We are, once again, above average.

When the tens of thousands of recipes entered in the 44th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest were whittled down to 100 finalists, they included five Minnesotans. Only three other states have more contestants: Missouri, six; Ohio, eight, and Pennsylvania, 12. Yes, 12.

The five women will compete for a grand prize of $1 million (Yes, $1 million.) when they cook and bake in Orlando, Fla., on Monday. The big winner will be announced Wednesday afternoon on the "Oprah" show (4 p.m., Ch. 4); the four category winners who are finalists for the big prize will be announced Tuesday.

Each will make the recipe three times: for the judges, for photos and for sampling. We asked them how they came up with a recipe that earned a spot in the finals.


Cathy Wiechert, Mound

Pecan Cookie Waffles With Honey-Cinnamon Butter


It was a Sunday morning and Wiechert's refrigerator was full of various Pillsbury products she'd been using, trying to come up with a contest-worthy recipe.

"I looked at the waffle iron, then looked at the roll of sugar cookie dough, and I thought that cookie dough and waffle batter have a lot of the same ingredients, so why not?" Wiechert said. She added eggs to the crumbled cookie dough, and further thinned it with half-and-half, then added some toasted pecans for good measure.

"It just comes to you," she said. "When I'm making recipes, I swap out things, usually one liquid for another. I do like to tinker."

A friend on BakeSpace.com suggested serving the waffles with honey butter, and Wiechert went one better by adding some cinnamon.

Wiechert's father and grandfather were bakers, hence her blog, thedutchbakersdaughter.blogspot.com.

"We lived above the bakery when I was little," she said.



Michelle Gauer, Spicer, Minn.

Double Chocolate-Orange Scones


Gauer loves to go to coffee shops with friends and invariably is tempted by the scones -- and invariably disappointed. "They look so good, but they're kind of expensive," she said. "And they're usually dry and kind of bitter."

She decided she could do better herself and began experimenting with recipes with raspberries and white chocolate. She eliminated the egg and substituted heavy cream for the milk to make a moister, denser scone.

Continued fiddling led to a combo of orange marmalade and dark chocolate.

"Lots of chocolate," said Gauer, who entered 11 recipes in this year's Bake-Off.

Topped off with turbinado sugar and a drizzle of chocolate, Gauer's scone is the type she'd been hoping to see in the coffee shop. "Hopefully, they'll become America's new scone," she said.



Betsy Chan, Bloomington

Rachel Meatball Poppers


It's amazing what you can accomplish under the adrenaline of a deadline.

For 30 years, Chan has wanted to enter the Bake-Off, but never did. Then, two days before entries were due, she found the contest while on her computer and decided to go for it. Fortunately, she had what she called "a lightbulb moment," deciding to use the flavors of her favorite sandwich, the Rachel, which is a Reuben made with turkey instead of corned beef.

Her first attempt was too soggy, so she cut the turkey meatball in half, squeezed more juice from the sauerkraut and added more cheese. Neighbors tried each version. Finally, at 4 a.m. on deadline day, Chan typed in the latest version with a few tweaks she still intended to make, and hit "send."

"I submitted it without even trying the final recipe."

Her poppers have since been made many times; her final instincts proved delicious.



Laura Stanke, Maple Grove

Pepperoni-Pesto Popovers


Stanke was working on three recipes for the Bake-Off, certain that she wanted to do something with her popover pan. She thought a dessert entry was in her future. "But the brownie thing wasn't working."

She often makes homemade pizza, so she decided to try making pizza in a popover pan. What she ended up with "looks like a little sandwich bundle," she said. "It's pizza in a new form."

Her kids proved early fans, "because you can pick it right up and eat it."

While reaching the finals was a surprise, Stanke said she's most shocked that her 12-year-old daughter, a notoriously picky eater, loves the popovers.

"If she will eat it, anyone will eat it."


Carole Holt, Mendota Heights


Chocolate-Caramel Crumb Cupcakes

Carole Holt has one advantage over her fellow Minnesotans: She knows what to expect in this contest.

This will be her third Bake-Off, having been chosen a finalist twice before. It also will be her last, because you are "retired" after three trips to the finals. And what might the other contestants expect? "To be treated like royalty."

Holt came up with this year's entry by noting the popularity of cupcakes. "And I love chocolate-covered caramels," so she combined the two, adapting a brownie mix to make a fudgy cupcake batter. She created a gooey center by mixing caramel sauce with cream cheese.

"Then I wondered, what kind of topping does this need?" she said, settling on chopped pecans and chocolate crumbs. It's rich, she allowed.

While she hopes her recipe is a winner, she's also intent on enjoying the event. Although, she added, winning would be "the frosting on the cake."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185