Bellingham woman wins one of four final spots in Pillsbury Bake-Off

A Bellingham home cook landed one of four final spots in the granddaddy of cooking contests, the Pillsbury Bake-Off, on Monday evening, Nov. 3, in Nashville.

Courtney Sawyer could win the national grand prize of $1 million for her spin on the Cuban sandwich.

For the first time since the contest started in 1949, the four final recipes are featured online so the public can vote. That vote will be combined with the judges’ scores to decide the grand prize winner, who will be announced Dec. 3 on the TV show “The Chew.”

Even making it to the first competition in Nashville is extraordinary. To do that, Sawyer beat out many thousands of contestants from across the country to win one of 100 spots to cook live in Nashville.

Now she’s one of four left.

Winning Monday evening’s contest was surreal, Sawyer said. Waiting for results with 99 other contestants, she saw the Cuban-Style Sandwich Pockets recipe appear on the huge screen onstage. “I thought, ‘Who made that — oh my God, it’s me!’ Then all I could think was, ‘Don’t trip on your way to the stage!’”

That victory in the Amazing Doable Dinners category netted her $10,000 plus $3,000 in GE appliances. Now she’s up against contestants from Virginia and Mississippi who were winners in their categories.

Sawyer first entered the Pillsbury Bake-Off in 2010 and 2012 without results.

“I love to cook, I love to feed the people I love,” said Sawyer, who works as an instructional assistant at Geneva Elementary School. “I like the detective work of preparing food: How much should you beat an egg? What flavors go together?”

Sawyer cooks for husband Jeff and sons Sam, 19, and Joe, 15. “You recognize what your family likes. After I make it, I think, ‘That was good but I could change this, or this.’” From tweaking recipes, she said, it’s just a step to creating your own.

She started making Cuban sandwiches three years ago after seeing them on a Miami-themed cooking show. She experimented with the basic sandwich, using a thin, flat patty of fresh ground pork instead of roast pork and stirring cumin into the mustard. The filling, which also includes ham, cheese, and dill pickle, is then tucked into a pocket of dough and baked.

Sawyer created three or four versions of the toasty, tasty sandwich before hitting the right combination. “It’s straightforward and easy to make, once I developed the recipe. It doesn’t take any special technique.”

Home cooks often strive for years, competing in smaller contests, before making it to the finals of the Bake-Off. This is the only contest Sawyer has ever entered. Accolades for her cooking previously came not from contest judges but family and friends. “I’m the person everyone calls with cooking questions!” said Sawyer, whose three sisters live in Bellingham.

Sawyer advises beginners to read cookbooks and start with something you enjoy. “Don’t start with something difficult. Increase your technique over time. On the Internet, you can find out how to do almost anything. I started with James Beard, the original American cook; he has wonderful recipes that aren’t hard to make.”

First winning one of 100 spots, and then making the final four, is not something she ever expected to happen.

“It was amazing,” she said. “The competition had 100 ranges in very compact work stations. I’m used to that from my galley kitchen in Bellingham.

“When we first arrived, the Pillsbury Doughboy was just walking around. I got to poke his belly, and then he does that funny laugh. It sounds corny, but it was really fun!”

This year the Bake-Off required that recipes use no more than seven ingredients and take no longer than 30 minutes prep time, not counting baking. Sawyer was prepared.

“Being precise in directions is important,” Sawyer said. “Being a teacher, I give step-by-step directions every day.”