Cupcake Crazy

I've had cupcakes on the brain for the past couple of months. First a cupcake won the Cooking Light Reader Recipe Contest. Then I had fabulous cupcakes while I was in Charleston for the Southern Living contest. SL gave us each a gift bag with two cupcakes when we arrived, and they also served them backstage during the show. The cupcakes were from a new bakery in Charleston called Cupcake, and two of them are pictured here. I sampled, um, a few, and all were fabulous, although they had a little too much frosting for me -- and I thought there was no such thing as too much frosting.

So when I went to a ladies' card night on Friday, I offered to make cupcakes. I decided to make Martha Stewart's recipe for pumpkin cupcakes. They were tasty, although the texture was a little heavy, like a muffin; I would have preferred a fluffier texture. I also didn't like the idea of using two sticks of butter. Here's the recipe.

Martha Stewart's Pumpkin Cupcakes

(Martha's recipe said it makes 18, but I got 21)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt (I don't know why she uses coarse salt in baking.)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger (I used 1/2 tsp as I worried the ginger would be too strong.)
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 can pumpkin purée (15 ounces)

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Line cupcake pans with paper liners; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice; set aside.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together, brown sugar, granulated sugar, butter, and eggs. Add dry ingredients, and whisk until smooth. Whisk in pumpkin purée.

3. Divide batter evenly among liners, filling each about halfway. Bake until tops spring back when touched, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes, rotating pans once if needed. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely.

As for the frosting, it was something I was experimenting with, and quite frankly I can't find my scribbles on what I did. But as I was Googling the Cupcake bakery, I found an article with several of their recipes, including one for pumpkin cupcakes. They use a cinnamon cream cheese icing, which I'm sure would be very tasty. Here's a link to the article. If you try any of the recipes, please post a comment and tell me how it was!

Recipes Seen on News 10 NBC

Here are some links and recipes related to this morning's broadcast:

Follow this link for the recipe to Super Cinnamony Snickerdoodle Cheesecake Squares, which won the monthly Kaiser Bakeware recipe contest.

The recipe I started on air, but didn't have a chance to finish, was a working recipe for Pumpkin Chai Mini Cheesecakes. It hasn't won a contest, nor am I certain it's "contest ready."

Pumpkin Chai Mini Cheesecakes

13 packaged pecan shortbread cookies (about 7 ounces)
3 Tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese -- at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
2 large eggs
1/3 cup canned pumpkin
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour

Heat the oven to 325. Line 18 standard muffin tins (approximately 2 3/4 inches in diameter) with foil liners.

Place cookies in food processor; process until fine crumbs form. Add melted butter; use on/off pulses until well combined. (Or crush the cookies in a food storage bag and stir in butter.) Place about 1 Tablespoon crumb mixture in each foil-lined muffin cup; press in bottom of cup to form crust.

In the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl using a hand-held electric mixer) beat the cream cheese on medium-high speed until smooth and fluffy, stopping to scrape down the bowl occasionally, about 4 minutes.

Add the sugar, vanilla, salt, and spices (cinnamon through white pepper). Continue blending until and smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl frequently, about 1 minute; there should be no lumps. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating on medium speed until just blended. (Don't overbeat once the eggs are added.)

Transfer 2/3 cup of the batter to a small bowl. Add the pumpkin and flour to the small bowl and stir until well blended.

Divide the plain batter amount the muffin cups (about 2 generous tablespoons in each.) Smopth tops with back of spoon. Then divide the pumpkin batter evenly among the cups (about 1 generous tablespoon in each.) EITHER spread pumpkin layer over the first layer OR swirl the two together with a toothpick.

Bake until the centers of the cheesecakes barely jiggle when nudged, 18-23 minutes. Cool in pans on a wire rack. Cover and refrigerate until very cold, at least 2 hours or up to 3 days.

Yields 18 mini cheesecakes.

Here are links and information about other contest wins:

Sun-Dried Tomato and Goat Cheese Appetizers was a category winner at the 2004 Pillsbury Bake-off contest.

Chips and Dips Cookies won the Wearever AirBake Ultra Extreme Cookie Challenge.

My finalist recipes for Southern Living and Cooking Light will be printed in the January issues of the magazines.

If you try any of my recipes, please let me know how you like them! Just come back and leave a comment!

Coming soon on Channel 10...

