Arlene Erlbach of Morton Grove created a cranberry dark chocolate flatbread that was recognized as one of the top 60 recipes in a nationwide Pillsbury Bake-Off competition.
Now, as a semi-finalist in the annual competition, Erlbach needs help to get closer to the $1 million prize. Judges sorted through thousands of recipes to find those top 60, and now online voting will decide the final 30.
“I’m a baker, not a politician, but I understand that Pillsbury wants traffic to their website,” Erlbach said jokingly. “What’s frustrating and endearing at the same time is when I ask people to vote for me and they repeatedly call back wanting some of the flatbread.”
Erlbach said she’s always enjoyed creating new blends of foods and attempting complicated recipes, but she found more time on her hands after retiring from Chicago’s William P. Gray Elementary School and decided to put her hobby to work by entering competitions.
Pillsbury’s competition has three main categories for its competition: breakfast, appetizers and dinners. The final 30 in each category are flown to Las Vegas to bake side-by-side against each other for the best overall recipes.
First place gets a $1 million prize, second place gets a $10,000 prize and $3,000 worth of kitchenware, and third place gets a $5,000 prize and $2,000 worth of kitchenware. Other sponsors also give prizes of lesser value.
The competition challenges bakers to create a recipe using only seven ingredients, with at least two Pillsbury products or one Pillsbury product and one item from a list of other sponsors — which include JIF peanut butter, Smuckers, Crisco and Eagle.
The inventions are judged on creativity, taste, appearance and consumer appeal.
This year is the first time in Pillsbury’s 45-year competition that public input will be factored into the results. Last year, judges chose Erlbach as one of the overall 100 finalists and she went to Orlando, Fla. to square off against her competition.
“I didn’t want to go alone, so I was going to ask a friend to accompany me, but my husband Herb and my adult son Matthew asked to go with,” Erlbach said. “That was the million-dollar prize for me. Having my family recognize my interest and go out of their way to cheer me on was the greatest reward I could get.”
Erlbach’s interest in blending tastes first started when she was 5 years old. She was playing with her cousin Mark Favermann when his mother, Aunt Evelyn, took them out for lunch. Aunt Evelyn was drinking iced coffee and offered the children a taste.
“I immediately fell in love with the taste of coffee,” Erlbach said. “Iced coffee wasn’t as hip back in the 50s and 60s, so it was a real special order. When I became a teenager, I started drinking iced coffee all the time and began baking with coffee, too.”
Erlbach said her mother wasn’t much of a cook, and so there was no “baking gene” passed down. The hobby came from her desire to mix favorite foods or mix healthy foods with sweets to justify eating both.
“I know it’s not good to associate emotions with food, but there’s something to be said about wanting others to feel relaxed and enjoy themselves when visiting or coming home from work,” Erlbach said.
Jello molds used to be one of Erlbach’s trademarks when hosting social events. Now, friends and family reportedly praise her white cheese lasagna with spinach and her lamb stew with apricots.
In her two years of retirement, Erlbach has submitted custom recipes to about a dozen contests and has been published in magazines, but she said Pillsbury’s contest is the “granddaddy” of them all.
“If I won a prize, I’d probably donate some to charity and then take my family on a trip,” Erlbach said. “It’s a lot of money, but money doesn’t change who you are. I love my family and I love to bake.”