Pillsbury Created a Food Star You’ll Actually Love

published May 14, 2018
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(Image credit: Courtesy of Pillsbury)

The Pillsbury Bake-Off, at least in my mind, has always espoused certain values: good taste and convenience in the kitchen. This year, the Bake-Off rewarded something else: story-telling. Every recipe has a story, and those stories have inspired a now-familiar blog format. Readers are treated to a glimpse into the author’s life, followed by a recipe that ties it all together. It’s a format we love, because who doesn’t want to know what people eat? (Well, maybe a lot of people, but I want to know.)

Winning recipe developer Amy Nelson captured the taste buds and hearts of this year’s Bake-Off judges and fans with her recipe for bejeweled cranberry-orange rolls. Amy might not be classically trained, but she has a lifetime of experience that has gone into her cooking and her writing, and she cooks with a lot of heart. The Pillsbury Bake-Off rewards that experience.

I started my chat with Amy with a confession. I had made her winning rolls, but substituted pecans for walnuts because that’s what I had on hand. She laughed, and told me pecans were in the original recipe, but she had submitted another recipe, for pecan cheddar pinwheels inspired by her family’s backyard pecan trees, so she wanted to change it up a little.

“My father was an engineer, and we had a system to harvesting the pecans. My cousins would climb up in the trees and shake them, then the pecans would rain down, hitting us in the head first before they landed on the concrete.”

They always had about a hundred bags of pecans in the freezer and would crack and pick them all year long. Like all of her stories, Amy shares this one with humor and warmth, making you wish you’d been there. Most of her stories, from the cake walk fundraiser for a local musician to the holiday meals that inspired her winning entry, end in a recipe. When she learned about the Bake-Off’s story requirement, she got to work.

“When intentionally sitting down trying to pull out memories, I couldn’t believe how many more memories there were — how many and how vivid.”

On Her Inspiration for the Winning Recipe

The recipe that inspired her bejeweled rolls was her mother’s cranberry congealed salad, a molded Jello concoction made with chopped fresh cranberries, orange, celery, pecans, and pineapple. She keeps notes on her handwritten recipes and one of the notes on her mother’s salad recipe reads, “December 24, 2010: Didn’t make (the salad) for Thanksgiving this year. This is the second year without Mama and Daddy. I miss them terribly, but every motion during the holidays makes me remember them in happy, vivid detail.” Pillsbury understands that for most people, food and recipes are full of memories.

On Finding Some Comfort in the Spotlight

Pillsbury invited the winners to appear on Food Network’s The Kitchen. At first Amy wasn’t sure about appearing on television or being in the spotlight, and she’s still hesitant. She started her career in animal science, moving on to nursing, then buying a farm with her husband. She still works as a private nurse occasionally, and at home prides herself on living a real farm-to-table lifestyle. She claims hospitality is her “spiritual gift,” and she puts community first. But she enjoyed the spotlight more than expected.

“I loved the whole process, even things I really thought I wouldn’t have cared for. Usually I’m happy to just stay on the farm and do my thing. I’m not a social butterfly by any means.”

But she thrived in New York, and loved working with people from the Food Network there and in North Carolina, when they came to film her at home. She’s achieved a certain local celebrity, with her bake sale goods earning special recognition, and bringing in more money for charity.

On What She’s Doing Next

She’s been thinking about what’s next. At first podcasting or blogging wasn’t in the picture. “The other night I had a librarian friend to supper and she was talking about podcasting. She talked about how there are people that really want to know things I know — my skill set — that they don’t know. So it would be sharing something of myself with them, like a gift. That was a different way for me to look at it.”

Amy’s warming up to the idea. She isn’t the sort of person who looks for attention, but when her friend put it that way, she got interested.

And I’m interested, because I think Amy knows a lot of things I don’t know, including how to butcher her own meat, grow enough seasonal vegetables to feed a family, store those vegetable for less-temperate months, and make meals out of all of it.

The Pillsbury Bake-Off may seem antiquated, an American classic that’s out-lived its relevance, but it isn’t. The Bake-Off brings us people like Amy, who are t0o busy with real life, and too humble, to think about sharing their gifts. And it puts big ideas in their heads. And I’m totally here for it.