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Contest Kids Montana Couple Cooks Up Some Recipe Winners And End Up With Big Cash

Coming soon to a grocery store near you:

Edwina Gadsby.

She’s featured on the Fiber One cereal box and in Pillsbury, Bisquick and Newman’s Own recipe books.

She’s pictured in the August issue of Cooking Light making her Wild Mushroom Cannelloni With Basil Alfredo Sauce, a finalist in the magazine’s 10th anniversary recipe contest. She’ll be in the November issue of Southern Living.

At the Pillsbury Bake-Off last year, one finalist stopped by her test kitchen and exclaimed: “You’re Edwina Gadsby, let me rub you for luck.”

Since she started entering cooking contests three and a half years ago, the Great Falls, Mont., woman and her husband, Bob, have gone gold.

They’ve won, placed or showed in 63 cooking contests, collecting $38,000 in cash. That doesn’t include a combined $11,000 the couple won for charity from Newman’s Own contests that they donated to the Boundary County Library and Hall Mountain Fire Department in Bonners Ferry, where they used to live.

The Gadsbys have won trips to everywhere from the California wine country to Vermont, where Bob, a former firefighter, picked up a 1959 Mac pumper fire truck he’s restored and had certified to fight wildfires.

They’ve won a closetful of KitchenAid appliances and so many aprons and mugs they have to rotate them into storage.

They can’t afford to to hang up on calls that sound like telemarketers. They always answer their door. They never know what recipe is going to come up a winner.

“We consider the 32-cent stamp like a lottery ticket,” says Edwina, 41.

“Bob used to say, ‘You need stamps again?’ Now he says, ‘Honey, can I get you some stamps?”’ “We’ve been exceedingly lucky,” says Bob, 46, “but most of all, we’ve had fun.”

The couple met over the cool cuisine of Southern California when he was working as a federal customs inspector and she was an accountant in San Diego. They married eight years ago.

But it wasn’t until a job transfer brought them to North Idaho that they discovered a mutual love and talent for competitive cooking. They were living in Bonners Ferry, where Bob was a customs inspector at Eastport, when Edwina read a library book on writing. According to the guide, if you could write and cook, you should enter cooking contests.

She did. Her first effort, Apple Cinnamon French Toast, won the grand prize in a Country Living magazine/Land O’Lakes contest - an all-expenses-paid trip to Vermont.

“Once you get that certified letter, it’s like, ‘Wow!”’ says Edwina. “It’s what really fueled the fire.”

Bob jumped in soon after, his Peach-of-a-Bourbon basting sauce winning a trip to the Jim Beam cookoff in Kentucky. That was the beginning of a hobby that has taken them into the world of cooking contests.

Cooking contests are hotter than chipotle peppers right now. By sponsoring contests, manufacturers and trade groups, such as chicken and pork producers, get publicity for their products. The contests also help companies identify what flavor combinations are hot and aim their marketing accordingly.

“It’s the ideal lab for big companies,” Bob says.

It’s also ideal for people with imagination and talent. The contests have inducted the Gadsbys into the circle of foodies, the couple dozen cooks across the country who approach cook-offs like family reunions and compete hard enough for one to submit 67 entries in a single Pillsbury Bake-Off, with its $1 million grand prize.

Here’s Edwina’s secret: She reads contest directions. The Gadsbys are convinced a significant number of entrants are culled immediately for failing to properly type their recipe or address their entries.

Edwina also always looks for appropriate uses of products. The Cooking Light contest, for instance, drew a shocking number of recipes calling for cups of butter.

But her real gift is her imagination. Her prize-winning recipes combine hot items, such as focaccia, with more mundane ingredients such as oatmeal.

Her recipe on the Fiber One box: Santa Fe Soft Pretzels with jalapeno-honey mustard dipping sauce.

“I’ve never met someone so creative on flavor combinations,” says her husband.

