While Sue Compton was practicing her recipe for the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest, she tried to "vary the victims" by baking for her son, his friends, her coworkers, and her retired mother's social groups - the bridge club, the domino club, the Red Hat Society.
Now they all can say they sampled a million-dollar tart.
Compton, 56, a mortgage-loan processor and amateur cookie baker from Burlington County, was named the $1 million grand-prize winner of the 44th Pillsbury Bake-Off Wednesday.
Compton captured the top spot with her Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups, which she prepared at Monday's Bake-Off in Orlando, Fla. Compton won the "Sweet Treats" category, and was flown to Chicago along with the three other category finalists to appear on Oprah Winfrey's show Wednesday. Pillsbury left the finale of the world's richest culinary contest - the announcement of the $1 million winner - to the media mogul and her flour-friendly demographic.
In addition to the money, to be paid in an annuity, Compton won a GE range and $7,000 worth of other appliances that, she said, she might have trouble fitting into her kitchen.
Before Wednesday, she said, her proudest accomplishment was "having a baby." Her son, Jonathan, 29, who accompanied her to Orlando and Chicago, is a third-year medical student at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
While this was Compton's first time entering the contest, her son's friends call her "Mama Compton" and know that batches of cookies are constantly coming out of the oven.
"I won't have to worry about supporting her," said Jonathan Compton. His parents are divorced.
Hoopla and flash are terms not usually associated with Compton, who grew up on her parents' peach orchard in Burlington. She has worked for 11 years at Greentree Mortgage in Marlton, lives in a simple Colonial on a quiet street in Delanco, and drives a silver Mini Cooper.
She said she submitted to a makeover before Wednesday's Oprah appearance. Producers took her shopping and bought her a new outfit - "bright colors that would look good on TV," she said. "I decided to trust that they have an eye for what looks good." Stylists redid her straight, shoulder-length hair and applied makeup.
"It was a new experience," she said.
"It all seemed so strange," her son said.
She called Winfrey "wonderful," and though she only met her on stage just before showtime, she said, "she makes a real effort to make you feel at ease."
Compton's boss, Greentree president and chief executive John Mirenda, called her "a million-dollar person - a nice, decent human being." Mirenda said employees knew that she would go far in the Bake-Off after they sampled the recipe during an office birthday party in February. Mirenda hosted a viewing party for employees at a sports bar while Compton was flying home.
It was not clear when she would return to work.
"I'm hoping my life will stay like it is now," she said. "I'm hoping I have more free time so I can do things that I don't have time for now - cooking and sewing and volunteer work." She said she did not plan to leave her job.
Her recipe creates an attractive, but simple dessert: a "cup" made of ready-to-bake sugar cookies (baked in a mini cupcake pan) with a rim of melted chocolate and walnuts; the cup is layered with a spoonful of raspberry jam, then a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and topped with a fresh raspberry.
Compton averted early disaster during the contest, when, working on Range Number 84, she quickly realized that she had shut off the GE electric convection oven instead of setting the temperature. "Where's my little gas stove?" she said in mock alarm.
Perhaps it was something in the water, but the Philadelphia region fielded more Bake-Off finalists than any other - all told, 12 people from Reading to the Shore. Ohio, in the baking belt, had only eight.
The Bake-Off has come a long way since Mrs. Ralph E. Smafield of Rockford, Ill., won the first one in 1949 with her No-Knead Water-Rising Twists, which called for wrapping the dough in a tea towel and submerging it in warm water to rise.
The top prize went to $1 million in 1996, and the contest is now held every two years. This outing drew more than 10,000 recipes, narrowed down to 100 finalists, who filled a ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria Orlando and Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek Hotel near Walt Disney World to prepare their recipes for judges. They each had four hours.
Compton's road to a sweet million began early last year, when she saw an advertisement in a newspaper coupon section. It asked: "Is your recipe worth $1 million?"
"I considered this a challenge, and entered to find out," she said, adding that she submitted two recipes: Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups and a chewy-crisp oatmeal raisin chocolate chip cookie. She said she bought a cartful of eligible products at the ShopRite market in Delran, and fiddled with them until she came up with the winning entry.
The judges' comments were effusive about the Cookie Cups. "This recipe didn't include many ingredients but they were combined in the most imaginative way possible," said Jonell Nash, a food consultant and former food editor of Essence Magazine, in a quote that Pillsbury provided.
"Easy to serve and still original enough to impress, this is a dessert recipe you can prepare the night before," said judge Jeff Houck, food editor for the Tampa Tribune.
Judge Carolyn Jung of Foodgal.com called it a "souped-up ice cream cone cookie."
Compton's recipe edged out tomato-basil eggs Alfredo in bread baskets, zesty lime fish tacos, and salmon pecan-crusted tartlets.
Asked for advice to prospective contestants, she said: "Just don't be afraid to try."
Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups
Makes 24 tartlets
1 package (16 ounces)
Pillsbury Ready to Bake! refrigerated sugar cookies
4 teaspoons sugar
1/3 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate baking chips
1/4 cup seedless red raspberry jam
1 1/2 cups vanilla ice cream, softened
24 fresh raspberries
1. Heat oven to 350. Spray 24 mini muffin cups with nonstick spray. Place 1 cookie dough round in each muffin cup. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown.
2. Place 2 teaspoons of the sugar in a small bowl. Dip end of wooden spoon handle in sugar; carefully press into center of each cookie to make 1-inch-wide indentation. Cool completely in pan, about 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix walnuts and the remaining 2 teaspoons of sugar; set aside. In small microwavable bowl, microwave chocolate chips uncovered on high 30 to 60 seconds, stirring after 30 seconds, until smooth.
4. Run knife around edges of cups to loosen; gently remove from pan. Dip rim of each cup into melted chocolate, then into walnut mixture. Place walnut side up on cookie sheet with sides.
5. In another small microwavable bowl, microwave jam uncovered on high about 15 seconds, until melted. Spoon half a teaspoon of jam into each cup. Freeze cups about 5 minutes or until chocolate is set.
6. Spoon ice cream into cups, using small cookie scoop or measuring tablespoon. Top each cup with a fresh raspberry. Store in freezer; let stand at room temperature 5 minutes before serving.
Per tartlet: 150 calories, 1 gram protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 60 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.