I’m scheduled to appear on Rochester's Channel 10 (NBC) on Monday morning. People from the station will arrive at my house at 4:30 a.m.! I’ll be on at various times from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. I honestly don't know how the morning news people work such ungodly hours.

I have been asked if I contact the newspapers and TV stations about contests. The answer is NO - never! The PR people from the cooking contests are the ones who contact the media, because one of the reasons they hold the contests is to get publicity. Since much of my career has been in public relations, I'm pretty empathetic with the contest PR people and I try to be as accommodating as I can.

Anyway, Channel 10 asked me to talk about the contests I’ve been in and give advice for people who want to enter cooking contests. They also asked me to demonstrate recipes that show how I develop a recipe for contests. I had to give this some thought because I don’t want to give away recipe ideas that I think have potential. I settled on cheesecakes because I did a lot of cheesecake testing for a contest a little over a year ago, and one of the recipes just won a smaller prize.

This means, however, that the weekend is going to be busier than expected. I’ll bake two cheesecakes, because you can’t cut and eat a cheesecake right out of the oven. One of the recipes will need tinkering from the original submission. But the big thing is that I’ll have to clean, and I sure do hate to clean. I’d much rather be writing for Rah Cha Chow ... but that may not happen between now and then!

Yummy breakfast

Da (undefeated) Bears are on Monday Night Football tonight, so not much time to write. (I know this Blog is about Rochester, but I grew up in the Chicago area. While I truly love upstate New York, I still cheer for da Bears.)

Anyway, I thought I'd share a tasty tidbit I enjoyed recently. Panera Bread, which has popped up all over Rochester, serves what they call Baked Egg Souffles in the morning. I ordered the Spinach and Bacon Souffle. While I wouldn't really call it a souffle -- the filling more like a quiche -- it was delicious. The filling was flavorful and creamy and the crust was like a flaky croissant.

To be honest, I haven't been all that thrilled with Panera Bread's breads. I couldn't put my finger on the problem, but a friend summed it up. They overbake their breads. Everything is dry and tastes like it has been baked a little too long. One of my kids ordered a bubble bun, and we ended up throwing it away. Another day I split a pecan sticky bun with one of my kids, and it took 20 seconds in the microwave to get the texture I'd expect from a sticky bun.

So if you go to Panera Bread for breakfast, stick to the yummy Baked Egg Souffles. I'm curious to know whether anyone else shares our perception that Panera Bread overbakes their breads. If you have an opinion, leave a comment!

Panera Bread on Urbanspoon

Brie and Bree

I've had a couple of fun little contest wins in the past week.

Simple & Delicious (Brie)

I was runner-up in the Simple Party Starters contest in Taste of Home's Simple and Delicious magazine. My recipe was Fruit and Caramel Brie (not the name I gave it, but I can live with that one). I won $25, a kitchen timer, and a copy of the magazine. The recipe is in the November/December issue of "Simple & Delicious." Since I can't post that recipe yet, I'll post another favorite Brie recipe. It's from a Betty Crocker cookbook, and I've noted what I do differently.

Brie with Caramelized Onions, Pistachio and Cranberry

2 tablespoons butter or stick margarine
1 medium onion, cut into fourths and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Vegetable oil or cooking spray
1 round (15 ounces) brie
1/4 cup coarsely chopped pistachio nuts (other nuts can be used)
Crackers and/or sliced Italian bread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Cook onion in butter for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in cranberries, brown sugar, and vinegar. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until mixture is thickened, brown, and caramelized.

Lightly brush oven-proof plate with oil (or spray with cooking spray) and place cheese in the center. (I use a Pyrex pie plate. I also scrape some of the top of the rind off the cheese.) Bake uncovered 8 to 10 minutes or until cheese is soft and partly melted. Spoon onion topping over cheese. Sprinkle with nuts. Serve with crackers.

Serves 8 – 10 (although I served it to 12 and had some left over)

Notes: If you want to make ahead, put the onion mixture in a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. Bake the Brie for 8 minutes, put on the topping, then bake for another 3 minutes or so. (I once put the brie and topping in the oven at the same time. The cranberries became hard and black before the brie was warm.) If you want to heat in the microwave, heat the brie for a couple of minutes, then the topping for about 30 seconds, then put them together to serve.

