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Wife's challenge inspires Bake-Off finalist to enter burritos

WASHINGTON -- Mike Briggs had never entered a cooking contest before, let alone the mother of them all. Until last year, he had never tasted mole poblano, the Mexican sauce known for its spicy-sweet complexity, let alone cooked it.

WASHINGTON -- Mike Briggs had never entered a cooking contest before, let alone the mother of them all. Until last year, he had never tasted mole poblano, the Mexican sauce known for its spicy-sweet complexity, let alone cooked it.

What a difference a year makes. Briggs was one of 100 finalists competing in this week's Pillsbury Bake-Off in Dallas -- with his original recipe for Spicy Mole Pork Burritos.

All this from someone who describes himself as an inexperienced home cook.

"I go through these phases where I hear about something, and then I'll go all out and learn about that process," says Briggs, 40, the director of information technology at George Washington University Law School. He spent a month writing a final recipe and has tested it more than 50 times.

"I've been analytical about the whole thing," he says. "I was going to create a recipe that would be selected."

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Few men have ever won. Briggs, of suburban Alexandria, Va., was one of eight men and 92 women competing in the biennial event in Dallas. The grand prize in this 43rd competition is $1 million.

few men compete

Women have always outnumbered men at the finals. In 1998, 14 men competed, the highest number in the contest to date. The only male grand prize winner was Kurt Wait, a single father from California who triumphed in 1996 with his Macadamia Fudge Torte.

While restaurant kitchens have long been dominated by men, the home kitchen is still a woman's world, although the balance continues to shift.

According to a study last year by the NPD Group market research firm, men are preparing 18 percent of dinners at home, up from 14 percent in 2003. And culinary schools are reporting more men signing up for one-day and weekend classes. At the Culinary Institute of America campuses in New York, Texas and California, enrollment in weekend baking and pastry classes is equally divided between the sexes.

For Briggs, cooking has always been primarily a way to put dinner on the table and save money by not eating in restaurants.

It was his wife, Leslie Lee, 39, a librarian at the law school, who talked him into entering the Bake-Off.

In spring 2006, Lee watched the competition on the Food Network and said to her then-fiance: "What a neat idea. People from all over submitting recipes. Why don't you enter?"

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"We did it as a lark," Lee says. "But when Mike takes to a task, he puts himself in 100 percent, and he's very intellectually curious."

More of a "good eater" than cook, he was ready for a new challenge. "It was as simple as, if she wants me to do something reasonable, I'll do it," Briggs says. "But now she has created a monster."

Bake-Off entrants submit one or more original recipes in five categories: Breakfast and Brunch, Pizza Creations, Entertaining Appetizers, Sweet Treats or Old El Paso Mexican Favorites. Each recipe must use at least two products made by companies marketed by contest sponsor General Mills from a list of possibilities. That could include products such as Pillsbury brownie mix, Smucker's jams, Jif peanut butter, Green Giant frozen vegetables and Old El Paso tortillas.

The couple's "Eureka moment" came at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin, Texas. While sipping prickly pear margaritas, they took their first taste of mole.

"It seemed unique and tasted good," says Briggs, and he remembered the Old El Paso category. "I thought Mexican was a smart way to go because it was a new category this year and might have a better chance of being selected."

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