By Sherrie Norris
“An opportunity of a lifetime. An experience I will never forget.” Those are just two of the many ways that Amy Nelson of Zionville has described her current status as the grand prize winner in the 48th Pillsbury Bake-off.
The announcement was made on national television Saturday, February 24, at 11 a.m. EST when millions of viewers tuned into the Food Network’s hit show, The Kitchen, to learn which of the four recently named category winners would walk away with the top honor.
At the same time, Nelson and about 65 of her closest friends and relatives were gathered around the TV in her home church near Boone for a viewing-turned-celebration potluck brunch, featuring Nelson’s winning Bejeweled Cranberry-Orange Rolls.
High Country Press announced in early January that Nelson, as winner in the Breakfast Category, was among four (category) champions in the prestigious competition, claiming the title with her not-so-ordinary breakfast rolls.
The four winners were then in competition for the grand prize, which Nelson has since claimed, and includes (another) trip to New York for her celebration appearance on The Kitchen, a kitchen makeover from GE Appliances and $50,000 in cash.
Nelson was just one of thousands of cooks from across the country who had earlier entered an original recipe into the annual contest which required the use of Pillsbury refrigerated products, along with the inspiration behind it; the categories included: Cozy Breakfasts, Appetizers for Any Party, Dinners with Heart and No-Fuss Desserts.
Four weeks after initially winning her category, The Kitchen producers and staff came to Nelson’s home to film her in her kitchen as part of the event’s promotional material.
Shortly afterward, and during her first trip to New York wither husband in mid-January, Nelson learned that she was the grand prize winner; however, they were sworn to secrecy as they returned home unable to share the exciting news with anyone until the segment aired on Saturday, which, she admitted “was so hard, but we did it.”
When asked what it all meant to her, Nelson replied, “I’m very humbled and grateful for the opportunity. It has been a great experience. Since I had known since mid-January, but couldn’t tell anyone, it felt kinda like hearing it for the first time for me, too, when everyone else was with me and it was announced. That made it so much better! We don’t even have cable at our house, so we went to our church to watch the show.”
When she went to bed Saturday night, Nelson said she wasn’t even thinking about being a national winner.
“I was instead thinking about how grateful I am and about all the people in my life who have shared my excitement and enthusiastically stood by me and supported me though this.”
More about the contest
The 2017 Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest, partnering with Food Network and The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, grew into “a celebration of family memories” and sought those family favorite recipes and the storied inspiration behind them.
Nelson’s recipe was inspired by her late mother who discovered Pillsbury’s Orange Rolls while their family was visiting with Nelson’s older sister.
“My mother was born in 1925 and was never a fancy or adventurous cook,” said Nelson. “We had the same meal for every holiday, whether it was Thanksgiving, Easter or Christmas. She never wavered for fear of familial uprising!” But, Nelson contends, “Those meals together were unforgettable,” as she recalls that every holiday table always included a cranberry congealed salad, a familiar mixture of chopped fresh cranberries, orange, celery, pecans, pineapple and Jell-O.
“We devoured it,” she added, saying her husband “may have even married me because of it.”
While not a family of convenience foods and “having to eat homemade food at every meal,” Nelson shared, she thought of canned spaghetti and frozen dinners in aluminum trays as treats. “One year, though, when I was about 10 – we went to see my older sister who lived in Cape Cod at the time. She was married and had a home and she served these Pillsbury orange rolls, before the gourmet rolls were a hit – it was like nothing I’d never tasted before. And I loved them.”
Apparently, so did her mama, she recalled. “Because, fairly often after that they would show up in our fridge at home. They were a convenience food my mom took a liking to, and eating them takes me back in my mind to our kitchen table on mornings before school.”
In her recipe, Nelson said, the cranberry, pineapple, walnuts and ginger perfectly punctuate and complement the orange rolls and produces, in an instant, memories of a happy and familiar place in time.
Nelson’s parents are now deceased, and she misses them terribly, she said, but those rolls will be made time and time again, “And I will remember.”
Entering the rolls into the competition “was very much a deliberate process,” Nelson said, after reading the rules and seeing that there had to be a story behind her submission.
“Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed doing and I thought that might give me some advantage; it had to be something about my family, about my childhood, and I needed to come up with something authentic that would touch others.”
It was while looking at the required product list, and wondering if anything there really did have a story connected to it, when it hit Nelson. Yes, her mama’s orange rolls– with the filling she created herself.
“Every time I taste one of those rolls, it’s just like my mama is sitting at the table with me. I knew this was a strong connection, but I wasn’t sure what else to do with them.”
Then, she remembered the holiday salad with Jell-o, cranberries, pineapple, nuts and fresh oranges.
“I knew that cranberry would go really well with the orange in the rolls, so I started adding some ginger and ginger ale, and made a filing and added toasted walnuts; I spread it out over the dough, rolled it back up, baked it and it went really well.”
A self-described “Food Network junkie,” who watched it often “when we had cable” and now, anytime she’s near a TV with it on, outside her home, Nelson said she was already familiar with The Kitchen before she won her place on the show. “But I couldn’t even wrap my mind around the idea that I was going to be on it!”
Soon after winning her category and learning about her prizes, Nelson received a surprise call that Food Network was coming to film her in the comfort of her own home.
“ I couldn’t even fathom that, either, and was speechless, but talk about a good motivator to get things done around the house!” Several wonderful friends kicked in to help me get more done in four weeks than I’ve been able to do in four years!”
Fortunately, the shoot went without a hitch, everyone was so nice, and three of those who had come to her home were in the studio when the final segment was filmed.
“It was very intimidating at first to think of going on national television, but everyone in the studio was so nice and helpful, and in the end, I was not as nervous as I thought I would be.”
However, Nelson said, she “almost fainted,” at the moment when the countdown started and she realized the winner was going to be announced. “There were people on the set holding glitter and confetti tubes and the excitement was mounting,” she recalled. “And I noticed that Jeff Mauro had an envelope on the counter in front of me.”
When they announced that I was the grand prize winner, it was like time stood still. I had to tell myself to please stay conscious.”
In retrospect, Nelson said she still cannot describe what it all means to her. “I get all teary-eyed just thinking about it. I’m amazed, I’m filled with gratitude — and I wish my mama was here to share this with me.”
At the same time, however, Nelson said being a winner means that someone else did not win. “I had gotten to be friends with the other gals in the competition and they’ve been so nice to me. Everyone involved has been so good to me. The whole experience has been great.”
Just hours after the news went national, Nelson said despite the enormity of the situation, she was still feeling pretty normal. “I have to keep telling myself to “snap out of it, you have won the Pillsbury Bake-off!”
Rustic Pear & Almond Tart Recipe
We share with you, once again, the recipe that has now put Amy Nelson in the national spotlight and Zionville, NC on the map as home to an amazing baker:
Bejeweled Cranberry-Orange Rolls
Prep; 20 minutes
Total; 55 minutes
1 cup fresh cranberries
½ cup crushed pineapple, undrained (from 8-oz can)
½ cup strong ginger beer or ginger ale
2 tablespoons frozen orange juice concentrate
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 can (13.9 oz.) Pillsbury™ Cinnabon refrigerated orange rolls with Orange icing
Heat oven to 400°F. Line large cookie sheet with cooking parchment paper. In 2-quart saucepan, cook cranberries, pineapple, ginger beer, orange juice concentrate and ginger over medium-high heat 10 to 14 minutes, stirring frequently, until liquid is absorbed and mixture is very thick. Remove from heat; cool 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in 10-inch skillet, toast walnuts over medium heat 4 to 6 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden brown. Remove from heat.
Open can of dough; do not separate rolls. Set icing aside.
Carefully unroll dough onto cutting board, being careful not to separate. Spread cooled cranberry mixture evenly on dough; sprinkle with walnuts. Carefully reroll dough. With serrated knife, cut each roll at perforations, wiping blade of knife after each for clean cuts. Place rolls about 2 inches apart on cookie sheet, reshaping rolls if necessary.
Bake 9 to 13 minutes or until golden brown. Spread icing evenly over warm rolls.