How Baking Simple Desserts Changed Her Life

Diane Hill Roark never thought her basic baking skills would land her on Today or earn her a spot in the World Food Championships

Posted in , Feb 19, 2019

Diane and her trusty sous-chef, her son Caleb

I sank down on an asphalt curb at the edge of the crowd—more than 500 contestants and their family and friends—at the 2017 World Food Championships, an international cooking competition. The day’s finalists for every category had been announced except for desserts, the one I’d made the mistake of entering. It was nearly 10 p.m. The adrenaline I’d been running on was gone. “It’s over,” I said to my husband, Jerry.

I didn’t belong here. I was an amateur home cook, not one of the real chefs competing all around me. I just wanted to be done with it. I’d seen God work in other people’s lives. I’d thought maybe this was my turn. I was wrong. There’d always been part of me that thought my dreams, my life, didn’t really matter to God. Now I knew.

I’d grown up in Mobile, Alabama, with an alcoholic mother who eventually abandoned us. She didn’t cook, so my father, a housepainter, did the best he could. Things were tough. Even my birthday, January 23, usually went uncelebrated. Maybe that’s why I hated the number 23. Bad luck.

I was the second oldest of four kids and wanted to help. I cooked simple dishes, like hamburger with peppers, onions and cheese. After dinner, I always had desserts—cookies and pies, cakes from a mix. “You’ve outdone yourself,” Daddy would tell me. Occasionally I would catch myself wondering if I could ever earn a living cooking.

Instead I married my high school sweetheart, Jerry. We moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he’d gotten a job as an X-ray tech. We had a baby girl we named Carly. Five years later, I was pregnant again, this time with twin boys.

A day after they were born, my doctor came to my bed. “Casey is doing great,” he said. “But I have bad news about your other son.”

Caleb was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. His left side was nearly paralyzed. The doctors didn’t think he would live. One night I prayed, “If you’re going to take him, take him now. I hate seeing him suffer.”

But Caleb slowly improved, undergoing 17 brain operations. My life was consumed with caring for him and giving him as normal a life as possible.

“Involve him when you’re cooking,” his speech therapist told me. “Name every ingredient. Describe each step. It’s a great way of stimulating his mind.”

“You’re my sous-chef,” I told Caleb, explaining how every top chef has an assistant.

Desserts were our favorite, especially one we called Caleb’s Comfort Cake. A simple pound cake that, once glazed, transformed into something wondrous. By age 10, Caleb got so he could practically make it on his own.

Carly and Casey did great in school. But Caleb still needed lots of care. I didn’t make many friends.

We moved to Benton, Arkansas, for Jerry’s new job selling medical equipment. There I barely knew my neighbors. Carly was in medical school. Casey wanted to become a doctor too. We’d adopted two more children in 2006, and my focus was even more on cooking and my family. Caleb’s favorite TV show was Today. That’s what we were watching one morning in the spring of 2017 when an announcement came on for a dessert-cooking competition. To enter, you only had to send in a recipe. “Let’s do it,” Caleb said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “The things we cook are pretty basic.”

He gave me a look that said, “Don’t hand me that!” I e-mailed a favorite recipe for candy bar cake, a chocolate cake infused with caramel sauce and Butterfinger candy bars. It was just something I’d created from a cake mix. I figured that would be the end of it. A week later, I got a call. I’d been picked to face off on live TV against another woman from Arkansas. Her recipe was for banana upside-down cupcakes. It was the same day Carly would be graduating from medical school.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the Today show caller. “I can’t.” I looked at Caleb and could see the disappointment in his eyes. The graduation ceremony was in the evening. “Could you have me back home by five?” I asked. The producers promised they would.

It was my first time in New York City. I was awestruck the moment my plane touched down the night before. The show put me up in a fancy hotel, and a car service picked me up while it was still dark, so I could get busy baking on the set. Actress Ellie Kemper and Today’s Dylan Dreyer judged our creations. I felt like a celebrity myself.

I didn’t even mind that I lost. As we were getting ready to leave, my competitor said, “Have you ever entered the World Food Championships? Check it out. The grand champion wins $100,000.”

“You should do it,” Jerry said when I got back home.

That was Jerry. Always seeing possibilities. Not me. I was almost glad when I looked at the website and discovered that you had to have won a qualifying event to enter.

“I don’t qualify,” I told Jerry, hoping I didn’t sound too relieved. He got on the computer and clicked on more links. There were 10 categories: barbecue, chili, burgers, desserts and so on. Fifty contestants in each category. “They take one wild card entrant in each category,” he said. “There’s your shot.”

