Bradenton Herald – On a recent Wednesday morning, JoAnn Belack’s kitchen was immaculate. With every cookbook, pot and pan in its place.
But walk into Belack’s home in El Conquistador during a certain time of day — say supper time, for instance — and it wouldn’t take long for your nose to realize you are standing in the home of a die-hard cook, where delectable experiments often take place.
Culinary skills run strong in Belack’s Italian blood.
“Cooking and food has been right up there for me my whole life,” said Belack, 62, who comes from a big family of New Jersey Italians.
One of her recent creations, dubbed “Mamma Mia” Ravioli Bites, is apparently so enticing that it has made the Bradenton resident one of 100 finalists nationwide in the 44th annual Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest.
If her appetizer is chosen as the tastiest dish of them all, she will win the grand prize of $1 million, plus an assortment of GE kitchen appliances worth $7,000 and a GE Profile Induction Free-Standing Range.
The prizes, particularly the free-standing range, would make any cooking enthusiast salivate.
“This is the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards of contests,” Belack said. “It’s like winning the lottery. Just being able to go and compete; to do this is just every contester’s dream. It really is.”
The bake-off finals are April 11-13 in Orlando. There, Belack will create her dish for judges, the press and other foodies.
This is the first time in Belack’s 25-plus years of entering that she has been a finalist. Her entry this year included eight dishes, which competed with more than 10,000 other recipes, Belack said.
The contest offers four categories: Breakfast and Brunches, Entertaining Appetizers, Dinner Made Easy and Sweet Treats.
The ravioli bites — a family recipe with Belack’s own special twist — is in the Entertaining Appetizers category. Those eager to know what the recipe entails will have to wait until January when Pillsbury reveals it on its Web site. Until then, it’s top secret.
Belack is used to the secrecy, though. In all, she’s created more than 300 recipes for various contests, averaging 10 contests per month.
You can imagine how often she’s in the kitchen.
“Cooking is her obsession,” said Belack’s husband, Steve. “It seriously is. She’s very food oriented. Believe me, it’s more than a hobby.”
Her previous winnings from food contests include taking second place in the Taste of Home Cookie Creations Contest, and she was also a finalist in a Sandra Lee contest. As a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-off, she’s already been awarded $125, a GE Microwave and a free trip to the Waldorf-Astoria Orlando and Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek hotel where the competition will be held. She’ll be taking her husband, mother and sister.
Her family couldn’t be more proud.
Steve believes she has a good chance of winning the million-dollar grand prize.
“Because she seems to have a lucky star or something,” he said. “I think it’s a great finger food.”
Belack’s cooking roots go back to Italy, where her grandparents carried the family tradition of making meals from scratch to the states. She grew up with Sunday meals being a big production, with enough food to feed an extended family of 25.
“We would have dinner and my grandfather would be planning the next day’s meal,” said Belack, who has lived in the Bradenton/Sarasota area for nearly 40 years.
Belack cultivated her cooking talents with her grandmother. She would be at her side in the kitchen, with her own set of children’s cookware, including tiny pots and pans. Grandma would always share some of her fresh dough with Belack, who would then throw in any ingredient she could get her hands on to make her own dish.
“It smelled horrible,” Belack recalled of those early moments in the kitchen. “But I was so proud of it. It was so exciting when it came out of the oven.”
No one dared to eat those early confections.
Now, decades later, just being invited to the Belack home is an honor, friends tell Belack and her husband.
“I’ve done tons of entertaining over the years,” said Belack, who is also an artist specializing in pottery. “I love having friends over. I love all the cooking in my Italian heritage, but I’ve made every kind of ethnic food you can imagine. I love exploring all the different kinds of ethnic food.”
Mention desserts and Belack automatically thinks chocolate. She gets a kick out of making scrumptious chocolate treats such as Fudgy Coconut Patty Brownie Tarts — her favorite.
While Belack often has something stirring in the kitchen, neither her nor her husband’s waistline hasn’t suffered. People sometimes ask Steve why he isn’t 300 pounds.
It isn’t easy to stay fit when the food tastes so good.
“You have to be careful to be around that kind of a cook,” he said. “They can make something as simple as a chili dog taste great.”
published Dec. 25, 2009