First Pillsbury Bake-Off 1949

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Do you know Mrs. Ralph E. Smafield from Detroit, Michigan?  Do you know why you should know her?

Mrs. Smafield was the first lucky winner of America’s first Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest held in 1949!

Each and every Wednesday, from now until next March, 2012 will be designated “Wednesday Winners.”  I will be making every single Bake-Off Grand Prize winning dish for you, showing the cookbook from each contest, and including fun stories and facts about the recipes, the contestants, and the contest itself.

If you are wondering why I will be doing this until next March, it’s because that’s when the 45th contest will be held in Orlando, Florida, where someone will win $1 million for his or her winning dish.  Let’s get started with the first contest and the first winning dish!

Back in 1949 at the first contest, Harry Truman was president.  Soldiers had returned from the war in the Pacific and Europe, and women moved from their wartime jobs to full-time homemaking.  The rationing of sugar from the war had ended and women started baking up a storm.  During that time, there was a feeling of celebration in the air.  Over at Pillsbury, the president of the company, Phillip Pillsbury, felt like celebrating, too.  He wanted to recognize the unsung heroes of the kitchen and reward them for their culinary talents.  Mr. Pillsbury decided that one of the most glamorous places in the country at this time was the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.  So what if he could find the best 100 cooks in America, treat them like royalty by bringing them all to the Waldorf, and then win money for cooking their best dishes?  The competition was announced, and the Pillsbury Bake-Off was born.

The contest was first known as the “Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest.”  Entries for the Grand National poured in from all over the country.  Many of the people selected had never left their home state, never been on a train, or even stayed in a hotel.  Imagine how they felt on December 13, 1949,  being showered with such luxuries as being served breakfast in bed, a luncheon of pheasant under glass, or even have the opportunity to meet former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and talk with television and radio personality, Art Linkletter.  It was like a dream come true – and it still is today.

This is the first cookbook from the 1949 contest.  It contains all 100 winning recipes using Pillsbury’s Best Flour including Mrs. Smafield’s Grand Prize winning recipe called “No Knead Water-Rising Twists.”  What??  Dough that rises in water?  It’s a very old, but seldom-used way of submerging dough in water to let it rise.  But it was 1949, and Mrs. Smafield had great success with this method.  She entered her sweet and tender nut rolls and won the grand prize at the time of $50,000, a huge amount of money in 1949. That amount of money could buy a house AND a car, with some money left over!  Other prize-winning recipes included $10,000 for “Starlight Mint Surprise Cookies,” $4,000 for “Aunt Carrie’s Bonbon Cake, and  $1,000 each for “Jonquil Sponge Cake,”   “Chocolate-Crusted Pie,” “Mount Vernon Dessert,” “Deauville Dumplings,” “Sea Foam Nut Squares,”  and “Crusty Dinner Rolls.”

Let’s take a look at the winning recipe, “No Knead Water-Rising Twists.”  I was so curious to try this recipe and its strange method of dough rising in water.  After making the yeast dough consisting of simple ingredients like flour, sugar, salt, eggs, milk, yeast, vanilla, and shortening, the dough is placed in a clean tea towel, allowing for space for the dough to rise.  It is then submerged into a large mixing bowl filled with warm water (75 to 80 degrees) and left to stand until the dough rises to the top of the water, which takes about 30-45 minutes.
The dough, which is soft and moist, is removed, divided into 2 dozen equal pieces, rolled in a mixture of sugar, cinnamon, and chopped nuts, then formed into twists and baked.  Here is how they look when finished!  The twists are tender and sweet with a delicate richness.
Come back next Wednesday for week two of Pillsbury Bake-Off winning recipes!  In the meantime, visit for everything you want to know about the Bake-Off contest or to find prize-winning recipes. (Next week, nothing will be submerged in water!)
An amusing note:  In the early Bake-Off books, the women winners did not have their given name printed.  It was always the husband’s name, such as here, Mrs. Ralph E. Smafield.  Just so you know, her lovely name is Theodora!

Bake-Off food photos are taken by my daughter, Kristina Vanni. Check out Kristina’s blog at:

To read more about the Pillsbury Bake-Off go to:

5.0 from 2 reviews
No-Knead Water-Rising Twists
Recipe type: Pillsbury Bake-Off Grand Prize Winner
Cuisine: Bread
Serves: 2 dozen
This recipe was the first Pillsbury Bake-Off winner in 1949.
  • ½ cup shortening
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ cup scalded milk
  • 2 cakes yeast, crumbled, or 2 packages dry yeast dissolved in ¼ cup warm water
  • 3 cups Pillsbury All Purpose Flour, divided
  • 3 eggs
  • ¾ cups chopped nuts (any kind)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  1. Combine shortening, 3 Tablespoons sugar, salt, vanilla, and milk in mixer bowl. Add yeast and mix well. Blend in 1-1/2 cups of the flour and beat until smooth. Cover bowl and let rest for 15 minutes.
  2. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in remaining 1-1/2 cups flour and mix thoroughly. The dough will be quite soft. Let rise in one of two ways: 1) Either set covered dough in warm place about ½ hour, or 2) tie dough in a tea towel, allowing ample space for dough to rise. Then place in large mixing bowl and fill with water (75 to 80 degrees F). Let stand until dough rises to top of water, about 30-45 minutes. Remove from water. The dough will be soft and moist.
  3. Combine nuts, ½ cup sugar, and cinnamon. Divide dough into small pieces with a tablespoon. Roll each piece in sugar-nut mixture; stretch to about an 8-inch length. Twist into a desired shape. Place on greased baking sheet. Let stand for 5 minutes. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 12-15 minutes.

