Roxie resident ready to Bake-off for $1 million

Published 12:28 am Wednesday, March 24, 2010

ROXIE — From the time she was old enough to reach the kitchen counter, Wanda Riley has loved to bake, and soon that love could pay off big time.

Riley, of Roxie, is one of 100 finalists picked to compete in the 2010 Pillsbury Bake-off in Orlando, Fla. The grand prize for the bake-off is $1 million and a variety of GE appliances.

Riley said in past years she has watched the annual cooking competition and vowed to one day enter and win it.

That day could come as early as April 12, when Riley will find out how her recipe stacks up to others in the contest. She is the only contestant from Mississippi.

“When they called and said I was a finalist, I was surprised and honored,” Riley said. “This is a great competition, the cream of the crop in terms of cooking contests.”

Riley will prepare two batches of her recipe — one for judges and the other to be photographed — during the morning competition. She will find out that night if she won the grand prize or one of the smaller category or brand name prizes.

With just a little over two weeks before the contest, Riley isn’t nervous yet. But that is probably because baking for her is practically second nature.

“I was probably still single digit age when I started cooking with my mother,” she said. “She loved to cook, and whenever she baked a cake, she always saved a little of the batter for us to bake our own little cakes.

“It wasn’t long after that that I started baking more complex dishes, but I got my start hanging out in the kitchen with my mom.”

Riley’s recipe for peanut butter cookie granola will compete in the breakfast and brunches category of the contest.

“Granola is one of my all-time favorite foods,” she said. “My goal with this recipe was to create a granola that was softer than any other granola you’ve ever had.”

While she has years of experience in the kitchen, her contest recipe didn’t just happen. She knew she had a good idea, but her first attempt didn’t turn out quite right.

On the first try, Riley baked the cookies and then crumbled them into the granola. That yielded a crunchy texture.

But instead of getting frustrated, Riley turned to her cooking mentor — her mother.

“I was at my mom’s and told her that I had to figure out how to get the texture I wanted,” she said. “She said I would and that night I said a little prayer and asked for help figuring this out.

“Later that night, a little thought popped into my head to mix all the granola ingredients together and bake them that way.”

It worked, and now Riley is getting ready to bake her granola for a panel of judges.

But the recipe is sure to be well tested before the judges get their first bite.

“I’ve made it dozens of times for family,” she said. “My parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews — they all said it was the best granola they’ve ever had. My brother and sister can’t get enough of it.”

She doesn’t mind making batch after batch for friends and family, but the recipe is so simple she said anyone can make it.

“The point of my recipe was to create something simple without pulling out all the gadgets,” she said. “All you need is a bowl, a fork and the cookie sheet to bake it on.”