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The Incredible True History of the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest

Philip Pillsbury led contestants to their stoves at the start of the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest.

From tradition to trend, the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest has held a special place in hearts (and ovens!) since 1949. Take a peek behind the scenes at how it all started—and see some of our favorite moments from the past 70 years.

(Seen above) One hundred finalists attend the live Bake-Off to make their recipe at their own oven station. Philip Pillsbury, Pillsbury’s president and grandson of Charles Pillsbury, led contestants to their stoves at the start of each contest until 1984.

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How the Bake-Off® Contest Began

Before there was “Top Chef,” before there was “Cupcake Wars” or “Hell’s Kitchen,” there was the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest. The legendary baking competition was introduced in 1949 in honor of Pillsbury’s 80th birthday and as an effort to promote Pillsbury™ Best® flour. At the heart of the Bake-Off was the desire to create an opportunity for American homemakers to not only share their beloved recipes, but to also share the stories that go along with them.

Originally called the “Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest,” 1949’s inaugural Bake-Off received thousands of entries from across the country. As we mentioned, Pillsbury Best flour was a required ingredient in all recipe submissions and there were six categories that participants could enter: breads, cakes, pies, cookies, entrees and desserts. If participants submitted a seal from the Pillsbury Best flour they used in the recipe, their prize money could be doubled.

A panel of Pillsbury home economists eventually narrowed the entries down to 100 finalists. Each finalist was invited to the live competition at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City to make their recipe in hopes of winning the $25,000 grand prize.

And the guest of honor at the very first Bake-Off? None other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was personally invited by Philip W. Pillsbury to attend the event and assist in awarding prizes.

Eleanor Roosevelt presents an award at the first-ever Bake-Off® Contest.

(Seen above) Eleanor Roosevelt presents an award at the first-ever Bake-Off Contest in New York City, 1949.

Following the event, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote about her experience in her syndicated column My Day: “I think Mr. and Mrs. Pillsbury must have felt quite proud when they gave out the other prizes, because it is given to few people in this world to give such great happiness to other human beings…This is a healthy contest and a highly American one.”

The Bake-Off® Contest Through the Years

Since its inception in 1949, the Bake-Off has inspired thousands of people to submit their original recipes and Pillsbury has awarded millions of dollars in prizes. Over time, the contest’s rules and regulations adapted to reflect evolving food trends and American culture. Here’s a look back at some of the most notable pieces of Bake-Off history throughout the decades:

1949: The First Bake-Off® Contest

  • Of the 100 finalists invited to compete at the first Bake-Off, just three were men. Fun fact: One of the male finalists’ recipes was called “Quick Man-Prepared Dinner.”
  • Before contestants could prepare their recipes, electricians installed 100 oven stations in a Waldorf-Astoria ballroom (below). In order to power all those ovens, the hotel actually had to tap into the electrical supply for the New York City subway system!

1949  1st BakeOff begins New York City NY

  • The first contest’s winning recipe was No-Knead Water-Rising Twists, created by Theodora Smafield of Rockford, Illinois. Smafield was awarded $50,000 for her recipe, which called for the unique rising technique of wrapping dough in a tea towel and submerging it in warm water. In her newspaper column, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote of the winning recipe: “It certainly is delicious.”
  • The original $25,000 grand prize doubled for Smafield since she submitted her package seal from Pillsbury Best flour. The remaining $20,000 was divided among the other eight finalists.

A beaming Smalfeld accepts her $50,000 grand prize check at the inaugural Bake-Off® Contest in 1949.

Look at that smile! A beaming Smafield accepts her $50,000 grand prize check at the inaugural Bake-Off Contest in 1949.

1950s

  • In 1950, the Bake-Off split the contest into a junior division (12-18 years old) and senior division (19 years or older).
  • In 1954, Dorothy Koteen won the grand prize with her recipe for Open Sesame Pie; following the contest, there was actually a shortage of sesame seeds in stores around the country because so many people wanted to make her creation.
  • In 1957, the competition left New York City for the first time and was held in Los Angeles.
  • Also in 1957, Freda Smith of Gibsonburg, Ohio, made it to the finalist stage of the Bake-Off with her recipe for Peanut Blossoms. While Freda didn’t win the Bake-Off that year, her iconic cookie can still be found on almost every cookie tray during the holidays.

PillsburyBakeOff_Contestant_10thAnnual_1958

(Seen above) Nothing can distract this finalist from putting the finishing touches on her pie at the 10th annual Bake-Off Contest in 1958.