Desperate for Dinner (Bree)

There's a rather strange contest going on called "Desperate for Dinner." It ties into the TV Show Desperate Housewives. Frankly, I can't exactly figure this one out. All I know is that there are various local contests, each of which has a different deadline. Recipes are judged on "uniqueness, creativity, and use of ingredients." These criteria are odd for a number of reasons. First, most recipe contests includes taste in their list of criteria. Second, most contests that look for "use of ingredients" are contests like the National Chicken Contest, which are looking for the use of a specific ingredient. Finally, I would think that this contest would judge the recipes by making a connection to the show, and the rules don't call for that.

The Web site for the contest says that recipes are first judged by culinary students and staff at L’Academie de Cuisine, and the winners are picked by three chefs. Is this the process for all the local contests? If so, that's a lot of work for those people, as recipe contests can generate thousands of entries.

Now for the prizes. Each local first prize winner receives a gourmet cooking basket containing an oven mitt, apron, cooking utensils, Desperate Housewives customized spices, and a cookbook autographed by cast members. Runners up (14 of them) win a Desperate Housewives cookbook. Now, more strangeness: the first prize winners from across the country are entered into a random drawing to be one of three grand prize winners who will appear on Good Morning America to prepare their recipe. The winning recipe will somehow appear in a Desperate Housewives episode. (Although the rules don't state it, I wouldn't be surprised if GMA viewers vote for a winner.)

As a general rule, this isn't the kind of prize that appeals to me. I prefer to spend most of my effort on contests that award cold, hard cash -- and the more, the better.

When I first saw the recipe listed on the recipe contest Web site, I clicked on the link to our local affiliate out of curiosity. There was no information on the Web site, so I didn't think about it again. Then one day, my husband sent me an email with a link to the local contest. A coworker of his had seen it and thought I should enter. And the deadline was that day.

Since I've been entering contests for a couple of years, I have a number of recipes I've entered into various contests that haven't won. So I decided to rework one of those recipes, put a Desperate Housewives spin on it, and enter it.

Well, I was a runner-up in Rochester. I won a copy of "The Desperate Housewives Cookbook." The funny thing about this is that I really enjoyed "Desperate Housewives" the first season. I thought Bree's line, "I'm not a fan of the scr*tum," was one of the funniest lines I've seen on TV. But last year the show grew too dark, creepy, and unamusing for me. I watched the premiere this year, thought it was continuing its creepy course, and deleted it from my season pass list on Tivo. So I thought I might give away the cookbook.

Tom picked it up at the TV station yesterday and I was surprised at how nice the book is. The recipes are written by Christopher Styler, who has written or collaborated on several cookbooks. The recipes look good and simple. The food photos are styled beautifully, which isn't surprising, because Christopher Styler has a book out that I've been thinking of buying -- Working the Plate, which is about food presentation. So I'm keeping the book. I may even given give "the wives" another look.

If anyone sees anything about the winners appearing on GMA, would you mind leaving a comment or shooting me an email? I'm curious to see what wins.

Clucking in Rochester

It’s been chicken and more chicken in our household this week. At the last minute, I decided to throw my hat in the ring for the National Chicken Contest (cooking contesters call it just “Chicken”). The deadline is Sunday. I wasn’t going to enter Chicken, because I planned to take a couple of months off from contests, but after the great time I had at Southern Living, I decided I at least wanted to take a crack at it. I’ll probably end up with two or three entries, which gives me a very slim chance of being a finalist, but at least it gives me a shot.

Since everything I'm cooking is work in progress, I thought I’d post my take on the ubiquitous Buffalo chicken wing dip in honor of the good people of Buffalo, who are digging out from a 21 inches of wet snow. For the record, there’s absolutely no snow in Rochester – I didn’t even see a flurry.

Speaking of snow, I can’t resist a quick rant. I just took two trips to the South. I have family in the South. I like many things about the South. But I do get tired of people in warm climates talking about the vast superiority of their weather. Puh-lease. Here, 21 inches of snow is rare, and when we get it, it’s an annoyance for a day or two. I’d rather be in a blizzard than in a hurricane or tornado – I have never heard of a blizzard destroying someone’s house. Plus, I love the change of seasons. Our fall foliage is at its peak right now – I can look out my window and enjoy it as I write. And I pity the child that’s never experienced sledding, making a snow angel, or walking through new snow. If you ask me, a sunny day with fresh snow on the ground is every bit as beautiful as a sunny day on the beach.

