Chris Caston of Jonesboro has been cooking all his life, so it was no surprise to those who knew him well when he entered the 44th annual Pillsbury Bake-Off contest, seeking to win the $1 million grand prize.
But after submitting three recipes last fall — a Danish ring made with marmalade, raisins and nuts, a Fluffernutter pie, and Chai Brownie Cupcakes with Creamy Froth — even Caston was shocked when he got a telephone call in October naming him one of the country’s 100 finalists, and the only one from Maine.
Pillsbury is flying him to Orlando, Fla., for the April 12 competition.
“The funny part,” he said Saturday as he baked the cupcakes, the qualifying entry, “is that my wife is always the baker. I usually make more savory recipes.”
But playing with food and creating his own recipes has always been a passion for Caston.
The youngest of three boys, and the only one with a passion for cooking, Caston watched his grandfather take the lead role in the kitchen. “I wanted to be just like him,” he said.
But instead of heading off to culinary school, Caston thought he should pursue something “more serious.” Today he is the inventory food specialist for Look’s Gourmet Foods in Whiting.
“This, the cooking, is naturally what I should be doing, though,” he admitted. And if he wins the $1 million grand prize, Caston said a cooking career is likely in his future.
As he baked his cupcakes and whipped his frosting and the kitchen began filling with the smells of spiced tea and chocolate, Caston explained that the Pillsbury contest offers two lists of foods, and entrants must pick one ingredient from each list.
“I picked Pillsbury chocolate fudge brownie mix, and that is part of the innovation of this recipe. I’m creating a cupcake from a brownie mix,” he said.
Because he uses Chai tea to flavor the little treats, Caston said his recipe is “more of an adult cupcake.” The simple white frosting sprinkled with cinnamon is also something adults will like, he said.
“And I pile the frosting on high,” he said. “After all, cupcakes are a celebration. They’re not like a tortilla.”
Caston said creating one’s own recipes takes “a weird imagination. Who would think to combine Marshmallow Fluff and Cool Whip, or tea and brownie mix?”
His Chai Chocolate cupcake recipe is designed for anyone to make with simple, easy-to-obtain ingredients: brownie mix, Chai tea bags, eggs and oil. His frosting is simple yet delicious: Marshmallow Fluff beaten into Cool Whip.
“I was thinking of coffee shops and how they float the whipped cream on top,” he said.
As of Saturday, Caston’s recipe was the most popular on the Pillsbury Bake-Off Web site, which includes all the finalists’ recipes and encourages feedback. His cupcakes have earned five out of five stars.
“I’m flabbergasted,” he said. “I think I’ve hooked onto something good here. I think I’ve got a pretty good shot.”
Caston’s and the other 99 finalists’ recipes can be found at www.pillsbury.com/BakeOff/Default.aspx.
Chai Brownie Cupcakes with Creamy Froth
10 tea bags spiced chai-flavored black tea
1 cup boiling water
1 box (19.5 oz) Pillsbury® Chocolate Fudge Brownie Mix
¾ cup Crisco® Pure Canola Oil
3 EGGLAND’S BEST eggs
¾ cup frozen (thawed) extra-creamy whipped topping
¾ cup marshmallow creme
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Place paper baking cup in each of 12 regular-size muffin cups.
In 2-cup glass measuring cup, steep tea bags in boiling water 5 minutes. Using back of spoon, press tea bags against side of cup to make ¾ cup tea. Discard tea bags. If necessary, add enough water so tea measures ¾ cup.
In large bowl, stir brownie mix, oil, eggs and tea with wooden spoon until well blended. Divide batter evenly among cups (cups will be almost full).
Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out almost clean. Remove from pan to cooling rack. Cool about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, in medium bowl, beat whipped topping and marshmallow creme on medium speed about 3 minutes or until fluffy. Refrigerate while cupcakes cool. Generously frost cupcakes with topping mixture; sprinkle with cinnamon.