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Three local cooks hope to bake their way to $1 million prize

| Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Julie Halyama of McCandless thought the "dream recipe" that someday would make her a Pillsbury Bake-Off finalist would be a scrumptious dessert.

It wasn't.

Cara Sapida of the North Side never had created a recipe before, but tweaked her first try at an original creation and e-mailed it to Pillsbury just minutes from the Bake-Off deadline.

It made her a finalist.

And Sheila Suhan of Scottdale, who had been a Bake-Off finalist two years ago, bought every ingredient Pillsbury listed on its Bake-Off Web site and experimented with them.

The work paid off: She's not only a finalist, but a picture of her creation is on the cover of the 2010 Bake-Off cookbook.

All three local cooks will fly to Orlando, Fla., this weekend to compete in the 44th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest Sunday through Tuesday. The grand prize in the biennial competition is $1 million, with recipe category winners each receiving $5,000 and a General Electric Profile induction free-standing range, for a combined value of $8,300. Other contest awards will be given for most innovative recipe and for recipes using Jif Peanut Butter or Crisco.

The three finalists are as different as their recipes. Halyama, a married, stay-at-home mother of two, will bake her Pepperoni Quiche Squares. Sapida, a single reporter for WPXI-TV Channel 11, will prepare her Chocolate-Peanut Butter Layered Cupcakes. And Suhan, a married, registered hospice nurse, mother of three and grandmother of four, will make her Nutty Chocolate Hot Bites.

Onju Sturlaughson, Pillsbury Bake-Off manager, sounds amazingly chipper despite having managed a staff and other food professionals who read through tens of thousands of entries to narrow them to 600. Those 600 all were tested. From those semifinalists, the cooks and bakers chose 110 recipes, 90 of which were finalists. The other 20 were posted online, two by two, with online voters having a say about which of each pair would become a finalist.

"What I love is that each Bake-Off recipe will work out, because it has been tested," Sturlaughson says.

The three local contestants were among the 90 chosen by the Pillsbury judges, not the public. The contest provides each finalist with a mini-kitchen in which to make his or her recipe, along with enough ingredients to make it three times. After the cooks prepare what they think is the version to be judged, they themselves carry it to the judging room for the panel to evaluate.

Suhan and Sapida have something in common: Each cooked or baked as a child. Suhan even experimented with recipes as a child. "But my mother said I had to eat everything I baked," she says.

She says she isn't nervous, but is "very excited. I can't believe I get to go a second time."

"When you go in, the excitement is palpable," says Suhan, 59, who is the wife of Allan Suhan, a mother of three grown sons and grandmother of four girls. Suhan, after buying all those ingredients, entered her Nutty Chocolate Hot Bites only 10 minutes from the deadline.

"I like hot, spicy foods," she says. "I just put it into the chocolate cookie dough" and came up with the unusual taste combination.

The last time she attended the Bake-Off, Suhan says she thought constantly "what if" she won.

"This time, I just plan to go, have fun and whatever happens, happens." And then, she can attend a third and last time.

Like Suhan, Cara Sapida often baked as a child — and like Suhan, Sapida entered her recipe in the contest mere minutes before it was due.

"Some of my best memories were baking with my grandma (the late Audrey Sapida of Turtle Creek) in her kitchen," says Sapida, 28, a morning reporter for Channel 11. Sapida baked cakes and banana bread in college and through her career in television, always following recipes.

But one day, she decided to make a cupcake that would combine peanut butter and chocolate, which she and her grandmother had once combined into fudge. The trouble was that Sapida could not find a recipe for a peanut butter filling.

"I put a dollop of peanut butter in the middle, but it totally melted," Sapida says. "I was so disappointed." But she says the taste was incredibly decadent, so she took the cupcakes, drove to her mother's job in Turtle Creek and said, "I think I've created something."

Her mother, Andi Sapida, and her co-workers agreed, so Sapida decided to layer the two flavors to isolate them more.

"When it came out, it was great. ... It was shaped like a cupcake, looked like a cookie and had a fudgy taste," she says.

Sapida's co-workers and supervisors have been enthusiastic supporters, but her news director, Mike Goldrick, asked whether she were going to stay if she came home a winner.

"I love what I do," says Sapida, who was glad to return to the Pittsburgh area, where she was raised, after working in other markets. She says working at Channel 11 is her "dream job." If she won, she says, she would plan to keep working and use the prize money to "take better vacations."

Unlike the other two contestants, Halyama, 42, did not start cooking until she married her husband, Roy.

"My husband and I got tired of eating this taco dip," the one thing she knew how to make. So Halyama began buying cookbooks and looking up recipes to learn to cook.

"I like baking more than I like cooking," Halyama says. So when she thought of entering the Bake-Off, she thought it would be a recipe for a heavenly dessert.

