BOXBOROUGH - In 2006, Natalie Edwards was watching the Pillsbury Bake-Off on the Food Network when the idea hit. She saw Anna Ginsburg win $1 million for a baked chicken with spinach stuffing, made with frozen home style waffles. Her husband, Roger, said to her, “You can do that, you should try to enter.’’ It took awhile. She entered the Bake-Off contest last year.
As it happened, in a Brookline home that same night, Holly Deak was having a similar experience. Deak thought the competition “looked really fun and exciting, like a really unique experience,’’ she says. She too entered, first in 2008 to no avail, then again last year.
On March 25, Edwards and Deak, both 37, will be in Orlando to participate in the Pillsbury Bake-Off and join in a three-day whirlwind leading up to their own chance at the $1 million grand prize, presented by Martha Stewart. They are part of a group of 100 finalists, culled from thousands of entries. Like all surprised nominees in any contest, both women say that getting this far already seems like winning.
Each of these amateur cooks earned a coveted spot with dishes using simple ingredients, entered in the breakfast and brunch category. Edwards offered a braided bread made with butternut squash. Coming up with a braid was easy, since her family is Croatian and strudels and braids are common. “I thought about how butternut squash was underappreciated,’’ she says. She tested it after formulating the recipe in her head, originally using just onions with the squash, and decided it didn’t have enough flavor.
“Then I remembered that a friend of my mother’s made amazing pirogi and she would put a bacon-onion topping on them,’’ says Edwards, who has her own business, Health Services Consulting Corp., and works with clients in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device fields, designing studies, research, and strategies.
After adding the bacon, she made it once more before entering the contest. Her long braid fills the kitchen with the scent of freshly baked bread, roasted squash, caramelized onions, and smoky bacon, and tastes as delicious as it smells.
Deak, a medicinal chemist at Amgen Inc. in Cambridge, also uses caramelized onions as her base ingredient, and combines them with layers of zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, and potatoes for a savory tart. Her love of pie crusts goes back to grade school home economics. Another passion is her plot in the community gardens at Brookline’s Larz Anderson Park. “The yearly bounty of tomatoes and zucchini couldn’t be ignored,’’ she says.
She had recently begun making tians, French dishes in which simple ingredients are thinly sliced, layered, then cooked together. “In my mind, I actually had a pretty good plan going into this process. I felt a crust would give structure to my vegetable layers, and I added panko to the top to give it more texture,’’ she says.
“I used a principle we use in chemistry called ‘structure activity relationships,’ when it came to testing my concept.’’ This is a method of varying the structure of a compound systematically, and then testing the effect of those changes. “I divided the tart into quadrants and made changes to each quadrant, one change at a time, tasting and tweaking along the way. It only took 12 iterations to get the recipe right, which was only three tarts.’’
When completed, the tart makes tight concentric spirals of alternating green, red, purple, and white, cooked down, in a crust that manages to stay crisp. She tops the vegetables with grated Gruyere and panko, which brown at the end of baking.
The two women, who have never met, recently began e-mailing each other. They actually have much in common besides their age and their status as finalists. Both are married with children - Edwards has two boys, ages 9 and 7, and a girl, 4, all home-schooled. Deak has two boys, 3 and 8 months. As scientists, both used techniques from their background to figure out their recipes.
They’re off to a luxury hotel (Edwards flying solo, her first expedition since motherhood; Deak taking husband, children, and her parents, and extending the trip to include Disney World).
The women will be assigned a spot in a ballroom outfitted with 100 mini kitchens, and left to cook their recipes, while they answer questions from 400 members of the media. With the other contestants, they’ll wait for the judges to sample their fare and attend a live taping for the final award presentations.
And perhaps, when the announcement comes that one contestant has won $1 million for a winning recipe, the prize will go to Edwards or Deak. If that’s the case, they will not need a plane to fly home.