Baking is a recipe for family time

Appleton’s Barb Estabrook says kitchen can bridge generations

ALLOUEZ — Barb Estabrook loves baking delicious, award-winning dishes and pastries from homemade recipes. The only greater joy, she said, is sharing her love of baking with her family. 

Estabrook, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Appleton, is one of Wisconsin’s most celebrated bakers. After retiring as a real estate agent in 2000, Estabrook began entering baking contests. In 20 years, she estimates she’s entered more than 200 contests sponsored by food companies and restaurants.

Barb Estabrook, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Appleton, is pictured with her granddaughter, Alyssa Ellis, at the 2019 Sutter Home “Build a Better Burger Contest” in Detroit. Estabrook introduced her granddaughter to baking contests when she was 5. She is now teaching her great-great grandsons how to bake. (Submitted photo | For The Compass)

The first baking contest she entered in 1999 was the Pillsbury Bake-Off. She was a 2000 finalist in that competition for her “Honey-Of-A Pear Cake” recipe and won a trip to San Francisco for the Bake-Off. “That was the most prestigious contest,” she said. “If you made the Pillsbury Bake-Off, you really made it.” 

Estabrook repeated as a Bake-Off finalist two more times. In 2014, her third finalist appearance, she traveled to Nashville and earned the Eagle Brand Signature Recipe Award. Her recipe for peanut and pretzel-peanut butter thumbprint cookies with caramel filling took home a $5,000 cash prize.

“I went three times (to the Bake-Off finals) and you can only go three times,” she said. 

Applebee’s Burger Showdown
She competed in the 2007 Applebee’s Burger Showdown, and her grilled apple bacon and white cheddar melt burger was featured on the restaurant’s menu for three months. In 2015, she was awarded the Silver Tier Prize in the Black Creek “Everything’s Better with Cheddar” recipe contest for her Wisconsin-style reuben sandwich. 

Estabrook participated in the Food Network’s “Ultimate Recipe Showdown” hosted by Guy Fieri in New York City in 2010. Her Chicken Cordon Bleu roll-ups, with ginger and spice blueberry chutney recipe was selected from more than 8,000 entries. A recipe she submitted in 2003 for her Greek chicken roll salad won $10,000 in the “Mrs. Dash” Recipe Challenge.

Last month, Estabrook took the People’s Choice Award in the “Get Wild with Wild Rice” contest sponsored by the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council. She competed against 11 other finalists with a recipe for wild rice and roasted asparagus.

Baking interest began in high school
Estabrook said she’s had an interest in baking since high school. She grew up in Mercer, located in northern Wisconsin, and attended St. Ambrose High School in Ironwood, Mich. 

“During my high school years, I worked in the town bakery across the street from where I lived,” she said. In addition to waiting on tables, she would frost cookies and sweet rolls. “I was also a five-year member of the 4-H Club, and they had cooking and baking,” she said. “That also stimulated my interest in baking.”

Estabrook has two children, Rick and Renae, five grandchildren, Tanya, Jacob, Alyssa, Kristina and Conner, and two great-great grandsons. Five years ago, she moved from Rhinelander to Appleton to be closer to her mother, who was living at St. Paul Elder Care, and to a sister, Judi. 

It also brought her closer to her two great-grandsons, Cole, who is 10, and Clayton, who is 8. Estabrook’s granddaughter, Tanya, and husband, Brandon Goerg, live in Greenville.

Baking brings her closer to family
Her love of baking has brought Estabrook closer to her grandchildren and, now, her great-grandsons, and she is thankful for the connection baking has given them.

“I really think God has given me a gift. I really believe that,” she said about her baking talent. “And to be able to pass that on to my grandkids and to have them accept that gift” has been special. “I really feel I was able to make it fun and interesting when they were little. Alyssa for sure.”

Alyssa Ellis, who is now studying for a master’s degree in professional counseling at Concordia University in Mequon, shares her grandmother’s love for baking. 

“Barb had me saying the word ‘ingredients’ before I could even learn how to spell it,” Ellis told The Compass. “She has been and continues to be an inspiration to me. Bake days with Barb are always full of love and laughter.”

“When Alyssa was younger, she always came to my house and so I said to her one day, I think we should have ‘bake days,’ where you come out every couple of weeks and we’ll just bake,” said Estabrook. “We’ll get the ingredients and we’ll bake. That’s how it started.

Granddaughter wins baking contests
And then there was this contest for kids. I said, ‘Alyssa, I think you should try to enter this. So she did,” said Estabrook. At age 6, Ellis was one of 11 finalists in a Jell-O pudding and pie filling bake-off in New York City.

That experience led to numerous baking contest awards for Ellis, which helped her save money for college. “By the time she got to college, she had a little bank account of her winnings. Her highest was $1,000 in a chili contest,” Estabrook said.

Ellis credits her grandmother for helping her develop independence and confidence “while working together in the kitchen.”

“She has won many contests and always sets aside a large portion of her winnings for the benefit of others. I hope to follow in her honorable footsteps by continuing to give back to the community while sharing delicious treats to those who need it most,” added Ellis.

Last year, grandmother and granddaughter traveled together to Detroit, where Ellis competed in the “Build A Better Burger Contest” semifinals. It was a contest Estabrook had already entered.

“I went along as her guest this time, and it was a really emotional moment for me,” she said. “I had been in that contest about eight years before, and here I was with her. That was a highlight.”

Great-grandsons also like to bake
Estabrook is now sharing her love of baking with a new generation: Cole and Clayton.

“I can’t believe how enthusiastic they are in the kitchen,” she said. “They come over to my apartment and there’s no TV, there’s no videos, there’s no handheld nothing. Once in a while, we’ll put on a Packer game or a baseball game if we are done baking, but we are always in the kitchen and I make them help me clean up.”

Her hobby of entering food contests has also rubbed off on them.

“Cole won $1,000 for the best video in the 2018 Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Recipe Showdown,” she said. “I invited him to enter and he made a mac and cheese panini sandwich. He won the video part (for) demonstrating how he made his sandwich.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Estabrook has not been spending time in the kitchen with her great-grandsons. “I take a picture of a project for them and I bring all of the ingredients and I drop them off at their house,” she said. 

Estabrook sees the kitchen as a place for families to enjoy company and reconnect, away from distractions such as the internet.

“I would say if you want to bond with your kids and grandkids, then spend the time looking at cookbooks and getting (baking) ideas with them,” she said.

“I think now, with COVID, especially when you are more confined to your homes, what a better time to start getting in that kitchen instead of doing all of these electronics. It’s so worth it,” spending time with family, she added.