Natalie's RecipesRed Velvet Cupcakes1 package red velvet cake mix1 (3.9-ounce) box chocolate instant pudding1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened16 ounces powdered sugar (about 4 cups)1 cup whipped topping, thawedPrepare cake mix as directed, blending the dry chocolate pudding into the mix. Bake cupcakes and let them cool. Use a spoon and scoop out a small amount of each cupcake to make a hole.Beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl with mixer until well blended. Gradually beat in powdered sugar. Whisk in whipped topping. Spoon icing into decorating bag. Insert the icing into the hole and then ice the top of the cupcake with a swirl of icing. Keep refrigerated.Sour Cream Chicken Casserole3 chicken breasts, cooked and cut into bite-size pieces1 stick butter, melted2 cups saltine cracker crumbs8 ounces sour cream1 (10-3/4-ounce) cream of chicken soup, undiluted1/4 cup waterPepper, to tasteCombine butter and cracker crumbs; blend well. Spoon 1/2 of cracker mixture into shallow 2-quart casserole or an 8-by-12-inch Pyrex dish. Place chicken pieces over cracker crumbs. Combine sour cream, water, chicken soup and pepper; blend well; pour over chicken. Top with remaining cracker crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Serve with a green vegetable and salad.
Many cooks wait well into their adult years - once they're more seasoned in the culinary arts - before entering a cooking contest. And it's only a handful of those who will win.
But 10-year-old Natalie Hope already has accomplished both. Recently, the Ringgold, Ga., resident put her cupcakes up against 63 other entries in the cupcake contest at She: An Expo for Women, an event sponsored by the Times Free Press. Both professionals and home cooks entered, but Natalie's lemon-filled cupcakes were a clear favorite among celebrity judges Katherine Kallinis Berman and Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne, co-founders of Georgetown Cupcake and stars of the hit series "D.C. Cupcakes" on TLC.
"If she keeps baking like this, she's got quite a future ahead of her," Berman said after she and her sister made the final decision.
The winning cupcake won for its creativity, design and taste. Natalie's creation was in the form of a soft-boiled egg and served in an actual egg carton. She used cupcake mix for the whites, lemon curd for the yolk and pieces of white chocolate to create the broken shell. Judges all agreed it was both beautiful and tasty.
Natalie says she's always loved to cook. She was given a play kitchen when she was 18 months old and "cooked" in a corner of the "grown-up" kitchen while her mom made meals, mirroring many of her mother's techniques.
While other kids watched cartoons, Natalie tuned into the Food Network. When other children played Super Mario, Natalie preferred to play "Cooking Mama" on her Nintendo. And since the Hopes started subscribing to Netflix, Natalie's been catching up on past episodes of "D.C. Cupcakes."
So when asked what her favorite thing to make is, her answer is not unexpected. Just short and sweet:
"Cupcakes and desserts," she says.
Lately, though, she's been expanding her repertoire, trying her hand at savory dishes. The chicken pot pie she made a few weeks ago was a success; so were the tacos and refried beans she made for another recent family dinner.
"She's always experimenting," mom Michelle says.
But while she watched her mother cooking from a young age, Natalie says her interest in cooking was fueled by both parents. Her mother wasn't afraid to give her free rein in the kitchen - with oversight, of course - and her dad would "taste anything I'd put together, no matter how bad it looked or smelled," she says. "Mom was always chicken to try things."
She also learned more about cooking by watching the Food Network show "Chopped," where chefs are giving baskets of oddball ingredients (watermelon, canned sardines, pepper jack cheese and zucchini, anyone?), then told to make an appetizer, entree or dessert using every one of them.
And she took a cake-decorating class when she was 8 years old, learning the skills she needed to make her birthday cake that year, decorating it as a watermelon with ants on it.
"The kids were impressed," her mother says. "It didn't match the theme of her party, but she didn't care."
Cooking does more for children than keep them entertained, however.
"It gives them a sense of ownership in the food that is served at their dinner table," says Amanda Nelson-Varnell, owner of Dish T Pass Cooking School in Chattanooga. "They are more inclined to try new things and become well-rounded eaters when they are involved in the preparation process."
And there's more to it than mixing ingredients and hoping it tastes good. Varnell says learning to cook strengthens kids' math skills, as well as brings out their creativity and builds self-esteem.
Natalie, a fifth-grader at Ringgold Elementary School, has seen how it's boosted her math proficiency.
"It really helps me when we do fractions," she says. "I think about measuring cups. And I love art, so I really like the decorating part of baking cupcakes and cakes."
Winning the She cupcake contest built her confidence level, she says, though not as much as some may think.
"I really wasn't surprised," she says. "But my mom and sister were."
Michelle says she hesitated to even tell Natalie about the contest.
"I knew there were no divisions for kids. I knew professionals would be entered, and I didn't want to crush Natalie. But then I realized it would be a good life lesson. When the judges commented how they had never seen anything so original and called out her name, I was speechless."
Varnell says introducing kids to cooking, particularly to flavors from other U.S. regions and cultures in the world, opens the doors of possibility for them.
"It's like reading a great book - it takes them on a fabulous trip outside of the familiar. It literally can create hope and vision for their future."
As for her future, Natalie says she'd like to enter more contests, probably ones with cupcake and other dessert categories. And one day, she says, she'd like to own her own cupcake store.
Contact Anne Braly at email@example.com.