You can’t go wrong with chocolate! Just ask Michelle Gauer of Spicer. Her Double Chocolate Orange Scone recipe is what qualified her as one of 100 finalists in the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest. That bake-off is April 11-13 in a huge ballroom at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort in Orlando, Florida, and Gauer’s mom and sister are going along. The ballroom is on Disney resort property and connected to the Waldorf Astoria. “I’m driven to cook and bake. No matter where I fall in life I come back to cooking and baking. It’s a creative outlet for me,” said Gauer, who submitted 11 recipes in the bake-off contest. She said the last recipe she submitted on-line just before the deadline was the chocolate scone recipe that qualified her for the contest. And it was a recipe she almost didn’t submit. Gauer creates her own recipes and describes her qualifying recipe to Pillsbury as “a sensational new twist….an amazing scone that’s sweet and smooth like no other and keeps you wanting more.” Coming up with a tasty scone recipe was a challenge Gauer easily took on. She said every time she ate a scone she always wished it was more moist and not so dry and bitter. Gauer tried several variations with the scone recipe before submitting the one with chocolate and sweet orange marmalade. She said she was really going after the sponsors of Smucker’s, Pillsbury, Hershey’s, Eggland Best, Land O Lakes, and Fisher nuts. The two variations were okay, Gauer said, but not quite what she wanted. She just didn’t think they were good enough and told herself she could do better than that and started changing things in the recipe. “I threw in the cocoa, I put in the orange marmalade, took out the egg and did some other things. Of course I didn’t have time to make it again and I ended up submitting the recipe without trying it one last time.” The end product includes Pillsbury flour, Hershey’s Baking Cocoa, Land O Lakes Butter, Smucker’s Sweet Orange Marmalade, Hershey’s Mini Semi Sweet Chocolate Chips, and Hershey’s Semi Sweet Baking Chocolate. “I call it a loaded sponsor recipe, which was intentional.” Gauer said all the recipes she submitted were originals. “I looked at things like where can I add another product….you want to make sure it’s the best product it can be, you don’t want to add something that would not taste good with it.” Gauer has entered the Pillsbury contest before. She first entered in 1995 but never heard anything and didn’t pursue that bake-off again until this year. She said it will be more than a year that she’s been working on this particular contest. “I started working with the recipes in January of 2009. We had to submit them by April 15 of 2009 and didn’t hear until September of 2009.” When she got the call saying she was one of the finalists she was very surprised. “I think I lost my breath. I wanted to hear every single word she was saying. I had goose bumps everywhere, I had chills and it was 90 degrees in the sun.” Gauer entered her scone recipe in the breakfast and brunch category. There were four categories in all, the other three being sweet treats, entertaining appetizers, and dinner made easy. She said the recipes are judged on four criteria: taste, appearance, creativity and consumer appeal. Pillsbury gets tens of thousands of recipes submitted, she said, and they hire a firm that goes through the recipes looking for technicalities, formatting, how is it structured, is everything listed, is it used in the right order. “It’s a way for them to start weeding out all the recipes. They weed it down to about 1,000 recipes and from there they go to the Pillsbury Test Kitchen.” In that kitchen they start evaluating the recipes for contents, correct ingredients, sponsorship, looking at the same things the firm went over. Once that’s done they bake them and then have consumer groups touring Pillsbury taste them and rate them for creativity, their overall feeling about the recipe, if they would try it, if they like it, and if they would serve it to their friends. “I don’t know how I scored but it was enough to get me into the contest along with the other qualities of the recipe.” Gauer said she’s a little worried when it comes to the equipment list they had to come up with. “When you think about every tool you use like a knife, scissors, ruler, spoons….its things you just take for granted, and with the oven we’ll be using new technology.” The day they get there they’ll be giving them an oven orientation where they go through the ovens and tell them how to set them, how the timer works and how the heat works. Michelle asked for a regular oven rather than a convection oven since that’s what she’s used to working on. “They assigned baking pans for me; I’m used to working on Air-bake. I’ve got a million dollars on the line here so I very politely said ‘can I bake on air-bakes,’ but I hadn’t written that into the equipment list so they have every right to say ‘I’m sorry.’” The one thing she regrets is that she didn’t call for a garnish for her scones. “But they’re drizzled with chocolate and they do have a little dish of orange marmalade so at least I have that.” She has to bake the recipe three times. One is for the judges, one for the display table and the third for the finalists and the media. They each have their own baking station set up in a huge ballroom at Bonnet Creek, a Disney World resort that’s connected to the Waldorf Astoria. Gauer said Pillsbury has had assignments for the finalists ever since they were notified. “They wanted you to be making it and serving it and finding out how they liked it.” Gauer said she also had to make a video showing how to make her recipe and there could be no talking while the video was being made. She also had to answer eight very pointed questions on how she came up with the idea and what made it a winner. “It really made you think a lot.” One million dollars is a lot of money to win, she said, plus there are category winners, with the different categories offering $5,000 for a unique recipe made with their product. General Electric gave each of the contestants a new microwave. There is also an innovative award that goes to the finalist who has not won anything else. “You do have some chances even if you don’t win the main award.” If she wins the $1 million prize she plans to use it as a college fund for her three children, some for a retirement fund, and some to share with some ministries that are close to her heart. “If I win the contest, its really what the judge’s taste buds are on that day.” Gauer said she would be honored to represent Pillsbury. “God is the one who gave me the talent that I have, to do what I do and share it with other people, so I want to give back to some ministries, I have about six of them that are earmarked that are extremely close to my heart.” Gauer said she knew her way around the kitchen at a pretty early age thanks to her mom and grandmother who were excellent bakers and cooks as well. Gauer actually started baking on her own when she was eight. Of course Gauer’s kids have grown up with it as well. Cooking is therapeutic, she said. “If I’ve had a bad day I’m in the kitchen. It’s something that makes me feel good and it makes other people feel good. Food is a comfort thing.” She added, “I’ve grown up with the idea that cooking for your family and always having some kind of treat available is like serving love on a plate.” Gauer says cooking is a hobby for her. “I’m always toying with recipes. I’m always looking for the new twist on it, and just knowing what flavors I like and what will give it that “Bam” factor. I can look at a recipe and say that needs garlic in it and not just one clove but three. I love flavorful food and experimenting with flavors.” She says one of her favorite quotes is ‘a recipe is only a theme or starting place which a cook can play each time with a variation.’ Gauer said she has found that to be very true. She has a blog of her own called Best of the Best…Recipes put to the test, and is working on having a recipe book published. She has 455 recipes already so its time to call it quits, she said, or it will become cost prohibitive to publish the book. Gauer has won other contests as well. Three years ago she began checking out recipe contests and entering some of them. Her Orange Cranberry Cake has been published in Better Homes and Gardens; she received notification that her Peach Crepes recipe will be published in Reminiscence; she won the Gold n Plump Chicken Contest put on by WCCO with her original recipe of Michelle’s Chicken Alfredo; plus she’s a member of Cooking Contest Central. She said recipes and entering contests is a hobby of hers. “I love to create recipes.” She’s very glad she submitted her scone recipe, which she said is a treat for any time of the day, and she’s very much looking forward to that trip to Orlando and baking her very special scone recipe for the judges.