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Smoky Mac and Cheese

Smoky Mac and Cheese Recipe

I can’t believe it’s Labor Day weekend. Where did summer go? I had all sorts of big plans for grilling and preserving and cooking up the flavors of our most bountiful season, but then poof, just like that it was gone. Not that I can complain too much: now it’s time to think about braising, tailgating, and all my favorite recipes that come with the fall.

Smoky Mac and Cheese Recipe

That’s the beauty of this holy-crap-it’s-amazing baked macaroni and cheese — each and every bite carries the deep, smoky flavors of the August grill, but it is rich and hearty enough to hold you over all fall and winter long. I’ve been mastering my mac and cheese recipe for years now, and to be honest, I didn’t think it could be improved upon. One bite with my latest changes may have changed my mind!

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Bourbon Banana Puddings

Banana pudding sits high in the royal court of Southern desserts, and it doesn’t get much better than the classic recipe on the back of the Nilla wafer box. But sometimes it can’t hurt to experiment, and it’s not often difficult to find a line of folks ready and willing to try my latest spin. Two of my greatest hits are MoonPie Banana Pudding and Banana Pudding Ice Cream Pie. Seriously, how bad can those be?

Not being able to leave well enough alone, I decided to give the recipe another go. This time I added brown sugar and bourbon to my vanilla pudding base, giving it a hint of butterscotch and a bit more grown-up appeal. And to further the recipe’s cocktail-lovin’ flare, I substituted in sweet and spicy gingersnaps for the usual plain wafers—my nod to the old Southern standby “Jack & Ginger.”

While most recipes for banana pudding call for a big trifle dish, I thought these would be best piled into my favorite cocktail glasses; the individual servings are perfect for your next adults-only dinner party, no I.D. required. Now the only thing left is to figure out how to get these down with a straw.

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Individual Sweet Corn Custards

Southerners can take just about any vegetable and improve upon it. We’ve been known to deep fry squash and call it a fritter, or toss sugar and eggs into sweet potatoes and call it a pudding. Take sweet summer corn for instance. We’ll cream it, can it or casserole it — you name it, we’ve made it.

It’s not because we don’t like our vegetables, either. There is truly nothing finer than fresh summer corn picked up from a weathered old farmer’s roadside stand, resting assured that it was plucked from his field mere hours before. Whether shaved raw into a salad or eaten straight from the cob, it just doesn’t get much better than that. But after a few weeks of this kind of bountiful eating — and many more months on the horizon — folks have to start mixing things up a bit. It only takes one too many tomato salads to get us doing what we do best. (Some people may say worst, but hey, what can you do?) After a long Southern harvest, heavy cream and butter start making that surplus of veggies in the garden look pretty darn enticing.

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A Southern Spin on the Classic Cobb Salad

Barbecue makes a frequent appearance at our house, whether my fiancé smoked thirty pounds of pig using his secret family recipe, or I slow-cooked a batch of my signature oven-braised pulled pork. Either way, you can guarantee there are going to be plenty of leftovers for snacking. And while I am usually happy with just a plain ol’ sandwich (cheap white bun and vinegar sauce, please), every now and then I have so much extra that I have to start experimenting.

I’ve made pulled pork quesadillas and pulled pork hash. In fact, the only thing I haven’t made is pulled pork french fries. (Note to self: is that even possible? Must try soon.) It seems I am always looking for the next big thing. My fiancé and I eat Cobb salads on a regular basis, so it was only natural for me to add pork instead of the usual chicken or turkey, and let’s just say it was a bona fide hit.

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Grilled Banana Bread Ice Cream Sandwiches

Grilled Banana Bread Ice Cream Sandwiches Recipe

I inherited my banana bread recipe from my future mother-in-law; it’s the only recipe my fiancé claims is worth making. I’ve made a few changes of my own to the recipe over the past few years, and now it’s the only recipe I claim is worth making. My secrets? I roast the bananas to bring out their natural sweetness (no need to let them rot on your counter). Both butter and a splash of oil keep the bread moist for days, and vanilla bean paste adds a certain something extra you can’t quite put your finger on.

Banana bread — especially this banana bread — is delicious all year round, but how ’bout a little summertime makeover? Think grilled banana bread ice cream sandwiches, a fun twist on an old classic! The best part? These are so simple you almost don’t need a recipe. I threw the bread on the grill to add a nice toasty flavor and to help it stand up in the freezer. When it came to choosing ice cream flavors, I got a little crazy. Vanilla made for a classic ice cream sandwich, but my favorite pairing was rich and creamy coconut gelato — such an amazing flavor combination. If you get really adventurous, try using your own homemade ice cream. (I went with banana. Oh my word.) Then the possibilities are truly endless!

