EBENSBURG - If you can sneak healthy ingredients into chocolate chip cookies and even win over the toughest critics - a group of hungry high school students - you know you're on to something.
Maybe that's why Lauren Kudlawiec of Ebensburg is a finalist in the "Great American Cookbook Competition'' on the "Rachael Ray'' TV show. As one of five finalists in the national competition that attracted almost 1,000 entrants, Kudlawiec will start a series of challenges on the show Monday that will begin eliminating finalists.
One week later, a second challenge will knock off another finalist and so forth until only one contender remains standing on May 19, said Paige Landsem, a spokeswoman for the show.
Neither Kudlawiec or Landsem could say if Kudlawiec is the winner of the competition. Monday's show has already been taped, as are all of Ray's shows, but Landsem would not say how far in advance the shows are taped.
Kudlawiec, 28, who teaches family and consumer science at Penn Cambria High School in Cresson, said Ray called her to tell her that she was a finalist.
"It was the coolest phone call I've ever received,'' Kudlawiec said. "I'm like, 'Is this the real Rachel Ray?' and she said, 'There is no other.'"
But Kudlawiec went on to say that Ray "is the same warm, bubbly person you see on TV. She is just an amazing person.''
As one of the finalists, Kudlawiec will get a culinary trip to Cancun, Mexico, for two. Her husband, Bryan, is a full-time pharmacist at UPMC Altoona and a part-time pharmacist at the Walgreens store in Altoona. She'll also have a video of herself cooking one of her recipes on the "Rachael Ray'' show website.
Kudlawiec said she's a longtime fan of Ray's and usually has to record her show when she's teaching. But she was on Thanksgiving break last November when she saw Ray announce the cookbook competition.
"A cookbook has been a lifelong dream for me,'' Kudlawiec said. "This competition would be the opportunity to fulfill the goal of a lifetime.''
Kudlawiec, who also coaches the high school's varsity girls track and field team, said she grew up loving to cook but learned in college how to buy and prepare food on a budget. Once she settled on her teaching career, she began to develop a series of recipes culled from various places, including some from her mother. She modified them to make them both healthier and more affordable, she said.
A good example is her chocolate chip cookie recipe. She changed it a little, switching the regular flour for whole wheat flour, Kudlawiec said. Not to brag, but the cookies are a big hit at Penn Cambria, she said.
"People don't know there's those healthy substitutions in there,'' she said.
Ray started the cookbook competition because she wanted to help others follow in her footsteps, Landsem said Ray told her audience last fall. The show is seen locally on CBS affiliate WTAJ-TV at 9 a.m.