A family and consumer science teacher at Ridgway Area High School won Parade Magazine's first national holiday cookie recipe contest last month.
Pam Correll, who lives in Brockport, about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, stumbled onto the cooking contest scene almost by accident. On a whim in 2008, she entered a Betty Crocker cookie recipe contest with a recipe she'd never actually tested.
"I just made a few things up and hit 'submit,'" she said.
Then she forgot all about the contest -- until she got an e-mail announcing that she was a finalist. This year, that same recipe for Buckeye Delights (a cookie wrapped around a buckeye candy) is one of Betty Crocker's "24 Cookies of Christmas" on its website, bettycrocker.com.
That first win sparked Mrs. Correll's hobby of entering cooking contests. She shared a few of her secrets with us.
For $25 per year, she subscribes to the "Cooking Contest Central" website at contestcooking.com.
"I had never paid to get on a website before," she said, "but I told my husband I'm going to join every year because it certainly pays off."
No kidding -- her grand prize in the Parade contest was a KitchenAid dual fuel range (gas burners on the stovetop plus a regular oven and convection oven) and a KitchenAid Artisan mixer.
Her two other top tips can be summed up by the following two phrases: read rules and track trends.
Most contests' rules span several pages, she said, and it's worthwhile to read them all. Usually, entrants are required to list the exact ingredients in order of presentation in the recipe, as well as to use very detailed instructions in the recipe text.
And it helps, too, to "look at what's trending" in the cooking world. For instance, butternut squash has been popping up everywhere lately, she said.
She also tries to gauge what contest developers might want by looking at past winners, she said. In the case of the Parade contest, she didn't have that option because it was the magazine's first cookie contest.
Her winning Parade recipe for Chocolate Cherry Cordials was a mashup of a couple different ideas. She used the dough recipe for her stepmother's chocolate roll-out cookies but decided to try tucking a cherry inside the dough. And since it was a holiday cookie contest, she figured rum would be a good flavor pairing. The crowd-pleasing result is similar to a chocolate-covered cherry, except it's a cookie.
She also has an honorable-mention holiday cookie recipe, "Chocolate Mint Cookie Cups," in the current December/January issue of Country Woman, a sister magazine to Taste of Home.
By day, Mrs. Correll teaches food and sewing classes for grades 9 through 12 -- and don't look for her to give up her day job.
"It's a fun job, and they pay me for it," she laughed. She offers a variety of courses, including vegetarian foods and nutrition, baking, cake decorating, sewing and quilting.
She and husband, Mel, a sales executive for a DuBois radio station, have two adult sons and two grandchildren.
At home, "I can cook, but I really like to bake," she said, noting she enters primarily baking contests but has placed in a couple of contests that have involved cooking, too.
And she rarely follows a recipe to the letter.
"My husband will say he really likes something I made, and I'll tell him, 'You'll never get it the same way again' because I just threw things together."
Perhaps that same creativity is the secret to her contest wins.
Kids off school?
Looking for a fun activity on those winter days off school? Try this:
Children's cooking classes: "Kids in the Kitchen" classes are being offered from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 21) and Presidents' Day (Feb. 18) at Gaynor's School of Cooking on the South Side. gaynorsschoolofcooking.com.
Garden primer: Never even picked up a spade? Never fear! Grow Pittsburgh will teach you all you need to know about vegetable gardening, whether on a balcony or in a vast backyard, in a three-part course. 7 to 9 p.m. Jan. 10, 17 and 24 in the McKelvy Room, East Liberty Presbyterian Church. (Class will repeat later in the spring.) $60 ($50 for Grow Pittsburgh members); please register ahead. growpittsburgh.com.
Take a break from cooking
The Sisters of Saint Francis of the Providence of God invite you to take a break from cooking and patronize their monthly Soup Take Out on Wednesday, Jan. 9. Choices include homemade Wedding Soup, Broccoli Soup and Chili for $5 a quart. Orders must be placed by today by calling 412- 885-7232. Orders can be picked up from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Sisters' Motherhouse, 3603 McRoberts Road, Whitehall.
Chocolate cherry cordials
In case you missed it in Parade, here is Pam Correll's winning recipe.
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon rum extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
30 maraschino cherries, drained (reserve juice) and patted dry with paper towels
2 tablespoons sugar, for coating
For the glaze
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon rum extract
4 teaspoons maraschino cherry juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar, egg and rum extract until light and fluffy. Add flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Beat well.
Flatten about 1 tablespoon dough. Place a cherry on top; mold dough around it. Roll in sugar. Repeat with remaining dough.
Place cookies 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake 8 minutes. Cool on a rack.
For glaze, whisk ingredients and spoon over cookies.
Makes 30 cookies.
-- Pam Correll in Parade Magazine
Rebecca Sodergren: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter: @pgfoodevents. First Published January 3, 2013 5:00 AM