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Rich Dessert
Systems expert Steven Mandell takes a national prize for his
chocolate invention.

"Even though we were competing against each other, it was collegial," says Steve Mandell. "Everybody on the Bake-Off floor encourages everyone else."

On Feb. 26, Hopkins Hospital's senior director of clinical information systems stood alone in front of one of a hundred ovens set up in long rows in the enormous ballroom of the Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando, Fla. Mano a GE range, Steve Mandell had five hours and just enough ingredients to make three copies of his Milleniyum Chocolate Torte, the decadent chocolate and cream confection that had brought him to the finals of the Pillsbury Bake-Off. The top prize was $1 million, Marie "a little bit country" Osmond was the awards program host, and the anonymous judges' taste buds were a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

For this biennial event -which awards the largest cash prize of any national cooking contest -security was so tight for fear of smuggled-in secret ingredients that women were barred from carrying pocketbooks, and only media and Pillsbury executives were allowed anywhere near the abutting, identical kitchenettes.

Those who crack under the strain of whipping up dinner for visiting in-laws need not apply.

Despite the pressure, Mandell, a runner who's logged over 400 miles in 16 marathons, focused on crossing the finish line. "We were really competing against ourselves," Mandell says.

Of the 40,000 recipes submitted for the 52nd year of the Bake-Off, only 100 of the most inventive, photogenic and delicious dishes made it to Orlando. "It was an honor and great fun to be there," Mandell says. "You just want to do your own personal best." His best effort brought home $2,000 as one of the top four in his category, Fast and Fabulous Desserts & Treats, as well as recognition as one of the top amateur chefs in the United States.

Looking back on his path to Pillsbury success, Mandell, whose group at Hopkins is responsible for building, selecting and maintaining the computer systems designed to support the clinical community, credits a recipe of family, friends and experimental science. His father was a cook in the U.S. Army during World War II, and when he returned from France he opened a deli in East Baltimore. Mandell grew up cooking during the deli's 40-year run. He began working in the deli when he was 8. "An appreciation for good food has always been a part of my life," he says.

He'd known about the Bake-Off for years, but a few years ago when friends told him about their own experiences in the contest, he became intrigued. Mandell computed the odds of winning $1 million-roughly one in 40,000-and decided they were pretty good. If he became a finalist, those odds dramatically improved to one in 100. And the notion of creating a special recipe that used particular Pillsbury ingredients was a challenge that sounded like fun. In restaurants, Mandell and his wife ("She's actually a better baker than me," he says) would eat an especially tasty dessert and reverse-engineer the ingredients, devising ways to use Pillsbury products. "It was a kibbitz," he says. "I entered on a lark."

Robert Romero, senior director of engineering and technical services, wouldn't classify himself as a regular baker, but he was inspired to try the recipe after he and his colleagues watched Mandell on the live television awards program. "It's relatively easy to make and my family loved the dessert," Romero said. "When I brought some to work, it disappeared in very short order."

An admitted chocoholic who eats at least a small amount each day, Mandell plans to compete in 2004, but says it's far too early to know what he'll make.

He does know, however, that it will have something to do with chocolate.

-Seth Hurwitz

The recipe for Steve Mandell's Milleniyum Chocolate Torte starts with a package of Pillsbury's Thick 'n Fudgy Chocolate Chunk Deluxe Brownie Mix. Despite the artistry that went into its creation, the dense, restaurant-quality dessert is basic science to make. "In true scientific fashion, the evidence is such that you can repeat it and it works," Mandell says.

1 cup whipping cream
1 12-ounce package (2 cups) semisweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon instant coffee granules or crystals
1/4 cup butter
3 tablespoons water
1 15.5-ounce package Pillsbury Thick 'n Fudgy Chocolate Chunk Deluxe Brownie Mix
2 eggs
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened

PREPARATION TIME: 20 minutes (ready in 3 hours 30 minutes)

1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease 10- or 9-inch springform pan. Heat whipping cream in medium saucepan over medium heat until very hot. Do not boil. Stir in chocolate chips until melted and smooth. Set aside. (Mixture will thicken.)
2. In small saucepan, combine coffee granules, butter and water; heat over medium heat until butter is melted, stirring occasionally. In large bowl, combine coffee mixture, brownie mix and 1 of the eggs; mix well. Spread batter in greased pan.
3. Beat cream cheese in small bowl until light and fluffy. Add remaining egg; beat until smooth. Add 1/2 cup of the chocolate mixture; blend well. Spread evenly over brownie mixture in pan.
4. Bake at 350°F. until top springs back when touched lightly in center and surface appears dry. For 10-inch pan, bake 35 to 45 minutes; for 9-inch pan, bake 45 to 55 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Run knife around sides of pan to loosen; remove sides of pan. Cool
11/4 hours or until completely cooled.
5. Place torte on serving platter. Spread remaining chocolate mixture over top of torte, letting mixture run down sides. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or until chilled. If desired, serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Store in refrigerator.
Makes 16 servings

Add 3 tablespoons flour to dry brownie mix. Bake as directed above.




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