Throughout history, people’s surnames were descriptors of their occupations – Smith, Cooper, Miller... Baker.
For Mary Baker, her surname is more a reflection of her avocation. The Wauwatosa resident, a grant writer and fundraiser, is a perennial winner in the Tosafest Bake-Off.
For Baker, she went from cooking and feeding family and friends to the heat of competition by way of a broken down car.
“I was sitting looking through a magazine while I was waiting to have my car serviced and saw an ad for a national chili competition,” she said. “The first prize was a new pickup truck.”
Call it serendipity, but she went home and started fooling around with her chili recipe and entered the competition. That was about 12 years ago. Baker didn’t win the truck, but she did win second place – “a truckload of prizes” – with a chili recipe that included a variety of beans, spices, a bit of brown sugar and zucchini.
Her competitive nature and love of cooking stirred, Baker noticed that Tosafest had a bake-off contest.
“It started with cakes, pies and chili,” she said. Baker entered her chili and a carrot cake, winning first place with both.
Baker continued to enter the annual event. “I’m a competitive person," she said. "I like the thrill of winning.
"I have no modesty whatsoever when it comes to my baking. One year, my sister had all five of her sons and her husband sign up to judge – that was when you could still do that – in order to stack the odds against me, and I still won."
Another year, she said, her sister took Baker's chili to a local butcher, who bragged about his own chili, for his opinion, and he gave it a thumbs down. "So I froze that chili, entered it in the bake-off and won."
Learning through love
Baker admits she doesn’t always win – "This year my chili bombed," she said – and she hasn’t always even been a good cook.
When she and her husband, John, were first married, the young bride decided to make a fish recipe for dinner. She can’t remember if she baked the fish too long – about 90 minutes, she thinks – or did something wrong with the recipe.
“It was like fish soup,” she said.
After serving John a plateful, she left the kitchen for a moment. When she returned, his plate was empty. Had he loved it so much he woofed it down?
“No, it was so bad he tossed it in the garbage,” she said with a laugh.
For Baker, it was a rookie mistake. For her husband, it was the first bite of the rapid rise of her culinary abilities. Baker hadn’t really cooked or baked until she was married and had children. She and John have a son and a daughter in college.
“Through the years, it’s been our house where people have gathered,” she said. “I love to entertain. I love when people love my food.”
Every year Baker spends days preparing Thanksgiving dinner – a sit-down dinner for 30 for which, she said, “I make everything from scratch.”
An eye on the big prize
Baker loves to cook and bake as a creative outlet. She is constantly scouring cookbooks and the internet for recipes that she can rework with different ingredients, she said. “It can take hours to develop a recipe.”
Carrot cake, cheesecake and banana split cake have been some of her winning items for the Tosafest Bake-off. This year, out of 25 cakes entered, she won with her Rocky Road Crunch cake. She also won in the open-class category with her carrot soup.
“I know it doesn’t sound like it, but it's really delicious,” she said.
This spring, Baker entered the Pillsbury Bake-off, as she has done off and on throughout the years.
“It’s my goal to be a semi-finalist,” she said. The national competition is the big time in cooking contests, with prize money totaling $1 million. Contestants get two lists of Pillsbury products. The goal is to make something original and delicious that includes two items from either list.
Baker said it’s very time consuming and takes a lot of experience to develop a winning Pillsbury recipe. The winners will be announced at the end of September. And so she waits.
Food is a way of loving people, Baker said. And if she can win some prizes along the way, all the better.