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24 Responses to First Pillsbury Bake-Off 1949

  1. May 18, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    How cool of you to do this. It will be a lot of fun to see all the books and recipes

  2. May 18, 2011 at 8:10 am #

    What a very good idea!

    There is also a reprint of the Pillsbury Bake-Off recipes from 1959,it was on the Barnes and Noble web site.

  3. May 18, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    Isn’t that interesting! Never heard of that method before.

  4. May 18, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    Looks yummy! I think I may give that method of raising dough a try!

  5. May 18, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    It was a very strange method, but it worked!

  6. May 18, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    Thanks for the info, Lesley!

  7. May 18, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    This is a great idea, Debbie! I will be checking back with you often to see these winning recipes!

  8. May 18, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Thanks, Lorie! I am so excited for this project!

  9. May 18, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    How fun! I love the combination of the history and the recipes. I’m going to be following along with your project!

  10. May 18, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    What a fun journey this will be. I hope you have enlisted some taste testers to sample large portions every week! Better on their hips than yours. >wink< I'll be checking in every Wednesday...

  11. May 18, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    This is fabulous! I always try to make the current year’s recipe after it comes out…but this is beyond!

    I think you should contact the PR folks at Pillsbury re: your endeavors. I can totally see a newspaper article coming out of this.

    Good luck,

  12. May 18, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    We have already given away two cakes!

  13. May 18, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

    Amy – I used to do the same thing and make the winner after the contest (sometimes!), but this is going to be a fun journey!

  14. May 19, 2011 at 6:55 am #

    Great post Debbie! And what a way to build the suspense!

  15. May 20, 2011 at 4:49 am #

    Great history lesson and I will be back every day for more, but especially looking forward to Wednesdays. I have a lot of the bake-off books and continue to look for them at tag sales and in old book stores.

  16. May 20, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    Lisa – tell me which ones you are missing for a complete set. I have extras of a lot of them and I’ll send them to you!

  17. May 21, 2011 at 7:29 am #

    What a great post! Last year, The Mill City Museum in Minneapolis had a Pillsbury BakeOff exhibit. Four of the five Minnesota 44th BakeOff contestants met up there for the first time. They had this recipe out for us to sample, but we weren’t impressed. Now I see that it was because of whoever made the recipe. Your rendition looks fantastic! Thanks, Debbie. I’ll be checking in to see all of your posts.

  18. May 21, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    Wow! A Bake-Off exhibit – how fun!! I would love to hear more about it. Does Pillsbury do that often? I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog. Thanks for reading!

  19. June 22, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    I know her because she was my mother! There were two different tokens you could use to double your prize winnings. One wooden and the other, plastic. The original prize was $25,000. She had a token which doubled it. She entered the contest because she really wanted a trip to New York and a new GE stove.
    I hadn’t been born yet but I remember the 1949 one. It was in our kitchen until 11 years later when she went back to New York to be on the Art Linkletter show and GE gave her a second one.
    She knew she wasn’t going to win so she went shopping and almost missed the banquet. When she got back to the hotel she had been caught in the rain and they threw her back together and seated her next to Mrs. Roosevelt, mom thought they ran out of seats!
    It was so funny hearing her talk about it. This is a little known fact, her station number was 93, I am not making all this up.

  20. February 18, 2014 at 9:28 am #

    I’m so excited to find your blog because I have a HUGE request! My grandmother, Ruth Underwood, was one of the 100 finalists at the first Pillsbury bake-off. Her recipe was “Dotted Swiss Cake.” This weekend, at the age of 87, my sweet, amazing baker gramma passed away, and while we have the original letter from the Pillsbury company inviting her to the competition and a news write-up about it, we have been unable to find the recipe. We were hoping to make it for her Celebration of Life service this weekend. It looks like you have the cookbook that would have her recipe! Could you send me that recipe ([email protected])? Thank you so very much!

    • February 20, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

      Hi Brooke! I am just seeing your comment now, and it is February 20th. So sorry I didn’t see this earlier. It sounds like I still have time to send this to you, so I will do it ASAP via email! What a wonderful story about your beloved grandmother – I am so excited that you wrote!

  21. December 21, 2017 at 12:33 am #

    Is this a book that can be purchased with all the winning recipes in it. I’m looking for recipes of the year my sister was born (1949) and this would be great to have
    Can anyone tell me how I can purchase this book? Would appreciate any help on this

    • December 31, 2017 at 8:48 pm #

      Hi Maryann- Since the 1949 booklet was the first Bake-Off (called the Grand National back then), it can be a little difficult to find and sometimes expensive. The best place is eBay or I have also seen it in antique stores. Good luck! It’s a great gift idea for your sister.

    • August 31, 2023 at 6:59 am #

      I know it’s 6 years later, but the Internet Archive has thousands of cookbooks to read that you can digitally borrow or take screenshots of and it is completely searchable.

      The filterable categories, which include year published, are on the left side of the page.

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