Three years ago the couple moved to Great Falls, where Bob is an operations analyst for 16 ports in North Idaho and Montana.

In their split-level home, Edwina tries to perfect her recipes on paper first. She often starts with a title and develops ingredients from there: Key Lime Thai Chicken placed fourth in the National Chicken Contest. She prepares a recipe just once before submitting it. “We’ll sit here and pick it apart,” she says, then they work on presentation and improvements.

After settling on ingredients, Gadsby always checks the recipe’s originality against 1 million recipes stored on a CD-ROM to ensure it is as original as she thinks it is.

Most recipe contests specify originality, a point that became embarrassingly clear in 1991 when the national chicken cooking contest winner was discovered to have clipped the recipe from Bon Appetit.

Edwina says once she enters a recipe, she doesn’t try to guess whether it will win.

One recipe for berry crunch creme brulee that she halfheartedly submitted won a $5,000 Kellogg’s Low-Fat Granola contest. Other favorites have gone nowhere.

Last year, Bob submitted a spicy crab cakes recipe to a contest and didn’t even get a call back. This year, he won the $6,000 grand prize in the same contest with the same recipe.

Edwina, who made her first trip to the Pillsbury finals last year, would like another shot at the $1 million jackpot. She’s still kicking herself over preparing a pineapple galette in caramel rum sauce instead of a fruit that might have had wider appeal.

The couple laugh over many of their attempts, including a recent coffeecake that wound up scorched on the bottom of the oven.

“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not cooking” she says.

They’ve been thrilled to see their names in print, work in world-famous test kitchens and see their recipes lovingly styled and presented in national magazines. Best of all are the trips to areas of the country they’d otherwise never visit, such as Sandwich, Mass., on Cape Cod, where they’ll go this September to compete in the Louis Rich It’s My Sandwich Contest.

There are downsides. They wind up paying taxes on their winnings, and sometimes their schedules get a little hairy. Last fall they were in New York City having lunch with Paul Newman on a Thursday after Bob’s Coffee-Toffee Macadamia Crunch won the popcorn division in the Newman’s Own contest, an event covered by CNN. (Edwina was a runner-up in the Newman’s Own salsa contest in 1994.)

A day later, they were on the opposite coast, where Edwina was a finalist in a cooking contest at California’s Sutter Home winery.

One trend they hate to see coming is the current one toward recipes with fewer ingredients and less preparation time.

“I love the creative aspect of cooking,” Edwina says.

“There are people who like food and people who don’t,” Bob agrees. “We like food. It satisfies all the senses.”

Key Lime Thai Chicken

The fourth-place winner for Edwina Gadsby in the 41st National Chicken Cooking Contest, this zesty dish is good grilled in the summer or broiled in the winter.

6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

1/2 cup lime juice (preferably Key lime juice)

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 tablespoon honey

4 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup chopped green onion, green and white parts

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon dried mint

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Cilantro sprigs, for garnish

Key Lime Thai Cucumber Salsa (recipe follows)

Place chicken in a shallow glass dish. In a small bowl, whisk together lime juice, oil, honey, garlic, onion, cilantro, mint and red and black pepper. Pour over chicken breasts, turning to coat; refrigerate for 15 minutes.

Preheat broiler (or prepare grill). Remove chicken from dish and reserve marinade. Place chicken on broiler pan about 6 inches from heat. Broil, turning and basting with reserved marinade, about 10 minutes or until a fork can easily be inserted into chicken.

Garnish with cilantro sprigs and serve with Key Lime Thai Cucumber Salsa.

Yield: 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving, without salsa: 208 calories, 10.7 grams fat (46 percent fat calories), 51 milligrams cholesterol, 7 grams carbohydrate, 21 grams protein, 66 milligrams sodium.