“The only wild card opening we have left is desserts,” said the man who answered the phone. “Send me your application and you’re in.”

The contest was the second week of November in Orange Beach, Alabama, near where I’d grown up. Jerry and Caleb would come with me. In early October, an e-mail came with the specifics. I’d have less than two hours to make two desserts: a Swiss roll and a pumpkin praline cake.

Baking a cake seemed easy enough. But a Swiss roll would be challenging. “We have to practice this,” I told Caleb the day the e-mail came.

He busied himself counting out six eggs, measuring cream of tartar and a cup of sugar. I separated yolks from whites, then whipped the whites to twice their volume, the yolks to triple their volume. Caleb added the dry ingredients. I folded them in.

“Here goes nothing,” I said. I spread the batter onto a 13 x 17–inch baking sheet that I’d lined with parchment paper, then put the sheet into the oven at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. I got busy on a caramel apple filling. I’d barely finished it when the timer went off. I flipped the cake onto a towel Caleb had dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Then I slowly rolled the cake. It cracked. Badly. I tried to repair the damage, but doing that just made the cracks worse.

We plunged on. The final result was delicious. But filling oozed through the cracks. Definitely not contest worthy.

Caleb shrugged. “Trust God,” he said. Something I told my kids at least once a day it seemed, though what I actually said was, “Work hard, do your best, let God do the rest.” I didn’t know how to tell Caleb that God didn’t have time to help with my dessert competition. Heck, I was out of my league to begin with.

Now, slumped on the curb, I thought again of that first roll we’d made. After that, we practiced two or three times a week. Every time, the roll cracked. I’d never gotten it right. On a stage at the head of the crowd, they were announcing the 10 finalists, starting with tenth place. The finalists would compete the next day for first prize in desserts. Well, I thought, at least there was an upside to all this.

Leading up to the competition, we’d made way more Swiss rolls than we could even eat. So we took them to neighbors, people I hardly knew. The retired couple next door. The family across the street. We even took them to the fire station. Caleb loved going with me. Our recipients were thrilled, interested in everything about us and the competition. In turn, I’d ask about them. The retired man still worked in a prison ministry. The family had just moved from Texas. “We’ll sure pray for you,” they said. That made Caleb smile.

I guess I should have known this whole thing was doomed when I was told I’d be cooking in kitchen 23, that accursed number. I should have quit right there. Instead I found 23 in the rows upon rows of makeshift kitchens, all outdoors under a tent. I was a mess. There were reporters and camera people roaming the grounds. I couldn’t concentrate. I nearly let the sponge cake for the Swiss roll burn. I rolled it, waiting for it to crack. But it held together. Barely. I finished with just enough time for me to take it the judging station. Then I hurried back to make pumpkin praline cake. Hardly a minute to catch my breath. Until now.

“Number seven, number six,” the announcer droned on. It was over. I’d never actually expected to win. The best part was the time with Caleb. And meeting our neighbors. The prison ministries guy had already asked if I’d cater a program he was doing. My world was already bigger and more interesting than it had been in years. I didn’t need to win. As I told the kids, I just needed to trust God and do my best. Still, it hurt not even finishing in the top 10. I felt Jerry rub my back.

“Number four, number three, number two.” Soon I’d be back at the hotel.

“Before I announce who’s in first place, I want to say that this person scored a rare perfect score in the Swiss roll competition.” How could anyone do that? Then I heard the rest of the announcement: “Diane Roark, please come on stage.”

Could there be two Diane Roarks? My brain couldn’t compute what I was hearing. “You did it!” Jerry shouted. Finally, it registered—though I still couldn’t believe it. First place? A perfect score? I jumped up and reached for Caleb. “All that practicing paid off,” I said to him. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“God did the rest,” Caleb said. God surely had. Even having me cook in kitchen 23. A little nudge from above. Nothing in my life was a curse. Not with God in it.

I ran to the stage. then it hit me. I had to bake the next day—against the nine other dessert finalists. The next morning, I rushed to the office to get the details. For the final round of the competition, I baked a cake using fried apples. I finished third overall! I received a medallion and $1,000 in prize money. I didn’t get to compete for the $100,000 grand prize, but to me it felt as if I’d been named a Michelin chef, just the same. Best of all, I was guaranteed a spot for the 2018 competition, where I achieved another perfect score (the first person ever to record two perfect scores) and came in fifth overall.

I now do cooking demonstrations at Wal-Mart, at stores all over the country, making a living cooking and baking. But it’s not the money as much as the opportunity to share my gifts with others—I still bake treats for the neighbors—that makes my life feel complete. A plan written for me since the day I was born.

Try Caleb's Comfort Cake at home!

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