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The Cookie Crumbles

How a "contester" seizes the moment if not the prizes.

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"The prize is to store up another memory," she says, "and I go into it realistically. I know these cooks put their heart and soul into their recipes and the competition is strong."

So she didn't take home the million-dollar prize at the Pillsbury Bake-Off in late March, and she didn't collect on her recipe in a parent-child cookie competition last week in New York. Royals and her 7-year-old son, Easton, got to fly in as finalists for a public taste-off at FAO Schwarz. And though their glazed shortbread cookie with its bacon-and-egg motif lost to a cookie made of potato chips and pretzels, there's not a trace of letdown in the Royals' room at the Hilton in Manhattan, where Easton has learned the finer points of room service and where the best part of the experience is a new friend, 8-year-old Danny Schuhmacher, from Rochester, N.Y., whose mother is another repeat contender, and this time the winner.

If there are parallels to the beauty pageant world, they aren't lost on the poised, focused Royals, who has adopted a training regimen to keep her recipe muscles flexed and ready: She's banked hundreds of experiments in her computer and knows which contests want which concepts. There are national beef and chicken competitions, and a Southern Living contest, and a long list of smaller events, such as the garlic festival in California that was her first win, and the wine competition that landed her a $25,000 kitchen makeover a couple of years ago.

Contestants know that looks count, that experience often helps, and that judging is subjective and never predictable. So they'll toy with pretty presentations and trendy ingredients, and always keep the contest sponsor top-of-mind, as certain products must be used and shown to their best advantage.

Royals goes into the kitchen most weeknights when her sons are asleep and tests dish after dish, recording the formulas and tracking the results, then archiving the details for a possible entry. "There's always somebody to cook for," she says, and she gives away plenty of cakes and casseroles that could be future winners. Her family eats the rest, while Royals merely grazes, analyzing every bite.

Royals says her father was an experimental cook with a free hand for herbs and spices. He kept notes on his best creations, like the deep-fried Swedish rosettes that became his signature. She links her contest fever with those memories, and is big on promoting family cooking as a creative and stress-reducing way of life.

The rest, like trips and cash prizes and TV appearances, is icing — specifically a white-chocolate and whipping cream glaze on a very rich, if not always winning, very photogenic cookie. S

For the Royals' Sunny Side-Up Shortbread Cookie recipe go to wearever.com and click on "See the finalists' recipes.".

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