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Chocolate Chip-Pecan Kentucky Pie for the Final Four

Many college kids don’t exactly follow a healthy meal plan, and I was no exception. Since the majority of restaurants in my Alabama university town accepted our campus dining card, I would often order a lavish takeout dinner. Excess was the rule. One of my all-time favorite splurges was a rather large slice of warm Kentucky Pie from a local deli. That sublime chocolate chip cookie/pecan pie hybrid, a riff on Louisville’s famous Derby Pie, was the stuff that dreams (and the dreaded ‘freshman 15′) were made of.

This Saturday, whether you’re cheering on the Kentucky Wildcats or a fan of gooey chocolate chip desserts (because surely you are at least one of these things?), consider making this riff on crowd-pleasing Kentucky Pie for your fellow March Madness revelers. Serve slabs of this soft cookie-pie warm, straight out of the oven, with whipped cream or ice cream if you so please. (I do.) And if you want to do it like a real Southerner, offer a nip of bourbon on the side.

(Want even more recipes inspired by famous college town foods? Check out Cooking Channel’s Bracket Battle of the Best College Eats.)

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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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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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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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Pulled Pork Nachos

Pulled Pork Nachos

Three ingredients were the key to my survival in college: tortilla chips, shredded cheddar and chunky salsa. Armed with a Chevron card borrowed from my father, I would charge anything and everything under the sun, except actual gasoline. My starving-student diet consisted of Dr. Pepper, chocolate milk, hot dogs, bologna and, yes, even “homemade” nachos. Hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

I’ve come a long way since those junk-food days (well, depending on who you ask), yet those trashy nachos still remain firmly rooted in my culinary arsenal. It often humors my boyfriend when I return home ravenous from a late night at work and immediately pull the chips from the cabinet. Even with a fridge full of more civilized ingredients, sometimes all a girl wants is something fattening and familiar. But before you judge, just think about your favorite nostalgic treats. Come on, I know there has to be a dirty secret lurking somewhere in your refrigerator.

Fortunately, I’ll spare you the “recipe” for that ol’ heat-and-eat mess. I’ve decided to give nachos the old college try, and I think even the haters out there will approve of this Southern-style update. Imagine slow-cooked pulled pork drizzled with sweet-and-tangy barbecue sauce and ladled with creamy cheddar. It’s finished off with cilantro-sour cream, pickled jalapenos and a sprinkling of queso fresco. Each of the components is delicious in its own right, but paired together you get something truly sublime. The only way these nachos could get any better is if they’re washed down with an ice-cold beer. And that, my friends, is how to earn a culinary diploma!

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Fried Green Tomato BLT

Fried Green Tomato BLT

We all know the movie that made them famous, but there’s more to fried green tomatoes than being on the menu at The Whistle Stop Café. It’s pretty clear that us Southerners can fry just about anything, and we always seem to know how to cook up the “unwanted bits.” So why not take a lowly, unripe tomato and make it useful?

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Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding Recipe

Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding

It was my mother who first introduced me to the wonders of old-fashioned bread pudding. I remember the night well. We were in a hip little college-town restaurant that served pub food with a Southern twist. At the time, my middle school diet consisted of chicken fingers and cheese sticks, and only chicken fingers and cheese sticks, so it’s a shock that I was even willing to try a bite. In fact, I was probably the only child ever forced to sample a dessert against my will. (Like I said, if it wasn’t deep-fried, I didn’t want it.)

She ordered the bread pudding before she even ordered her entree, telling the server she wanted it piping hot and swimming in extra sauce. The secret, she explained to me, is always in the sauce. I took one bite of that steamy, drippy dessert and my life was changed forever. Am I being a little dramatic here? Nope; it’s bread pudding we’re talking about.

I think we even ordered another.

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