But this mother of two school-age children — a daughter, 10, and son, 8 — decided to invent a Pepperoni Quiche Squares recipe after looking for her recipe for an Italian quiche. She didn't like some of the ingredients, so she thought she would put together a Pillsbury Crescent Recipe Creations sheet with eggs, pepperoni and other ingredients to create a quiche.

"I did the recipe for practice," she says, but apparently, her practice submission made perfect sense to the judges who liked it enough to make her a finalist.

"The quiche is good. I like it a lot," she says. "But it wasn't the recipe of my dreams."

Pepperoni Quiche Squares

This recipe is from Julie Halyama of Pittsburgh. She says kids will love the pepperoni taste, while adults enjoy the new twist on quiche.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

• 1 can (8 ounces) Pillsbury Crescent Recipe Creations refrigerated seamless dough sheet

• 48 (1 1/2-inch) slices pepperoni

• 5 large eggs

• 1 cup whipping cream

• 1 1/2 teaspoons Italian seasoning

• 1 tablespoon olive oil

• 1/2 chopped sweet green bell pepper

• 1/2 chopped onion (about 1 small)

• 1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese

• 3/4 cup pizza sauce or pasta sauce, heated, if desired

Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Unroll the dough sheet. Press the dough in the bottom of an ungreased 13-by-9-inch pan. Top with 24 slices of pepperoni (6 rows by 4 rows).

In a medium-size bowl, beat the eggs, cream and Italian seasoning with a wire whisk until well blended.

In a 10-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the bell pepper and onion. Cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until crisp tender. Stir the vegetable mixture into the egg mixture. Pour over the pepperoni in the pan. Sprinkle with cheese. Layer with the remaining 24 slices pepperoni.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until the edges are light golden brown and the center is set. Cool for 5 minutes. Cut into 12 servings; place on plates. Drizzle 1 tablespoon pizza sauce over each serving.

Makes 12 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 270 calories, 20 grams fat, 120 milligrams cholesterol, 13 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrate, 0 dietary fiber, 600 milligrams sodium.

Nutty Chocolate Hot Bites

This recipe is from Sheila Suhan of Scottdale. It offers s'more flavors with a pinch of heat in a chocolate-chip cookie cup.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

• 1 package (16 ounces) Pillsbury Ready to Bake! refrigerated chocolate chip cookies (24 cookies)

• 1 1/4 cups Fisher Mixed Nuts with Peanuts

• 1 1/4 cups Hershey's Special Dark chocolate baking chips

• 1 1/4 cups marshmallow creme

• 2 tablespoons half-and-half

• 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place a paper baking cup in each of 24 regular-size muffin cups. Place 1 cookie dough round in each cup. Using floured fingers, press the dough to flatten slightly.

Bake for 7 to 10 minutes or until golden brown. Cool in the pans for 15 minutes. Remove from the pans to a cooling rack. Cool completely, for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the Brazil nuts from the mixed nuts; coarsely chop the Brazil nuts. In a 2-quart saucepan, heat the chocolate chips, marshmallow creme, half-and-half and cayenne over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the chips are melted and the mixture is smooth. Stir in the Brazil nuts and the remaining mixed nuts.

Drop about 1 tablespoon of the nut mixture onto each cookie. Let stand for about 15 minutes or until the chocolate is set. To serve, remove the bites from the paper baking cups. If desired, place each bite into a new paper baking cup.

Makes 24 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 200 calories, 11 grams fat, 0 cholesterol, 2 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram dietary fiber fiber,

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Layered Cupcakes

Take the peanut butter-chocolate combo to new heights with layers of lusciousness in moist, irresistible cupcakes in this recipe from Cara Sapida of Turtle Creek.

Prep time: 35 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

• 1 1/2 cups flour

• 1/3 cup baking cocoa

• 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

• 1 teaspoon baking soda

• 1/4 teaspoon salt

• 1/3 cup vegetable oil

• 1 cup water

• 1 tablespoon white vinegar

• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

• 1 large egg

• 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened

• 3/4 cup peanut butter

• 1/3 cup granulated sugar

• 1/3 cup confectioners' sugar

• 1/4 cup Reese's peanut butter chips

• 1/4 cup Hershey's semi-sweet chocolate baking chips

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place a paper baking cup in each of 18 regular-size muffin cups.

In a large bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, brown sugar, baking soda and salt. Add the oil, water, vinegar and vanilla to the flour mixture, stirring just until smooth (do not over mix).

In another large bowl, beat the egg, cream cheese, peanut butter and granulated sugar with electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add the confectioners' sugar; beat until creamy.

Spoon 1 level tablespoon chocolate batter into each cup; evenly spread 1 level tablespoon peanut butter filling on top. Repeat layers. Sprinkle with peanut butter chips and chocolate chips.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (do not over bake). Cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Remove from the pan to a cooling rack; cool for 15 minutes. Serve warm or cool.

Makes 18 cupcakes.

Nutrition information per serving: 260 calories, 13 grams fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram dietary fiber, 180 milligrams sodium

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