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Texas Sheet Cake

Texas Sheet Cake Recipe Texas Sheet Cake

There may be plenty of beauty queens in Texas, unfortunately this sheet cake isn’t one. But hey, it’s supposed to be about the inner beauty, right? Whether that’s the case or not, this classic recipe would still take home plenty of “Miss Congeniality” awards; it never fails to win over a crowd.

Texas sheet cake is an old Southern standby—some version of it is guaranteed to grace the table at almost any potluck, church picnic, or 4th of July celebration below the Mason Dixon. You can find a recipe for it in almost any community cookbook known to man. In the case of my old grade school’s tiny cookbook, I found three. (It often falls under many different names, but Texas sheet cake seems to be the most popular. I guess because it’s as big as Texas!)

Texas Sheet Cake Recipe

This is my take on the cherished recipe I grew up with. The boy next door (who just so happened to be my childhood crush) loved it so much that my mother would often bake up an entire pan just for him. As I begrudgingly carried it over to his house, I always wondered what a girl needed to do to get one of her own.

As I’ve become a more experienced chef and baker, willing to attempt the most complicated of cakes, I still know with confidence this Texas sheet cake will withstand the test of time. Perhaps one day I, too, will have a daughter whose heart I can make go aflutter as she drops one off at a young heartthrob’s door. (And it’s funny now, how it all just started making sense.)

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Creamy Corn Hushpuppies

Corn Hush Puppies Recipe

I tasted my first hushpuppy at a seafood shack in Georgia, a divey little place we took my grandparents to after church every couple of Sundays. I was just a gangly little thing with a voracious appetite, and my parents — my father in particular — were schooling me in the glories of all things Southern and fried. While the grownups exclusively ordered the catfish and shrimp, I went straight for my go-to: kid-friendly chicken fingers. (Catfish brought up thoughts of my beloved feline, Munchkin, and I couldn’t bear the thought of eating anything related to her.)

I had no problem, however, stealing the sides of hushpuppies right off my parents’ plates. (Funny that I didn’t seem to mind eating anything that sounded as if it had something to do with the family dog.) I’d snatch those little balls of fried dough faster than anyone could wave a hand to stop me. Eventually my dad had to start getting an extra order for the table. I was utterly hooked on hushpuppies.

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Chicken Nuggets

Homemade Chicken Nuggets Recipe

In the small Southern town where I grew up, chicken shacks dot every other street corner, gas station, and strip mall. My first summer job was at one of those famous fry joints; I was 16 and had so much to learn. My best friend and I drank bottomless cherry cokes and ate too many French fries — it was three short months of greasy teenage bliss. Man, what I wouldn’t give to have that high school metabolism back!

As a veteran and self-proclaimed chicken joint “pro,” let me give you non-Southerners a couple of tips should you make it down this way. Chicken joints do one thing — fried chicken — and they do it well. Don’t even think about asking for grilled. You can get a plate, a box, or a bucket; all served with crinkle fries, slaw, and Texas toast. There are three options for a reason, so don’t try to over-complicate your order. (Simple works, folks, especially when high schoolers are running the register). And let’s not forget about that oh-so-special “special sauce.” Every spot has its own secret recipe, but they all taste pretty similar, and delicious, to me. Go ahead and order a couple of extras; you’re gonna need them.

In case you aren’t headed South anytime soon, here’s a recipe to give you a little taste of what you’re missing.

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Candy Bar Pie

Take 5 Pie Recipe

I’m not going to lie—I’d never tried a Take 5 candy bar until just a few days ago. When I took my first salty, sweet, insanely delicious bite I immediately wondered what in the heck I had been waiting for. Seriously, what could possibly be wrong with a combination of pretzels, peanuts, peanut butter, caramel, and chocolate? Nothing.

Take 5 Pie Recipe

So when it came time to come up with a stellar Super Bowl dessert —because really, it’s all about the food—I knew a replication of the Take 5 bar would be a guaranteed knock-it-out-of-the-park success.

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Beef and Andouille Chili

Beef Chili Recipe

Every cook believes he personally makes “the best” chili. That same cook may spend years perfecting a complex spice mixture or uncovering the ultimate secret ingredient. I applaud him for his efforts. And I will eat his chili with much enthusiasm and great satisfaction.

But let me tell you a little secret: I’ve never met a chili I didn’t like. From my mom’s ground beef version (seasoned with a store-bought spice pouch) to the famous “bowl o’ red” I enjoyed in Texas, I’ll take them all. Heck, I’ll even take the chili from Wendy’s, as long as it smothers a warm baked potato. Honestly I’ve never understood the snobbery this simple dish seems to carry. I mean, come on, it’s just a hearty bowl of comfort food meant to warm your bones on a brisk day. Even better if it’s made with love!

When it comes to my own “perfect” chili, however, I do have some personal preferences I seem to adhere to.

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