- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

Hope springs eternal for anyone who ever put a flour sifter through its paces and dreamed that, yes, Aunt Madge’s Farmer-in-the-Dell Choco-Cherry Nut Case Surprise Cookies could earn $1 million in some recipe contest somewhere.

Why, Aunt Madge was the veritable queen of the coffee hour with those things, all bursting with, well, choco-cherry. People fought over the cookie plate. They shut their eyes and did an interpretative cookie dance of happiness; they bribed her for the recipe, which cookie historians believe came over on the Mayflower.

Yes, of course — it was Aunt Madge’s Nut Case Surprise Cookies that were served at the first Thanksgiving feast, that traveled west in covered wagons and went to the moon with the astronauts and the Tang.

Every family has such an ancient recipe that appeared either before the dawn of time or shortly after the big bang. The recipe has filtered down through the family with mythology attached, to be hand-copied on battle-weary 3-by-5-inch cards spattered with the labor of loyal cooks over the years. The cards themselves assume the status of lost icons, preserved within the secret pages of a crumbling Fannie Farmer cookbook.

Spaghetti sauce, coffee cakes, casseroles, appetizers, turkey dressing and, of course, cookies are all prime candidates for the roster of beloved family recipes. Anything that Grandma once made for Grandpa qualifies. Goodies from the old neighborhood/old country/home planet are viable.

The entire comfort-food genre — 4 out of 5 cookie historians agree — is a primary source, though each should have a familial designation attached. When in doubt, just add “Grandmother (fill-in-the-blank)’s” at the beginning, and you’re all set.

But back to Aunt Madge and the nut-case cookies and that million bucks. It is time for the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

Just imagine. The winner of this unbelievably competitive recipe contest wins all that money, a double wall oven and his or her choice of another $7,000 worth of spiffy appliances — a grand total of $1.01 million. For a single recipe. Assorted runners-up win $5,000 each and more spiffy appliances.

Would Aunt Madge have a chance? Or Granny, Uncle Fred and little Janie, who’s been cooking all her life?

Yes. They have a chance. Now in its 43rd year, the bake-off has become very easy to enter. There are no box tops to enclose or envelopes to address. Hopefuls simply submit their recipes online (www.pillsbury.com) by April 22 and then go gnaw on some semisweet chocolate until the 100 finalists are announced. Then the chosen journey to Dallas, where they will don bib-front aprons, make their recipes and go for broke.

Judging from the names for these culinary masterpieces, Aunt Madge would be right at home. Among the prizewinning recipes over the years: Mexican Chocolate-Filled Cornmeal Cookies, Thick ‘n’ Fudgy Triple Chocolate Fudge Pudding Cake, Speedy Layered Chicken Enchilada Pie, Sweet and Sour Crescent Drumettes, Inside-Out Taco Salad Wraps.

And the grand-prize, million-dollar recipes? The winners share a certain homey cachet; there’s no “a la” in them anywhere. The rules, however, are strict: Aspirants must fit their fare in five specific categories and draw a few of their ingredients from sponsor products made by Pillsbury, Smuckers, Old El Paso, Crisco and a host of other food manufacturers.

That might be a challenge for a recipe that originated somewhere in the Pleistocene era. Well, Aunt Madge could always substitute some ready-made stuff for all her traditional choco-cherry nut-case chopping. Indeed. Aunt Madge could just have a martini instead.

But there is no shame in ready-mades: Last year, a simple-sounding dish called Baked Chicken and Spinach Stuffing made a millionaire out of Anna Ginsburg of Austin, Texas. She made the stuffing out of cut-up pieces of Pillsbury’s frozen waffle sticks and Green Giant frozen spinach and baked the chicken in maple syrup and peach preserves. Somehow, the combination was a winning one.

Oats and Granola Pie, Cream Cheese Brownie Pie and Salsa Couscous Chicken won the grand prize in previous contests.

If the Pillsbury Bake-Off seems too daunting, there are hundreds of other recipe contests to enter, sponsored by eager manufacturers, cooking magazines and trade groups. Prizes range from little trophies to big, big bucks for recipes that showcase beef, cornbread, olives, pancakes, cocktails, salt, candy, frozen potatoes, cheese. Taste of Home, a cooking magazine with nearly 4 million subscribers, offers several contests a year.

The National Chicken Cooking Contest — established in 1949 and one of America’s longest-running contests — is still going strong. Considering the aforementioned Baked Chicken and Spinach Stuffing, it is of historic note that the very first winner of this venerable competition 58 years ago was Broiled Chicken Deluxe, submitted by Mrs. A.L. Karlik of Maryland, according to contest historical records. She topped her chicken with lemon and served it with onion rings and potato salad.

OK, now somebody call Aunt Madge and get her recipe.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and nut cases for The Washington Times national desk. Reach her at [email protected] or 202/636-3085.

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