Key Lime Thai Cucumber Salsa

1/3 cup lime juice (preferably Key lime juice)

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons Thai chili sauce (available in Asian markets, specialty stores and some larger supermarkets)

1/2 cup chopped green onions

2 medium cucumbers, peeled and diced

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1/4 cup finely chopped roasted peanuts

In medium bowl, mix together all ingredients except peanuts; cover and refrigerate. Before serving, sprinkle with peanuts.

Yield: 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 169 calories, 12.4 grams fat (66 percent fat calories), no cholesterol, 15 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams protein, 185 milligrams sodium.

Peach-of-a-Bourbon Basting Sauce

Bob Gadsby took first place in the sauce category of Jim Beam’s 1994 “Bourboncuing With Booker” Cookoff with this tangy golden concoction. While it can be used on just about any meats or poultry, Bob likes it best with pork ribs.

1/2 cup good-quality bourbon whiskey

1 (18-ounce) jar peach preserves

1/2 cup spicy brown mustard

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger root, or 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon liquid smoke

In medium saucepan, combine bourbon, preserves, mustard, onion, ginger and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to low and simmer about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in liquid smoke. Keep refrigerated in a covered container until ready to use.

Yield: About 2 cups.

Nutrition information per cup: 276 calories, 1.9 grams fat (6 percent fat calories), no cholesterol, 57 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams protein, 359 milligrams sodium.

Italian Herbed Oatmeal Focaccia

Edwina’s first-place winner in the muffin/ bread category of Quaker Oatmeal’s Bake it Better With Oats contest.

2 tablespoons cornmeal

1-1/2 to 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup rolled oats (quick or old-fashioned), uncooked

2 tablespoons Italian seasoning, divided use

1 (1/4-ounce) package (2-1/4 teaspoons) quick-rising yeast

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons garlic salt, divided use

1 cup water

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

4 to 6 sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained and chopped

1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Lightly spray a 13- by 9-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray and dust with cornmeal.

In a large bowl, combine 1 cup flour, oats, 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning, yeast, sugar and 1 teaspoon garlic salt; mix well.

In a small saucepan, heat water and 1/4 cup olive oil until very warm (120 to 130 degrees); stir into flour mixture. Gradually stir in enough remaining flour to make a soft dough. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Knead 8 to 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Cover and let rest 10 minutes.

Pat dough into prepared pan, pressing out to edges. Using fingertips, poke indentations all over surface of dough; brush with remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning and 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt. Arranged dried tomatoes across top; sprinkle with cheese. Cover; let rise in warm place until doubled, about 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Cut into strips or squares. Serve warm.

Yield: 12 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 259 calories, 8.8 grams fat (31 percent fat calories), 1 milligram cholesterol, 40 grams carbohydrate, 8 grams protein, 669 milligrams sodium.

Caramel White Chocolate Cheesecake

Edwina topped the field in T. Marzetti’s Caramel Apple Dip Recipe Contest with this rich dessert.

1-1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted

2 (6-ounce) packages white chocolate baking bars

1/2 cup whipping cream

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

4 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1-1/2 cups prepared caramel apple dip

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and butter and press onto bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.

In a saucepan over low heat, melt 10 ounces white chocolate with the whipping cream, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and let cool.

In large mixer bowl, beat cheese until fluffy; beat in eggs, one at a time, until blended. Stir in white chocolate mixture and vanilla. Remove 1 cup batter and mix with 1 cup caramel apple dip. Spoon plain batter and caramel mixture alternately over crust and swirl with a table knife to marble.

Bake for 55 minutes, or until set (center will be slightly soft). Turn off oven; let cake stand in oven 1 hour. Cool completely and chill.

In a small microwave-safe bowl, combine remaining 2 ounces white chocolate with remaining cup caramel apple dip. In microwave oven, cook on HIGH power 40 seconds; stir after 20 seconds to marble, but do not blend completely. Serve over cheesecake.

Yield: 16 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 374 calories, 27.1 grams fat (65 percent fat calories), 96 milligrams cholesterol, 27 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams protein, 207 milligrams sodium.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photos

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