Arlene Swiatek Gillen has a date with the Doughboy at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
The Holland resident will join the grand march in the ballroom of Orlando's Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center and the lovable Pillsbury personality himself -- in his full pillowy glory -- will escort her to Stove No. 44.
There, along with 99 other contestants, she'll don an apron -- very chic, dreamed up for the occasion by famed designer Todd Oldham -- and get to work, preparing her creation, Fruit and Nut Pastries, in front of hundreds of onlookers and press.
She will be ready to compete.
Of course, Gillen is already a winner, having received the glamorous trip to the 42nd annual Bake-Off in the first place. But now she's aiming higher. Much higher.
The grand prize at the 42nd Pillsbury Bake-Off is a cool $1 million. Gillen, though, is taking it all in stride. And, after all, this is her second Bake-Off. In 2004 she competed in Hollywood with a recipe for Canadian Bacon/Apple Pizza.
"I've always loved to cook," she said in a recent interview in her home. "In 2004, when I looked at recipes in a book called the 'Best of the Bake-Off 1959 I remembered how I used to make Apple Pizzas on English muffins for the kids. So I just changed my old recipe to use refrigerated pizza dough and added some extra ingredients, too."
It was the only recipe she submitted.
This year, Gillen tried a little harder, entering four recipes, and was notified last September that she was a finalist again.
>A born competitor
Gillen is no stranger to competition -- even if food is not involved she has proved she can handle it. In December 2004, she was invited to the White House to lunch with Laura Bush after entering a contest sponsored by the Society of Decorative Painters. A wooden guitar ornament she had painted was chosen to hang on the White House Christmas tree.
Also, Gillen's instructions and photos of her hand-painted objects and table settings often appear in national magazines like "Quick and Easy Painting."
Returning to the Bake-Off two contests in a row, however, is quite an accomplishment. The event may not have quite the cachet it once had, but it remains the nation's best-known cooking contest.
The fact that 100 finalists are chosen from a nationwide pool; the fact that 100 mini-kitchens are set up for them; and, certainly, the fact that the Bake-Off always gets big television exposure make it a very big deal.
Although the company carefully guards the total of recipes it receives during the entry period, it has to be in the thousands.
Still, the competition has changed since 1949 (when Eleanor Roosevelt was the honored guest). One big change has to do with money. The grand prize then was $25,000.
People cooked differently then, too. Or, at least Pillsbury thinks they did. Early contestants were accustomed to baking from scratch starting with flour. Prizes went to fabulous creations like Tunnel of Fudge Cake and Peanut Blossom Cookies that have taken their well-deserved places in American culinary history.
Now -- forget flour -- the emphasis is on convenience products. The present Pillsbury line emphasizes grocery items like refrigerated dough and Green Giant vegetables.
And because Pillsbury has become a division of its former arch-rival, General Mills, brands like Hamburger Helper, Cheerios, Muir Glen and Old El Paso also appear on its roster and at least two of these products must now be used in a recipe.
>A weekend cook
But Gillen manages to add an individual twist anyway. The kitchen in her 1839 house shows her designer touch with cupboards specially constructed to show off her grandmother's hand-painted china. There's a modest shelf of cookbooks -- the Pillsbury collections, a Silver Palate, a Betty Crocker and an 1897 text called "Queen of the Household."
"I never have cooked anything from that one," Gillen says. "It belonged to my mother-in-law.
"Actually, I don't cook that much now that my husband Al and I are the only ones home," she added. "I work part time in a physician's office so most of of my cooking is done on weekends."
At the contest next week, Gillen will prepare her recipe three times -- for the judges, for a photo, and for crowd samples. And if the big prize eludes her, Gillen is set to try again.
Pillsbury rules permit three returns.
In this 2006 recipe, Gillen used Progresso bread crumbs and Mounds coconut flakes.
>Fruit and Nut Pastries Pastries:
1/2 cup unflavored bread crumbs
2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons coconut flakes
2 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts
1 egg white
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
5 tablespoons apricot fruit spread
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 can (10.1 ounce) Pillsbury Big & Flaky refrigerated crescent dinner rolls
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 teaspoons water
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a large cookie sheet with foil; lightly spray foil with cooking spray. In medium bowl, mix bread crumbs, raisins, brown sugar, coconut and walnuts.
In a small bowl, beat egg white and 1/2 -teaspoon vanilla with wire whisk about 30 seconds or until frothy. Stir into brown sugar mixture until well blended. In another small bowl, place fruit spread; stir with fork to break up any large pieces of fruit.
Cut 16-by-12-inch sheet of wax paper; place on work surface. With a fine strainer, sift 1 tablespoon powdered sugar onto paper. Unroll dough onto sugared paper; press into 14 x 7-inch rectangle, firmly pressing perforations to seal. Spread fruit spread over the dough to the edges. With pizza cutter, cut dough in half crosswise to make two (7 inch) squares.
Top one dough square with brown sugar mixture, spreading evenly over fruit spread to edges of dough. With wax paper, lift remaining dough square and turn upside down over brown sugar mixture, lightly press. Remove paper.
With pizza cutter, cut filled dough into seven (1-inch wide) strips. Carefully twist each strip three times; shape into loose knot, tucking edges under (dough will be sticky). Place 3 inches apart on prepared cookie sheet.
Bake 17 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove pastries from cookie sheet; place on wire racks. Cool 15 minutes.
In small bowl, blend the half-cup powdered sugar, 1/8 -teaspoon vanilla and enough water for desired drizzling consistency. Drizzle glaze over cooled pastries.
If desired, place small bowl of softened butter in center of serving platter and arrange pastries on platter around bowl. Makes 7 pastries.
Note: To reheat one pastry, place in microwave on paper towel; microwave on high 15 to 20 seconds or until warm.
Here's the 2004 recipe (rules were slightly different at that time).
>Canadian Bacon/Apple Pizza
4 teaspoons sesame seeds
1 can (13.8 ounces) Pillsbury Refrigerated Pizza Crust
3/4 pound thinly sliced Canadian bacon
2 1/2 tablespoons horseradish mustard
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 large tart green apples, peeled, sliced (3 cups) (Gillen prefers NY Greenings when she can get them)
1 package (8-ounce) deli-thin Swiss cheese slices
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly spray large cookie sheet with cooking spray or grease with shortening. Sprinkle sesame seeds onto sprayed cookie sheet. Unroll dough; place over seeds. Cover with wax paper. With rolling pin, roll dough into 16-by-13-inch rectangle; remove paper.
Bake at 400 degrees for 11 to 16 minutes or until lightly browned. Meanwhile, arrange Canadian bacon slices on large microwaveable plate; cover with microwaveable plastic wrap. Microwave on high for 30 seconds. Rearrange bacon; cover and microwave an additional 30 to 60 seconds or until thoroughly heated. If necessary, drain off liquid.
Remove partially baked crust from oven. Set oven to broil. Spread mustard over crust; sprinkle evenly with thyme. Layer bacon, apples and cheese over mustard, covering entire surface.
Broil 5 to 6 inches from heat for 4 to 7 minutes or just until cheese begins to bubble and turns light brown. With pizza cutter, cut into 16 squares. Serve warm.