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Contestants keep calm amid Bake-Off bustle

| Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2002

ORLANDO, Fla. — GE technicians roam the aisles, looking concerned. They are ready in case a burner goes berserk or an oven lies cold.

Volunteers from across the country, some from women's and cooking magazines, flit in and out of the crowd, bearing sour cream, eggs and flounder fillets.

Scattered among them are grocery store executives, television cameramen, reporters and food writers, asking questions, grabbing a sound bite, nibbling a sample. And ringing the area are the "heavies" — the folks who sternly look everyone up and down to make sure that entrance to the Pillsbury Bake-Off is permitted.

The competition floor at the granddaddy of cooking contests is best described as organized chaos. Down one length of stoves, the "Today" show with Cissy Biggers is doing a live shot, leaving the area off-limits to information-hungry newspaper food editors whose deadline timers are ticking.

Not far away, Marie Osmond, pretty in pink, is giving a taped television interview in the middle of the bustling floor show. The mother of seven chats about how busy families need easy, quick, nutritious recipes they can prepare and enjoy at the supper table during the week. She describes a resurgence of "nesting" and how "families need to sit around and talk."

Osmond admits she flew in to Orlando a bit weary from the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, but the Bake-Off bonanza has given her a second wind. As she snakes around the stoves to talk to contestants on camera, she carries a tube of crescent roll dough as her "microphone."

The unsung heroes of the Bake-Off are its "runners," the volunteers who make sure that each finalist has everything and anything he or she needs. And when it's time to take the finished plate to the judges, stand back.

"Careful!" "Excuse me!" "Watch out!"

Make way for what could be million-dollar morsels.

But among the slicing and dicing and slivering and cracking and separating and sauteing and steaming, there is calm. It exudes from the contestants themselves.

Country singer Misty Waltman of Lyons, Ind., is putting her feet up at Range 36 as she waits for salad shrimp to thaw a little more so she can put together her Seafood Appetizers. "Everybody is amazed that I'm being recognized for my cooking instead of my singing," she says with a big smile. A bride of 18 months, Waltman has her own band, Outlaw Blues, and sings with house bands in opera houses. She's written a few songs of her own but never recorded them — yet — but if you'd like, she has a few demo tapes of other songs she can rustle up.

"I'll sing anywhere," Waltman says. "Have voice, will travel." If she doesn't win a big prize, the Bake-Off could be her big break — she sang for CBS and Osmond already.

Forensic scientist Melody LeVault of Mulkeytown, Ill., is gently scattering cheese on top of her 5-Way Cincinnati Pizza at Range 27. The 35-year-old developed the recipe specifically for the Bake-Off, she says. Across the way, at Range 66, Janet Barton of Sandy, Utah, is making another batch of Molten Mocha Cakes. At a food writer's seminar Monday, the subject of high-altitude cooking was brought up —would Barton be at a disadvantage baking at sea level?

Barton laughs. "I was a little nervous at first, but (the cakes) turned out," she says. "I live at 5,500 feet. We don't think we can make cakes from scratch back where I live, so we only use box mixes." Her recipe uses double chocolate deluxe brownie mix pumped with chocolate chips, eggs and butter — sweet death by chocolate.

Barbara Gammill of Huntsville, Ala., at Range 62 lists her profession as a fitness consultant/trainer, and she looks it. Yet her recipe, Cranberry Biscotti, is entered in the Fast & Fabulous Desserts & Treats category.

She admits that she wasn't aiming to make a "diet" cookie, but it is reasonably low in fat despite its simple but rich ingredients: cranberry quick bread and muffin mix, eggs, butter, vanilla chips, flour and confectioners' sugar. "I took a biscotti cooking class in the summertime because I wanted to learn how to bake them," Gammill says. Pillsbury's nutrition information pegged each biscotti at 140 calories, with 50 calories from fat — in all, just 1 teaspoon butter per serving.

There were 10 men in competition at the Bake-Off. Steve Grieger of Oceanside, Calif., formulated Sticky Chewy Chocolate Pecan Rolls, using refrigerated crescent dinner roll dough, brown sugar, cinnamon, butter, pecans and chocolate chips. Baked in muffin cups, the tempting treats were gobbled up quickly by passers-by once Grieger had turned in one recipe for the judges and another for photographs.

His folks are from Pittsburgh, he says. "My mom's side is from Mt. Lebanon and Dormont, and my dad's side is from the North Side."

Another male contestant, Ken Stutzman of Martinez, Calif., has his work cut out for him. He is vying for $1 million against his 11-year-old daughter, Melanie, who developed Open Sesame Pick-Up Sticks as appetizers. Dad's recipe, Savory Crescent Bites, is entered in the same category of Casual Snacks & Appetizers.

One could hope for two cash prizes …

Contestant Phil Capaldi of Saunderstown, R.I., takes the cake. He was working quietly at Range 17, putting together Baked Club Sandwich Rounds, another appetizer.

Capaldi, a fifth-grade teacher, is taking a year off from work to care for his 11-month-old twins while his wife continues her career in human resources at a nonprofit mental health agency. "I messed around with a few things," Capaldi says about his recipe. He admits he didn't test it much because the couple doesn't have a lot of discretionary income with just one salary and the youngsters to boot.

"Our middle name is quick and easy."

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