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Jody Walker's Creamy Corn-filled Sweet Peppers
Jody Walker's Creamy Corn-filled Sweet Peppers / Joe Ellis/The Herald
Jody Walker of Madison is one of four finalists for the annual Pillsbury Bake-Off, and its $1 million prize, with her Creamy Corn-filled Sweet Peppers. / Joe Ellis/The Herald

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The Pillsbury Doughboy ceramic cookie jar has been on Jody Walker’s kitchen counter in Madison for years, but this day he seems as prescient as he is pudgy.

Walker is among four finalists in a heated run toward the finish in the 47th Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest and a $1 million grand prize. Her Creamy Corn-Filled Sweet Peppers cinched a win in the contest’s Savory Snacks & Sides category when Walker was among 100 home cook semi-finalists in Nashville Nov. 3.

Now her recipe will have to muscle out Cuban-style sandwich pockets, peanutty pie crust clusters and chocolate doughnut poppers to nab the big win. She’ll go to New York City Dec. 1-3 for the final stage, where she and the other finalists will demonstrate recipes on “The Chew” on Dec. 2. Celebrity chef Carla Hall will announce the winner on “The Chew” Dec. 3.

In the meantime, the public can help boost Walker’s chances. For the first time, the public can help select the contest’s grand prize winner online at http://pillsbury.com/vote. You must be 18 or older, a U.S. resident and have a Facebook account to vote; and you can only vote once. The deadline’s 9:59 p.m. Dec. 2. Public votes will be combined with the judges’ score to determine the winner.

With yearly requests from contest judge wannabes, the Pillsbury Bake-Off added a public voting component to let America weigh in on which recipe should win, said Shera Balgobin, Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest manager. “We are hoping this participation component will get people in the kitchen, trying these great recipes for themselves!” And while Mississippi has boasted several Bake-Off finalists through the contest’s history, Walker is the state’s first finalist to receive a prize.

Walker recalled that setting of 100 semi-finalists, cooking on the spot in the ballroom of the Omni Hotel in Nashville. She was among only 22 who were first-timers. The rest were old hands, having competed in the Bake-Off two or three times before. “At this point, I’m going, ‘Oh, my. I’m way out of my league here,’ “ but she took her own advice: “Take a big breath and do your best.” That’s where she found success.

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Her category award was a burnished gold doughboy with a guitar. Now, she’s focused on getting votes with appearances, interviews and the help of friends and family.

Her older sister (by only 11 months) and “bestest girlfriend,” Sandy Ham of Nashville, had urged her to enter. Walker, 59, had followed the contest for many years and even submitted a recipe about 16 years ago. “It’s one of these thought patterns of, ‘That’s never going to happen.’ “ Now, the pact they’d made years back to split the grand prize should either win — seems a better possibility than ever before.

She’d been reluctant to accept the challenge at first. Then, ideas started cooking. In an aim to eat healthier, she’d been eating a “truckload, I’m telling you, of these little mini sweet peppers.” One day, munching on one, it struck her, “These are the cutest things.”

She channeled creativity through the contest guidelines and eligible products. Green Giant “Steamers” frozen honey roasted sweet corn caught her eye, calling to mind the “very memorable” hot corn dip from her daughter’s wedding. “I got to thinking, corn and cheeses, put some spice in there with Watkins Italian Seasoning ...” On the bread end, cut strips of Pillsbury Crescent Recipe Creations dough sheets did the trick without covering the cuteness.

It fit her bill of an innovative, versatile appetizer that’d make a lasting impression. “I’m about making memories, OK?” This one could go from casual to formal, holiday, tea, luncheon, lunchbox, shower or more. It can be partially made ahead, and “They are a blast” to make with grandchildren or family. Flavor marries sweet and savory, sharp and mellow, creamy and flaky. “It’s a party in your mouth.”

Walker’s husband, the Rev. Phil Walker, pastor at Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Madison, said her category win wasn’t really a surprise for him. “She’s always been a great cook, and she’s always been creative with trying different things. ... She takes a recipe and makes it her own.”

And while she’s been known to fondly tease her husband about a Pillsbury Doughboy kinship — “not that he’s overweight ... he is so squeezable!” — now she’s met the real one, too.

Did she poke him? “Oh, I did! I gave him a high five!”

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