Christina Verrelli, a 43-year-old Main Line mother, reshaped an old-fashioned pumpkin pie into a trendy "ravioli" dessert topped with salted caramel whipped cream to win the 45th Pillsbury Bake-Off and $1 million.
"Oh, my God, I'm over the moon," said Verrelli, who lives in Devon with her husband, Louis, and two daughters, 7 and 9. She was still a little shocked moments after she appeared on The Martha Stewart Show Tuesday morning. "I'm in surreal land right now," she said in an interview from Orlando, where the event was held. "It doesn't feel quite real yet."
How will she spend the million?
"Well, college," she said. "And the house needs new windows. . . . Like most Americans, it's been lean for the last couple of years with the recession and all - and now we just started a new business and my husband's been working a couple of jobs to pay the bills."
Did she figure out the secret to winning?
"Pillsbury wants recipes that people are going to want to make, that are simple and familiar but also new," she said. Hence, the reinvention of an old favorite with a new twist. The contest rules are many; most significantly, contestants must create recipes that include General Mills products.
A lifelong cook, Verrelli spent hours of her childhood in the kitchen with her mother, making her grandmother's recipes, but also experimenting. "I was the youngest of six, so I got extra time in the kitchen. . . . My mom was happy to let me make the meal, she would let me make a mess and she would help me clean up."
While enrolled in Methacton High School near Collegeville, where she managed the swim team, she baked chocolate chip cookies and brownies - from scratch - to take to the away meets.
"I think I've always enjoyed cooking," she said.
As she got older, she read cooking magazines and watched television cooking shows, long before Food Network, idolizing Julia Child, the Galloping Gourmet, Marianne Esposito. In her 20s, before she had children, she watched Martha Stewart while she worked out at the gym.
As a mother with young daughters, she continued to experiment and try new recipes. Two years ago, she entered the Pillsbury contest on a whim and, in her first attempt, made it as one of the final 100 contestants.
"I had a great experience," she said, "so it just became a really cool hobby."
For her prizewinning recipe, Verrelli channeled the memory of rolling out dough like her grandmother. "This recipe reminds me of that," she said. The dough in this case, however, is a Pillsbury product: crescent dough in sheet form. She cut it into raviolis, for something different, filling the squares with pumpkin pie-like filling and baking them until golden.
She wanted to replicate the dipping sauce of a favorite dessert, fried doughnuts dipped in chocolate. But the chocolate was too heavy. She knew salted caramel was a popular trend, but still heavy. So she drizzled a little caramel syrup in whipped cream and added a sprinkle of pecans.
And a prizewinner was born.
One of the judges, Lynn Blanchard, Test Kitchen director at Better Homes and Gardens, said Verrelli's recipe was "truly reminiscent of the crispy pie crust my grandmother used to make."
Another judge, Jeff Houck, food editor at the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, said the recipe "really pushed the boundaries on the definition of a ravioli."
Other local winners who received lesser prizes included Donna Wolfe of Hamilton, N.J., in the "Dinner Made Easy" category, for her Chicken Empanada Cones, and Brett Youmans of Reading, whose recipe for Orange Cream-Macadamia Torte won as the best recipe using Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk.
Verrelli described herself as a stay-at-home mother, though her husband, a musician, recently bought Brownies 23 East, a music venue and bar in Ardmore, which she will be helping him run.
Verrelli said she was a little nervous in the competition kitchen, but life as a home cook and mother had prepared her well.
"When you cook at home, you have a million distractions. You have to get someone to piano and make a kid's meal. . . . Here, I had no one pulling at my pants saying 'Where are my sneakers?' or 'Can you sign my homework sheet?' " she said.
"I had four whole hours, all my ingredients, no dishes to wash," she said. "It was almost relaxing."
Makes 12 servings
4 tablespoons butter, melted
2 packages (3 ounces each) cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/3 cup chopped pecans, finely chopped
2 cans Pillsbury Crescent Recipe Creations refrigerated seamless dough sheet
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons Hershey's caramel syrup
4 tablespoons cinnamon sugar
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Brush 2 large cookie sheets with 2 tablespoons of the melted butter.
2. In large bowl, beat cream cheese and pumpkin with electric mixer on medium speed about 1 minute or until smooth.
3. Add egg yolk, vanilla, sugar, 3 tablespoons of flour, and pumpkin pie spice; beat on low speed until blended.
4. Reserve 4 teaspoons of the pecans; set aside. Stir remaining pecans into pumpkin mixture.
5. Lightly sprinkle work surface with 1 tablespoon of the flour. Unroll 1 can of dough on floured surface with a short side facing you. Press dough into 14-by-12-inch rectangle. With paring knife, lightly score the dough in half horizontally. Lightly score bottom half of dough into 12 squares (3-by-2-by-1/4-inch each).
6. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of the pumpkin filling onto center of each square. Gently lift and position unscored half of dough over filling. Starting at the top folded edge, press handle of wooden spoon firmly between mounds and along edges of pumpkin filling to seal.
7. Using toothpick, poke a small hole in the top of each ravioli. Using a pizza cutter or sharp knife, cut between each ravioli; place 1 inch apart on cookie sheets. Repeat with remaining 1 tablespoon flour, dough sheet, and filling. Brush ravioli with remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter.
8. Bake 9 to 14 minutes or until golden brown.
9. Meanwhile, in medium bowl, beat whipping cream and salt with electric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form. Beat in 2 tablespoons of the caramel syrup until stiff peaks form. Transfer to serving bowl; cover and refrigerate.
10. Remove ravioli from oven. Sprinkle ravioli with 2 tablespoons cinnamon sugar; turn. Sprinkle with remaining cinnamon sugar.
11. To serve, place 2 ravioli on each of 12 dessert plates. Drizzle each serving with a scant teaspoon of the caramel syrup; sprinkle with reserved chopped pecans. With spoon, swirl remaining 1 tablespoon caramel syrup into bowl of whipped cream. Serve warm ravioli with whipped cream.
Per serving: 325 calories, 5 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 57 milligrams cholesterol, 427 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber