have wondered if kids "favorites" would be all sweet stuff, there was a Food Guide Pyramid of choices - grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein - prepared at the all-day event.

"All the books written about kids' tastes are wrong," said Dodd, a registered dietitian who teaches nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. "They say kids like bland food, but today's kids will fight for the hottest things."

The kids cooked in four shifts on 10 ranges. which required an outside generator to provide enough juice. They worked out of the sight of the judges, who were sequestered in a chilly conference room in the basement of the Science Center.

Pillsbury people dressed in blue denim Kids Bake-Off shirts assisted the children, whose recipe didn't have to be original, which is a requirement in the adult Bake-Off.

Another difference is that flour is considered a qualifying ingredient in the kids contest, but not in the adult competition (kids can enter, though) unless it's part of a Pillsbury mix. The words Quick & Easy were added to the Bake-Off contest name last year in Orlando, and the company is serious about its time restraints. The children had an hour - more if they needed it - to create their dishes.

And creative they were, especially in the presentation and often in the names as well. The "Pillsbury Doughboy Express" was a car made from a cake, its wheels and driver - the Doughboy himself - made from decorated cookies.

Corn Covered Mashed Potato Mountain was a name that was self-explanatory (Pillsbury owns Hungry Jack instant mashed potatoes) and Fruit in a Cloud Cake was also well-named, though personally I loved the straightforward kid who called his/her dish simply "Cake."

We judged "blind" not knowing whether the entry was made by a boy or a girl . So we were as surprised as anyone when three out of the four winners were young men.

Sadly, two dishes were disqualified when they didn't contain a Pillsbury product, a contest requirement. (If only they had created with Pillsbury flour or Green Giant green beans.) Other qualifying ingredients included Old El Paso, and several dishes were served with salsa, a trend obviously subscribed to by the young.

Judging was on the basis of taste, appearance, creativity and preparation (it's difficult to bake or cook with an unfamiliar range, and a few dishes were doughy or not warm enough, though we didn't see a single burned dish).

For photos ops, the Pillsbury Doughboy was afoot, along with that green guy, Sprout, and Giant Eagle's "Iggle," a jolly bird. Sponsors included Pillsbury, Giant Eagle, Sears, KDKA and the Post-Gazette.

Oddly, it is possible to eat 40 different dishes and still have some appetite at the end of the day. You know a winning dish when you taste it - you want seconds. For me, that included a couple of cakes, one chocolate with chocolate frosting and pecans, one an airy white with perfect texture - no overbaking here - and fresh fruit. We three tasters, pledged to the task of reaching a consensus on the winners, each had her personal favorites, of course.

Before the prizes were announced, Yvonne Zanos praised all of the 40 hard-working cooks. "I wanted your dish to win," she said with a smile.

As for me, satiated with good things to eat from 9 to 5, I turned down the hot dog my husband, Ace, offered me for dinner. By tomorrow, I'll probably be hungry for that spaghetti cooked in garlic and bread crumbs and that Butterfinger ....

Spinach-Blue Cheese Focaccia

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 Pillsbury Crusty French Loaf
1 9-ounce package frozen Green Giant spinach, thawed
1/4 pound crumbled blue cheese
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/8 teaspoon crushed red peppers

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease bottom and sides of an 8-inch round cake pan with olive oil. Press and form Crusty French Loaf dough into bottom and sides of pan.

Squeeze liquid from spinach. Top dough with spinach first, then with crumbled blue cheese; Press toppings into dough. Sprinkle with Italian seasoning and crushed red peppers. Drizzle top with olive oil. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Let sit for 3-5 minutes; remove from pan.

Grand prize winner Thomas Piltoff, 13, Verona

Apple Crunch Coffee Cake

Preparation time is 15 minutes. (Ready in 1 hour 35 minutes.)

1 package Pillsbury Nut or Cranberry Quick Bread Mix
1 cup whipping cream
1 egg
1 cup chopped peeled apples
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 10- or 9-inch springform pan.

In large bowl, combine quick bread mix, whipping cream and egg. Stir 50 to 75 strokes until mix is moistened. Spread half of batter evenly in greased and floured pan. Top evenly with apple.

In small bowl, combine brown sugar, pecans and cinnamon; mix well. Sprinkle half of mixture over apple; drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the butter. Drop remaining quick bread batter by rounded tablespoonfuls over pecan mixture. Sprinkle with remaining brown sugar mixture; drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons butter.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes. Carefully remove sides of pan. Cool 20 minutes. Serve warm. Makes 10 servings.

High altitude (Above 3500 feet): Add 2 tablespoons flour to dry quick bread mix. Bake as directed above.

First-prize winner Kristin Klein, 9, Hampton

Gourmet Pizza

1 Pillsbury refrigerated pizza crust
3 ounces basil pesto
Tomatoes to taste (halved cherry tomatoes and regular tomatoes, thinly sliced)
Black olives, drained and sliced, to taste
Shredded mozzarella cheese, to taste
Parmesan cheese, to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly spray a 13-by-9-inch rectangular pan with nonstick vegetable spray. Unroll Pillsbury Refrigerated Pizza Crust in pan, gently lifting with fingers to stretch and form an edge. Prick dough with fork and bake about 5 minutes. Remove when slightly brown.

Top pre-baked crust with basil pesto,, tomatoes, sliced, drained black olives and shredded mozzarella cheese. Top with Parmesan cheese.

Bake for about 5 minutes. Remove from oven when cheese melts and crust is golden brown. Sprinkle parsley for garnish, if desired.

Additional toppings may include mushrooms, roasted red peppers, provolone cheese or artichoke hearts.

Second prize winner Ethan Markel , 10, Penn Hills

Devin's Egg Nests

1 package Pillsbury Wheat Biscuits
1 dozen medium eggs
1 cup Isaly's chopped ham
Finely shredded Cheddar cheese

Cut out center of each biscuit, not cutting all the way through to the bottom. Line a non-stick muffin pan with each biscuit, pulling dough about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch above the top. Crack egg and place one egg in each muffin tin.

Put pepper on top of each egg. Place 2 tablespoons of chopped ham on each egg. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 17 minutes, or until slightly brown. With the extra dough from the biscuit centers, roll into 8 "eggs" and bake in an extra muffin tin, and put in the oven along with the eggs. When done, place on platter with sprinkled cheese on top. Make a nest of Cheddar cheese in middle of platter and add the dough eggs in the middle.

Third-prize winner Devin Marshall, 9, Uniontown

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