But back to the chicken wing dip. Around here, people usually make it with Frank’s chicken wing sauce, which I think is ok, but it’s a little harsh and acidic to my taste. All it takes is some Cajun seasoning to make it just right. Here’s how I make it:

Cajun Chicken Wing Dip

4 tsp. cajun seasoning, divided
3 chicken breast halves (approximately 4 cups), cooked and shredded
1 cup chicken wing sauce (such as Franks)
1 8-oz package cream cheese, softened (can be light)
½ cup mozzarella cheese
½ cup ranch or blue cheese salad dressing
Tortilla chips

Combine, chicken, chicken wing sauce, and 2 tsp. Cajun seasoning in a skillet. Simmer over medium-low heat 10-15 minutes or until the sauce is absorbed by the chicken. Stir frequently and break up any big chicken chunks with a spoon.

In a mixer, combine the cream cheese and remaining Cajun seasoning until the mixture is smooth. Spread the mixture on the bottom of shallow dish, such as a glass pie plate. Spread the chicken mixture on top. Top with mozzarella cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until hot and cheese is melted. Remove from oven and spread the salad dressing on top. Serve with tortilla chips.

(Footnote, added later: I was not selected a finalist in that National Chicken Contest.)

Southern Living Cook-off

The Southern Living (SL for short here) Cook-off began with a welcome reception and orientation at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, which is part of Trident Technical College. As we ate chocolate-covered strawberries, we mingled and introduced ourselves to each other. It was fun to meet some people I "knew" from the cooking contest board, such Diane and Olga, who I had seen on the Web site for the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger contest, which was held the week prior to SL.

We had a quick orientation, then went to the kitchens to check on groceries and supplies, as well as select our serving dishes. I looked at the assortment of white serving dishes that were laid out on two tables, and was dismayed that I didn’t see a single dish that I could envision serving risotto. I had hoped for a shallow bowl with a wide rim, and there was nothing like it. Shannon Satterwhite, SL Foods Editor and my “hostess” for the competition, offered to shop for a bowl that night. I hated to cause more work for her, but I didn’t know what else I could use.

My ingredients and equipment were in order. We were given the opportunity to saute onions to test the stoves, which I did. After that, we were on our own. (I’m going to put the food we ate in Charleston in a separate entry, and just stick to the contest here.)


Those of us with early times gathered in a hotel conference room for breakfast at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday. (SL put us up at the Mills House Hotel, a lovely hotel in the middle of the historic district.) At 7, the bus arrived to take us to the culinary institute.

When I arrived at the culinary institute, Shannon had a couple of bowls for me to choose from. One was pretty much what I envisioned -- a shallow bowl with a wide rim. Whew! I was relieved to have something that I thought would work.

We started cooking at 7:30. Even though my dish is pretty quick and simple to prepare, I actually filled the two hours they had given me. I spent a fair amount of time inspecting each piece in my bag of collard greens, removing any nasty looking little brown things and thick stems. My cooking went smoothly, other than the time I turned my back on the stove to chop some parsley, and turned back to my pot to find a tiny bug floating in the water! I quickly spooned him out, but I’m glad he didn’t find its way to the judges.

While I was cooking, Mo was preparing the dough for her rolls and Laurie was working on her beef pedazos. You’d think that with all the money on the line, it would have been a tense atmosphere, but it was comfortable and congenial. (Laurie and Diane S. are at left. Diane cooked in the other kitchen.)

I was one of three finalists in the “Healthy and Good For You” category. We were given the time of 9:30 a.m. to have our dishes complete and ready for judging. (We were the first category to be judged.) I had been concerned about the timing – if I didn’t allow myself enough time, the brown rice wouldn’t be tender. If I was done too early, the food would be cold and all the creamy broth would be absorbed by the rice. But I timed it about right. I was done at 9:25, took a couple of minutes for plating, and put the dishes on the tray that would go to the judges. Edwina had hers ready at about the same time. Her entry, which had a colorful slaw, looked very pretty next to my brown and green creation. I didn’t get a good look at Ginny’s.

Southern Living staffers took the trays back to the five judges, who didn’t interact with the finalists prior to or during the judging. This seems to be the case at most of the competitions that place a high priority on fairness.