1960s

  • At the 16th Bake-Off Contest in Miami in 1964, 17-year-old Janis Risley of Melbourne, Florida, became the youngest person ever to win a grand prize at the Bake-Off. The high schooler originally developed her winning Peacheesy Pie as an assignment for her home economics class.
  • In 1966, America was introduced to the Tunnel of Fudge Cake, a runner-up recipe from Ella Helfrich. The cake recipe became a cultural icon and incited a mass demand for the Bundt pan, a previously little-known cake pan designed by Minnesota-based company Nordic Ware.
  • In 1968, categories were added for convenience mixes and Pillsbury dough products.
  • In 1969, Edna Walker from Minnesota won the grand prize for her Magic Marshmallow Crescent Puffs. The recipe was especially momentous because it was the first winning Bake-Off recipe to use a refrigerated dough product. Following the contest, so many people flocked to their grocery stores to buy Pillsbury crescent rolls that stores actually ran out!

Woman baking muffins at the Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest.

(Seen above) Edna (Holmgren) Walker puts the finishing touch on her Magic Marshmallow Crescent Puffs in the 20th annual Bake-Off. The recipe won the grand prize in 1969.

1970s

  • In 1970, TV legend Bob Barker took his first turn as host of the Pillsbury Bake-Off television broadcast. He would continue to host the program through 1982.
  • The 23rd Bake-Off, held in 1972 in Houston, Texas, was the first contest to award two grand prizes. The winners were Streusel Spice Cake, created by Rose DeDominicis of Verona, Pennsylvania, and Quick ‘n Chewy Crescent Bars, by Isabelle Collins of Ramona, California.
  • After the 1976 contest, the Bake-Off was held every other year until 2014—a decision that left home cooks and bakers eagerly anticipating the announcement and details of Bake-Offs to come.

1980s

  • Charles Pillsbury led contestants to their stoves for the final time at the 31st Bake-Off in 1984.
  • In 1986, the Bake-Off heads to Orlando, Florida, for the first time. Orlando has played host city to the Bake-Off a total of seven times, second only to New York City, with 10 times.
  • In 1988, bakers were introduced to the now-famous Chocolate Praline Layer Cake, a 5-star recipe from Julia Bengston, a music professor from Bemidji, Minnesota.

Bake Off® Contest Winner

(Seen above) The thrill of victory! The moment Susan Porubcan of Jefferson, Wisconsin, learns that her recipe for Country Apple Coffee Cake has won the grand prize at the 31st Bake-Off Contest in San Diego, California, 1984.

1990s

  • By 1994, the Pillsbury Grands! refrigerated biscuits were added to the list of ingredients as the Bake-Off officially embraced its “quick and easy” niche that allows working families to sit down together at the table for dinner.
  • By 1995, the total dollar amount of prizes, cash and trips awarded to contestants since the Bake-Off’s inception reached $6 million.
  • In 1996, Bake-Off history was made when Kurt Wait of Redwood City, California, became the first male participant to win the grand prize. His recipe, Macadamia Fudge Torte, boasts a 5-star rating from over 300 reviewers.
  • Also in 1996, the grand prize increased from $50,000 to $1 million dollars.
  • In 1998, there was a record-setting number of male participants in the Bake-Off.

PillsburyBakeOff_36thPillsburys_1994

(Seen above) Finalists in the 36th Pillsbury Bake-Off in 1994 entered the competition area to vie for $175,000 in cash and prizes. Escorting the 100 finalists were Sally and George Pillsbury, along with the Pillsbury Doughboy himself.

2000s

  • In 2000, actress Phylicia Rashad became the first woman to host the Bake-Off television broadcast.
  • What’s more exciting—winning the Bake-Off or meeting Oprah? In 2010, Sue Compton of Delanco, New Jersey, got to do both when her recipe for Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups was announced as the winner of the 44th Bake-Off Contest on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
  • In 2013, the contest rules required that recipes included fewer than eight ingredients and the preparation time did not exceed 30 minutes.
  • The 47th Bake-Off was held in 2014 in Nashville; for the first time, the public was able to vote online for their favorite recipes as a percentage of judges’ overall scores. The grand prize went to Peanutty Pie Crust Clusters, created by Beth Royals of Richmond, Virginia.
  • After a few years off, the Bake-Off returned with a new, all-online format. Amy Nelson of Zionville, North Carolina, won the 48th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest in 2018 with her recipe for Bejeweled Cranberry-Orange Rolls. Finalists traveled to New York, where the winner was announced on live TV:

Learn more at BAKEOFF.COM!

Bake-Off is a registered trademark of The Pillsbury Company.



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