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Cooking Contest Winner Offers 'Ungarnished Truth'

How do you begin to conceive of a dish that will wow judges' hearts and stomachs?

If you're Ellie Mathews, who won the $1 million grand prize in the 1998 Pillsbury Bake-Off, "it involves a fair amount of experimentation and just trying to dream up what could I do with a can of biscuits that nobody ever did before."

That experimentation can result in failure — like when Mathews tried to see what would happen if she boiled a tube of ready-to-make biscuits. Why not? After all, she figured, you boil bagels and pretzels before baking them.

"I thought it might be a good idea, but don't try it," she tells Steve Inskeep.

Mathews, whose new book, The Ungarnished Truth, chronicles her rise to the top in the Pillsbury contest, nevertheless urges other cooks to give their own ideas a chance.

'Let the Judging Begin'

"When there is something that seems to come together and make something that you'd want to put on a plate and serve to someone, write it up, send it in, let the judging begin," she says.

Mathews doesn't seek out exotic ingredients, preferring to keep things fairly simple. Her winning recipe, for salsa couscous chicken, included some basics: garlic, chicken thighs and salsa.

"I typically buy ingredients that look good and wrestle them into a pan and serve a meal," she says. "I don't do a lot. I'm not a fussy cook. I don't put four kinds of sea salt into something or 18 different kinds of vinegar, or whatever. I wouldn't say I'm a plain cook, but I'm fairly practical."

A Plan Gone Awry

When she was cooking in the Pillsbury competition, Mathews says she wasn't thinking about her chances of winning.

"I went to the contest with the idea of being in training so I could see how it works," she says. "So I could get an inside look at what the operation amounted to ... so I could go back another time in earnest."

And when she realized she had won, Mathews says she thought, "Oh, no. I can't come back. I knew I had been disqualified by virtue of winning the grand prize."

This year's Pillsbury Bake-Off gets cooking this weekend in Dallas.

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