Teresa Berkey learned to love baking from her mother, learned some techniques from classes at Lewistown Area High School and has combined the two to become a finalist in the famed Pillsbury Bake-Off, with an original recipe for Chocolate-Hazelnut-Coconut Bars.
She will be among the 100 cooks from across the United States to compete for a grand prize of $1 million on March 26 in Orlando, Fla. The winner will be announced March 27 on the "Martha Stewart Show."
Becoming a finalist is a dream come true for Berkey, and somewhat remarkable considering that the Pillsbury Bake-Off was the first cooking competition she ever entered.
Photos courtesy PILLSBURY
Teresa Berkey will prepare her Chocolate-Hazelnut-Coconut Bars at the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off on March 26.
"I have always loved to bake, and I think it's because of my mom," she said. Berkey is the daughter of Jane and Dennis Berkey, of Lewistown. She graduated from LAHS in 2002, and earned a bachelor's degree at Allegheny College, where she met the man who would become her fiance. After the two graduated from college in 2006, he went to New Hampshire to attend medical school at Dartmouth, and she went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. She stayed in Philadelphia and worked as a teacher for a few years before finally moving to New Hampshire. She is now a literacy teacher at Claremont (N.H.) Middle School, teaching seventh and eighth grade reading.
The decision to enter the baking competition brought Berkey back to her roots.
"My mom is an amazing baker and I have so many memories of being in the kitchen with her while she was baking. She was always making cookies or whoopie pies for me and my friends when we were in school," Berkey said.
"I was at home visiting my parents recently and she made a big batch of cookies for me to take back to New Hampshire; she bakes and cooks for people to show she cares, so I started doing the same thing. I began baking cookies in my little dorm kitchen to share with my friends at college, and now I bake a lot to share with my co-workers," Berkey said.
"When I was in high school, I took a few culinary arts classes as my electives with Mrs. Mathews because even back then I loved to bake. I used to depend a lot on recipes and I have some wonderful cookbooks, but lately I have found it more fun to try to develop my own recipes."
With that inspiration and inclination, entering the Pillsbury Bake-Off was a natural for Berkey.
"I have always been familiar with the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest because my mom used to collect the Bake-Off Contest cookbooks that would get released after each bake-off. Many of the 'special occasion' recipes she used to make actually came from past bake-offs," Berkey explained.
"I remember watching a Food Network special a few years ago that followed some Pillsbury Bake-Off finalists and I thought to myself, 'I could do that.' Last year, when the entry period for the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest opened, I told my fiance about it and about how I always wanted to enter it. At that point it was just a fantasy, though; something I might enter 'someday.' He encouraged me to just go for it," she said.
The entry period for the current bake-off was from January to April last year.
"Once the contest was open, I started developing recipes and submitting them online through Pillsbury's website," Berkey said, adding that she entered five recipes.
The recipe that landed her in the final 100 was created by Berkey from required products, paired with items she had on hand in her pantry. The bake-off rules call for original recipes created with at least two items from a long list of eligible products.
"I would go to the grocery store and stock up on Pillsbury products - crescent rolls, cookie dough and pie crust, mostly - then come home and just start playing around in my kitchen," she said.
"I tried to mostly use other ingredients I keep in my pantry. I had a jar of Nutella in my cupboard and one day just decided to see what would happen if I mixed it into a package of Pillsbury's chocolate chip cookie dough. It turns out it was pretty good! I came up with the recipe for the bars right after that. Some of the things I made turned out great on the first try, but I also had many failures," Berkey said.
"Pillsbury receives tens of thousands of recipes, so I never entertained thoughts of being a finalist, and after a while I kind of forgot about the contest.
"In September, I received a phone call to tell me I was a potential finalist. I was so excited that I couldn't stop shaking after I got the call. I couldn't tell anybody about it until it was official, though, which took about a month," Berkey said.
"The waiting was so hard, but by October I found out that I was a finalist and that I would definitely be going to Orlando to compete."
On March 26, Berkey, along with 99 other finalists, will prepare their recipes live. Hers is one of 26 recipes in the Sweet Treats category. There are 26 recipes in the Entertaining Appetizers category, and 24 recipes in the Breakfasts and Brunches and Dinner Made Easy categories.
The actual bake-off will take place at the Orlando Peabody Hotel, and each cook will be provided ingredients and a "kitchen" of his or her own. Berkey is assigned to "Range 71," in the 100-range line-up on the bake-off floor. The judges will select a winner in each of the four categories, and one of those winners will be named the grand prize winner.
"I have four hours to make my recipe three times, and I will get to choose which batch I want to submit to the judges," she said. Entries will be judged on taste, appearance, creativity and consumer appeal.
"There are 100 finalists competing for the million dollar prize, although I am also eligible for some other prizes, like the Eagle Brand Signature Recipe award because my recipe uses Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk," Berkey explained. The Eagle Brand Signature Recipe Award winner will receive $5,000, according to the Pillsbury website.
Berkey says she is "beyond excited" about the pending trip to Orlando.
"Just getting to the bake-off is such a big deal for me because it's something I have followed with my mom for as along as I can remember," she said.
"It's like the Super Bowl of cooking! And this year, Martha Stewart is the host, which I think is really just so unbelievably cool. I am hoping to get some pictures taken with Martha and the Pillsbury Doughboy!"
Berkey's parents, and her fiance, Anthony Paravati, are making the trip to Florida, too, "so I will have a little cheering section," Berkey said.
"They are all as excited as I am. I am not sure if I will get jitters the day of the contest. I've made my recipe so many times that I'm not really worried about messing it up, but I'm pretty sure I'll still have butterflies," she added.
Berkey said she hasn't really let herself fantasize about what she would do with the million dollars if she becomes the grand prize winner, but when pressed to speculate, she listed some practical things, like paying for her upcoming wedding, moving expenses and a first home.
But, she added, "I think the first fun thing I would do is send my parents on vacation because they have always been supportive and I have never been able to pay them back. My dad has casually slipped into conversations that he wouldn't mind if I bought him a pick-up truck if I won. He said it jokingly, but a truck might just be on the short list."