Then it was time to go to the Galliard Auditorium for rehearsals for the show, which would be hosted by Chef Tyler Florence the next evening. We were told that Tyler would introduce each of us, one by one, then we’d go to our designated “kitchen” on the set. We’d join a Southern Living staffer, who was there to help us present our recipes. I was in the middle, along with SL Test Kitchen Assistant Director, James Schend. (Woo-hoo, I got the guy...) Once we were introduced, Tyler would go to each contestant’s “kitchen” for a five-minute demo of the recipe. The Southern Living staffer was prepared to do the entire demo in case the contestant wasn’t comfortable talking on stage.

We all got fitted for microphones, then practiced talking with them on. (That's Edwina getting her microphone as Ginny looks on.)

James walked me through the demo. We also chatted a bit and I came to find out that James grew up about a half hour from my home town, and even worked at Six Flags Great America, where I worked for six years. That put me at ease with James, and by the end of the rehearsal I was pretty comfortable with the show.

On Wednesday night, John Alex Floyd, Jr., the editor of Southern Living hosted a wonderful dinner for us at the Peninsula Grill. I’ll describe the food in detail later, but it was a very nice evening. Our table was fun, and included John and Hallman from SL, Olga and her husband, Karen and her mom, Tom and me. At some point, Karen’s mom started telling me that her daughter was in the Pillsbury Bake-off in 2004. I was, too, I said. Then she said that Karen had been a category winner that year. I was, too, I said, and then it dawned on me why Karen had looked so familiar. She had been one of the three other women on stage with me, sweating over the prospect of a million bucks! Duh! It was funny that neither one of us had recognized each other until then.

After dinner, I met Nathalie Dupree, who was one of the judges. I watched Nathalie's PBS show regularly when I was on bed rest during my first pregnancy, and I have two of her cookbooks, so it was fun to meet her. I kicked myself that I didn’t bring along a cookbook for her to sign, but I did get a picture with her (although I don't know why I made such a goofy face in it).

The show

On Thursday, a bus picked us up at 3:30 for the drive to the auditorium. When we got there, people were already waiting at the door to get in. We were told that people had started lining at 2 p.m. in order to get good seats. They weren’t waiting to see us – they came to see Tyler. He has quite a female following. (By the way, I've received a number of emails from cooking contesters since I first posted this. Apparently James from SL has a female following of his own!) They told us they had sold about 1,600 tickets in advance, and I believe more were being sold at the door.

We were taken to the green room (which wasn’t green at all). They had light food set out for us, but I didn’t see much eating going on. We got our make-up done by one of three make-up artists, and each of us had our photo taken on stage. A reporter interviewed several of us for the Time Warner employee publication (that's Karen and Diane S. getting interviewed). A local TV station arrived to interview Pennie, the contestant from Mount Pleasant, right across the river from Charleston.

But mostly we waited. And got nervous. And chatted. I learned that Olga has been on four game shows, including “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Some of us also compared notes on our experiences at the other contests we had participated in. Generally the people who go to cooking contests get to know each other as friends, and the environment is very congenial. (That's Edwina, Pennie, Olga and me in the photo.)

Finally the show started. We watched the party starters talk about their dishes. Tyler couldn’t get the knack for saying the word flautas – he kept saying fla–OO-tas (clearly, Mexican food isn't his specialty). Pennie, the hometown competititor, demonstrated her bisque, which we all agreed looked good. Then came Olga’s bruschetta, which appeared to be the simplest of the bunch. The winners were announced – Olga’s bruschetta!

Next came the “Your Best Recipe” category. Right after the finalists were announced, those of us in the healthy category were told to go backstage, where we had our microphones put on, and then it was more waiting. My feet, which were in the only pair of heels I own, started to hurt, so I took them off and stood in my stocking feet as we waited. Edwina seemed to be the most nervous of the three of us. She’s fairly quiet, and going on stage wasn’t something she’d ordinarily choose to do.

We heard Mo named winner, and were able to do a few high fives as the people in the category left the stage. Then they showed a short video of the 15 finalists cooking, set to the song “Walking on Sunshine.” We had to strain to watch it on the TV monitor at the other end of the backstage area, as culinary students scurried around getting the dishes ready for the show, but the lighthearted tone of the video eased our nerves.

