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For the First Time, a Man Takes the Cake

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A chocolate-cake-baking Bay Area dad who began entering cooking contests to pass the time after his divorce became the first man ever to win the grand prize at the Pillsbury Bake-Off on Tuesday--a bounty that reached a record $1 million this year.

Kurt Wait, a 43-year-old business analyst from Redwood City and the single father of an 8-year-old son, was chosen from among 100 finalists nationwide for the top award in the Super Bowl of amateur cooking fests.

A cherub-faced, bespectacled man who does sales planning for a division of Pacific Bell, Wait flashed a big smile and rocked onto the toes of his sneakers as his macadamia fudge torte was proclaimed a million-dollar recipe on national TV.

Judges said Wait’s dessert--a 460-calorie-per-serving dentist’s nightmare involving devil’s food cake mix, canned sliced pears, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate chips and butterscotch-caramel-fudge topping--was picked out almost immediately as a top contender. Several compared it to the legendary tunnel of fudge cake, which came out of the 1966 Bake-Off to launch the Bundt cake.

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Part kitsch, part chemistry, part king-size publicity stunt, the 47-year-old Bake-Off has been celebrating home cooking for so long that it has become an American institution of sorts. Every two years, to the accompaniment of an orchestra and under the beneficent eye of the Pillsbury Doughboy, 100 amateur cooks march into a ballroom of kitchenettes to whip up recipes using products manufactured by Pillsbury and its various subsidiaries.

The competition, which generates tens of thousands of entries each time it is held, is believed to cost Pillsbury upward of $2 million a pop. Company officials, however, say it more than pays for itself in free publicity, and offers the company an accurate (if occasionally unsettling) core sample of food trends in the nation’s suburbs and small towns.

The Bake-Off has always carried a good-sized purse and a substantial amount of prestige. This year, however, Pillsbury generated record headlines by enticing entrants with a $1-million grand prize, unheard of in the competitive cooking world.

“I kind of have to get over the shock of this,” said Wait, who was one of 10 men in the finals. Until Tuesday, he said, his biggest prize in a cooking competition was a $500 second place in the Gilroy Garlic Festival three years ago.

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But the post-Bake-Off hoopla in the chandelier-lit Fairmont Hotel here offered little respite for Wait.

“Is he married?” one reporter demanded as Pillsbury’s press conference began. No, came the reply, and he wasn’t seeing anyone.

“Well, he will be now!” yelled another.

Wait said he taught himself to cook in college and later honed his craft by reworking recipes from Bon Appetit magazine. In his 20s, he said, he cooked for a house full of male roommates, and during his marriage, he cooked the family meals.

After his divorce, he said, he found himself in the kitchen more often, “because I had so much time on my hands.” One day, after he brought a batch of brownies to an office potluck, a friend at work suggested he enter a cooking contest.

Figuring he had nothing to lose, he entered a savory shortcake with garlic and tomato salsa in the Gilroy Garlic Festival. His prize left him “really encouraged,” and, since then, he estimates he has entered “a couple dozen” contests, including the Bake-Off.

Wait said he now cooks mostly for himself and his son, who stayed in school while Dad was at the finals.

“He’s my best tester,” Wait said. “Kids are really good ‘cause they’ll tell you what they really think. Grown-ups will say everything tastes wonderful, but kids know how to say ‘Yuck.’ ”

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He added that the prize--which he will take in the form of a $50,000-a-year annuity over 20 years--probably won’t induce him to quit his job.

“Knowing Kurt, I suspect he’ll be pretty prudent,” added his boss, Leslie Sandberg, who described him as a “conservative, balanced and straightforward” person who would probably invest most of his money in a college fund and “maybe buy a few new pots and pans.”

In the wake of the announcement that Wait had won, the losing contestants struggled for grace. In recent years, cooking contests have skyrocketed in popularity, and a sizable number of the Bake-Off finalists were semiprofessional “contesters” who view the Bake-Off as the pinnacle of their sport.

Other finalists in the traditionally female-dominated event found it hard to swallow that, just when the stakes got high, the winner would be a man. One red-eyed contestant reported that rumors were already rampant that Wait’s recipe had actually been invented by a woman friend. “A lot of letter-writers in California are going to be writing Pillsbury to complain,” she said.

But Wait said he had spent two years perfecting his winning cake and achieving just the right combination of textures and tastes. One contest official confirmed that he was indeed so particular about his ingredients and pans that he developed a reputation among the Pillsbury people as something of a nit-picker.

Even the cake’s name caused him consternation, one official said. Wait had called his recipe “macadamia turtle torte” because it tasted like the gooey chocolate-caramel confections, but Pillsbury changed it because they feared the name “turtle” carried a copyright. Wait reportedly complained that the name change would ruin his chance at a prize, but judges said later that the name had nothing to do with it--the cake won, they said, on deliciousness alone.

In fact, one judge said, the 12-member panel of food writers, home economists and other culinary experts initially worried that giving the big prize to a chocolate cake might have been a cliche.

Instead, when the Pillsbury official entered the room to report the tabulation of their votes, she looked at the judges, smiled and announced: “You’ve made Bake-Off history.”

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It wasn’t until after a long moment that they got the joke. “It’s a man!” someone yelled. Shrieks erupted throughout the room.

Four other Californians were among a dozen winners of smaller $2,000 awards: Mary Lou Cook of Fallbrook, a Bake-Off veteran who scored this time with an apple nut cookie tart; Linda Greeson, a Spring Valley teacher’s aide who entered her Hungry Jack Biscuit mini-focaccia at the behest of her 76-year-old mother; Teresita Larcina, a Philippine-born San Mateo secretary who invented her walnut date snack bars for the contest, and Greta Eberhardt, a San Pedro paralegal who nearly missed this, her first-ever foray into competitive cooking, when she sliced off a fingertip while making her fiesta chicken salad and had to be rushed to the emergency room. She was treated and released in time to get back to the Bake-Off and finish her entry with moments to spare.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Macadamia Fudge Torte

Here is the recipe that won $1 million in the Pillsbury Bake-Off:

FILLING

1/3 cup low-fat sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated)

1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips

In small saucepan, cook condensed milk and chocolate chips over medium-low heat until chocolate is melted, stirring occasionally.

CAKE

1 package pudding-included devil’s food cake mix

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/3 cup oil

1 (16-ounce) can sliced pears in light syrup, drained

2 eggs

1/3 cup chopped macadamia nuts or pecans

2 teaspoons water

In large bowl, combine cake mix, cinnamon and oil; blend at low speed until crumbly, 20 to 30 seconds. Puree pears in blender or food processor until smooth.

In large bowl, combine 2 1/2 cups cake mix mixture, pureed pears and eggs; beat at low speed until moistened. Beat 2 minutes at medium speed. Spread batter evenly in 9- or 10-inch springform pan that has been sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Drop filling by spoonfuls over batter. Stir nuts and water into remaining cake mix mixture. Sprinkle over filling.

Bake at 350 degrees until top springs back when touched lightly in center, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Remove sides of pan. Cool 1 1/2 hours or until completely cooled.

SAUCE

1 (17-ounce) jar butterscotch caramel fudge ice cream topping

1/3 cup milk

Vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt, optional

Chocolate curls, optional

In small saucepan, cook ice cream topping and milk over medium-low heat until well blended, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.

To serve, spoon 2 tablespoons warm sauce onto each serving plate; top with wedge of torte. If desired, serve with vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt and garnish with chocolate curls.

Makes 12 servings.


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