Our dare: Make three garlicky hors d'oeuvres using five ingredients or fewer.
We challenged: Michael Cohen, who took second place in the 2009 Great Gilroy Garlic Festival Recipe Contest and Cook-Off and has collected $50,000 in three years.
His secrets? Borrow ideas from everywhere, whether cookbooks from the library or recipes online. Michael thinks it's good for your food to look and sound delicious to your guests. "I try to get three or four of the main ingredients in the title," he says. "And then there are always the buzzwords like 'tuscan' and 'chipotle' -- a lot of winning recipes have those words. Or try to evoke a mood with a regional name, like Appalachian Corn Stew."
Our dare: Make a vegetarian chili fit for a carnivore.
We challenged: Steve and Bonnie Tomasek Sedalia, who have each placed in the International Chili Society World’s Championship Chili Cookoff dozens of times, and together have won more than 100 championships and collected more than $75,000 in prize money.
Their secrets? "We prefer a heavier pot called a Magnalite, which cooks with an even heat," says Bonnie. They like using tri-tip instead of chuck tender, which is more fibrous, or stew meat, which doesn't have flavor. Browning the meat on all sides in hot-but-not-smoking oil is key, too. Many competitors add a touch of brown sugar to their red chili. "About a teaspoon per gallon," says Bonnie. "It reduces the acidity of the tomatoes." Finally, watch the heat. Per pound of meat, go for 2 to 3 tablespoons of chili powder and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne.
Our dare: Turn a cheap cut of beef into a luxurious main course.
We challenged: Christine Riccitelli, who won the Grand Prize in the 27th National Beef Cook-Off and has collected more than $100,000 over the years.
Her secrets? Pick the right kind of beef. Try sirloin steak or beef chuck cross rib steak (also called english roast). She recommends brining: "Take the top round or chuck, heavily coat it with kosher salt and let sit for at least 90 minutes. The salt will start to break down the toughness of the meat. Rinse the salt off, pat it dry, season it with pepper and garlic, and grill or pan-fry it." Another way to soften tougher meats? Braising.
Our dare: Make a layer cake from scratch in 30 minutes or less.
We challenged: Cynthia Bowser, a finalist in the Pillsbury Bake-Off two years in a row, who has collected cash and prizes worth more than $3,000 in two years.
Her secrets? Great bakers know that the process of emulsifying butter and sugar essentially beats air bubbles into the mixture, which makes light and airy cakes. Butter holds these air bubbles best at room temp. Also, keep a close watch: Many recipes will say, "Bake to a light golden-brown" or "dark golden-brown." These visual cues can trump baking times. Another tip: Remove cookies from a sheet (or tartlets from a pan) after they've cooled slightly, but while they're still warm -- 2 to 3 minutes out of the oven. Too hot and they'll break apart; too cooled, they'll stick.
Our dare: Make any dessert except pie using a store-bought pie crust.
We challenged: Christine Montalvo, who collected 300 ribbons in the Iowa State Fair, was a finalist at a Betty Crocker cookie contest and repeatedly places tops in the National Pie Championships. Her secrets? When ripe, in-season fruit isn't available, Christine uses what she's got in the freezer. She also keeps her piecrust cold, using frozen shortening and butter. "When you roll out the dough, you can see pieces of fat, which is a good thing. They melt in the oven, and you get flaky layers," she says. Christine prefers glass or pyrex pans, because "you can tell if your crust is baked at the bottom." Also, she likes to have an oven thermometer so she knows the oven's true temperature. Finally, you can pretty things up with fresh fruit and whipped cream, and high fluting around the crust. "People eat with their eyes first," she explains.