Finally, Tyler announced us one by one – first Edwina, then Ginny, then me. It’s pretty amazing to hear this person you’ve seen so many times on TV call your name. I walked out, didn’t trip on anything (which had been my nightmare), and walked over to a smiling James. Tyler asked me to tell me what we were cooking and I said it was “Italian comfort food with a healthy and Southern twist.” He went on to describe risotto for the audience.

Then he walked over to Edwina for a demo of her dish. Given that she had seemed nervous, I was surprised to hear her talking away on stage. She did great! Ginny was next, and she was a total cut-up. She started by telling Tyler that her grandchildren were big fans of his.

“The first ingredient is tequila,” she drawled, and went on from there. She corrected a number of Tyler’s mistakes. She had the audience roaring.

“How the heck are we going to follow THAT?” I muttered to James.

“We’ll be fine,” he replied.

Then Tyler came to my station. At his prompt, I said, “first we...”

I looked into the pan and drew a total blank. I couldn’t think of what the heck was in there.

“... saute onions,” James chimes in. Onions. Yeah, that’s what those are.

“ ENOVA oil,” I say, giving a plug to the brand for which I won a $500 category prize. After that, I was fine. I don’t remember much else, other than enjoying being on stage between James and Tyler. There are worse places for a woman to find herself.

I had expected to be distracted by the TV Food Network cameras that were filming the event, but I honestly didn’t notice them while I was on stage. I’ll be curious to see what airs.

Then it was time for Tyler to announce our category's prize. “The winner is...”

I knew if the first word was “quick,” I had won.


It wasn’t me. But I couldn’t remember whose dish began with sweet, so I didn’t know which way to look. I looked at the floor, then at Ginny, who was applauding for Edwina. Edwina had won! I was truly happy for her, as I had enjoyed getting to know her during the contest.

I watched the rest of the show on the closed circuit TV in the green room. I was pleased for Diane S., who won “Super-Quick Family Favorites” with her short ribs in the crock pot. When Tyler asked Diane what she’d do with her $10,000, she quipped, “I don’t know. Where do you want to go?”

The final category was desserts. They all looked delectable. The winner was Karen, who had won a Pillsbury category prize the same year I did. She's done pretty well for herself!

Then the category winners went onstage for the presentation of the $100,000 grand prize. And the winner was ... Mo’s sweet potato cinnamon rolls.

We all went on stage for a group photo, and then it was over.

On the way out of the Auditorium, I ran into Nathalie Dupree. She asked me to remind her which dish I was mine. The collards, I said.

“That's my kind of recipe," she said. "I think you should have paid more attention to your serving plate. It needed ... a fluff-up or something.”

My first reaction to this was disbelief, as I didn’t have a lot of control over the serving dish. But upon further reflection, I think she was telling me that the dish didn’t have a lot of visual appeal. I agree with her and I’m grateful for the feedback. I don’t tend to give a lot of consideration to how dishes look, and I plan to give that more thought in the future.

After the show, Southern Living held an after-party at a historic building near the water. Stations of food were set up with various Southern specialties, and there was a live band. It was a fun way to end a great time in Charleston.

If you want to see the winning recipes, they are here. All of the finalist recipes will be in the January issue of Southern Living.

Hi from Charleston

Greetings from Charleston, where Tom and I have traveled for the Southern Living Contest. Southern Living is treating us well. We're staying right in the heart of the historic area in a hotel called the Mills House Hotel (no time to post links, sorry).

Getting here was a bit crazy, involving changes of itinerary and airlines, but we got here in time for me to go through our orientation. We're cooking at the new culinary school at Trident Tech here, so it's a pretty cool setting.

Last night we met my cousin Garrett and his wife Elizabeth for drinks at a restaurant called High Cotton. We had great appetizers -- fried oysters, carpaccio, and a mushroom bruschetta. Tom & I had a nice dinner afterwards (we both ordered beef).

I was picked up at the hotel at 7 a.m. and started cooking at 7:30. We had to have our dishes plated and ready to go at 9:30. I'm not very good at timing, but everything went fine. The other two healthy dishes looked really good -- they both were more colorful than mine. So now it's up to the judges.

Then it was on to the Galliard Auditorium to rehearse for a stage show Southern Living will put on tomorrow night. That's when the winners will be announced. Tyler Florence hosts, which should be exciting.

So the hardest part is done and we're off to have some fun in Charleston!

Family and friends, I'll post the results late tomorrow night or early Friday morning.