I have been a fan of The Food Network for as long as I can remember. I recall first learning about the now ubiquitous chipotles (a.k.a spicy raisins) from Hot Off the Grill with Bobby Flay! Sara Moulton taught me how to properly dice an onion, and watching shows like Food Finds and Sweet Dreams (oh, how I miss Gale Gand!) made my time on the treadmill fly by in a flash. The Food Network is usually on when I am working in the kitchen, and I think that I even heard Eric say "E-V-O-O" the other night. You get the idea.
I have mentioned a few times in the past that I started entering recipe contests a little over a year ago for fun. I had seen a few of the challenges that were aired on The Food Network, but I had no idea how many of these contests and cook-offs actually exist. There is even a website, Cooking Contest Central, solely dedicated to recipe and food-related competitions. After my first win, for which I just casually entered a few recipes with no expectations, I was hooked. I had been bitten by the "contesting" bug, and there was no turning back.
Last spring, The Food Network starting calling for entries for Ultimate Recipe Showdown 2, a televised cook-off during which contestants would compete against each other by preparing their original recipes in various categories. I had watched the first season of URS, which I had learned about too late to enter (darn!), so I didn't need to think twice about submitting some recipes for season number two. Some ended up being many. Dozens. I really wanted to be chosen for this competition. I really wanted to compete on The Food Network.
Well, long story short, the recipe Gods must have been looking down on me as I toiled away in the kitchen. During the summer, I received notification that I had been chosen as one of four contestants to compete in the Ultimate Recipe Showdown: Cakes competition (insert excited scream here)! Food Network would fly Eric and I to New York in September, and I would be competing at the Food Network studios (insert second scream!)
For me, visiting the Food Network studios was like going to Disneyland. I practically skipped through the halls. I was able to spend some time in the test kitchens, and I even saw a few familiar faces while I was there. I truly, truly, didn't want to leave (but I thought that clinging to the door probably wouldn't be the best way for them to remember me.)
Although I can't really reveal very much about my experience with the actual competition, I will say that I had a wonderful time, and I made some fantastic new friends. I also have a whole new appreciation for the amount of work that goes into producing a show like this. Guy Fieri, of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives fame, was the host, and I found him to be so down-to-earth and friendly, not to mention charismatic and lightning-quick with his come-backs. I plan to try out next year too. Boy, would I love to go back (even if they just let me hang around The Food Network for a few days….)
The episode that I appear in airs one week from today, January 18th, at 9 p.m. Here is a small promotion video that the Food Network put on their site. Tonight, I believe that the Burgers episode is airing, and last week, they showed Comfort Foods, during which my friend Michaela prepared the most fantastic looking fritters. After my episode, they will air Hot and Spicy, Desserts, and Hometown Favorites. The winners get a nice check, and their recipe will appear on the T.G.I. Fridays menu nationwide for a limited time. Not a bad gig, huh?
So, I didn't want to just go on and on about myself without at least providing you with a recipe at the end of this post. This is another "preparing for my parents" creation, as they both enjoy homemade muffins. I've made many variations of carrot cake and carrot muffins over the years, but they have always been other peoples' recipes. A recipe of my own was long overdue. The one that I finally came up with draws from my favorite aspects of the other recipes, but I tried to make my version a bit healthier by incorporating whole wheat flour and by replacing some of the oil with grated apples. These muffins are not overly sweet, and they have a nice, almost chewy texture from the inclusion of coconut and golden raisins. Pecans add a toasty crunch. Here are a few extra tips for making these slightly sweet and healthy treats:
- Grating carrots and apples on a box grater can be a bit of a chore. If you have a food processor with a grating disk, use it. This is a major time saver, and you can grate both the carrots and the apple in one batch.
- When I add apples to a muffin or bread recipe, I tend to keep the peel on, but feel free to peel the apples before grating them.
- Depending on how sweet you like your muffins, you can use sweetened or unsweetened flake coconut. I found that the addition of the apples, carrots, and sugar makes the muffins sweet enough, so I opted for the unsweetened coconut.
- This recipe makes quite a few muffins. Seal some in sip-top bags and freeze them for up to two weeks. Take one out in the morning (or the night before) to defrost for an easy and portable breakfast.
- I like to use safflower oil in my recipes because it has a neutral flavor, but you can certainly use canola, sunflower, or vegetable oil instead.
Carrot, Apple, and Pecan Muffins
Makes about 24
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
2/3 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup safflower oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 pound carrots, peeled and finely grated
1 large apple (about 8 ounces), cored and grated
1/2 cup flake coconut
1/2 cup golden raisins
3/4 cup chopped pecans, lightly toasted
Preheat the oven to 375F degrees. Line 24 muffin cups with paper liners. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, whole wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix both sugars with the eggs at medium speed until well combined, 2-3 minutes. Mix in the safflower oil and the vanilla.
Stir the carrots, apples, coconut, and raisins into the wet ingredients until thoroughly incorporated. Stir in the pecans. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mixing until just combined.
Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, filling them almost to the top. Bake the muffins for 18 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean. Cool the muffins for 5 minutes in the pans and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely (or serve them warm!)