In the Midwest, family recipes passed down generally have a few things in common — tradition and warmth. This time of year is all about bringing people together at the table and digging into the tried and true recipes, the ones with Grandma’s secret ingredient or the trick your father uses to make the dish just right.
We asked our readers to send us those favorites — not just the recipes with sacred ingredients but ones that have their families coming back for more. The result is a collection of appetizers, side dishes, main courses, and desserts that you can bring to your own kitchens, for the holidays or any special meal together.
Mrs. La Cava’s Eggplant
A collection of hundreds of passed down recipes rest in the home of Jingle Hagey.
Gleaned from all the old family cookbooks, Hagey’s mother Diane Foster Igleheart wrote a cookbook for her children in 1968 and again for her grandchildren in 1988, each time adding new recipes. Hagey’s nephew, Austin Igleheart IV, then digitized the collection in 2010.
Mrs. La Cava’s Eggplant is derived from the wife of Louie La Cava, allegedly one of Al Capone’s “boys,” who came to Evansville in the 1920s to sell cigar bands to the former Fendrich Cigar Company. Hagey’s mother explains in the cookbook that he was one of the colorful characters from her childhood.
Described as a southern Italian meal, it is so rich that it could serve the purpose of a meat dish. Hagey, who has been cooking her entire life, says it’s better to make Mrs. La Cava’s Eggplant the day before to give it time for the flavors to meld and then reheat it in the oven.
The recipe, which has appeared in the cookbook for generations, can be difficult to make if you’re not accustomed to cooking, Hagey notes, as there is no mention of measurements, temperature, or time.
“Measurements are hard, so it depends upon the depth of the casserole,” says Hagey. “It’s a very forgiving recipe, actually.”
Cooking is fundamental to Hagey’s family. Her paternal ancestors founded and owned Igleheart Bros., a flour mill that created and marketed Swans Down Cake Flour. She grew up cooking and baking and all three of her siblings possess culinary skills.
“We’ve been deep into baking and food for a long, long time,” says Hagey. “It was always an important part of our lives.”
• 1 Eggplant
• 1 can of Italian tomatoes
• Green peppers
• Mozzarella cheese
• Parmesan cheese
Slice eggplant 1/4-inch-thick, with the skin on, salt, and let stand, then drain. Brown each slice of eggplant in Mazola or olive oil. Make a sauce of the Italian tomatoes and stew down with garlic, onions, green peppers, and oregano. Grease a casserole dish and put in layers: sauce, eggplant, mozzarella cheese. Repeat until casserole dish is full, ending with the sauce. Sprinkle top with parmesan cheese and heat in the oven at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes.
Grandma Ruthie’s Cheese Log
Each Christmas, the Simmons family huddles around the table waiting for the arrival of a special guest. It isn’t Santa or the Grinch — it’s Grandma Ruthie with her infamous 2-foot long cheese log tucked under her arm.
“The party started when Grandma walked in with her cheese log,” says Miranda Simmons, Ruthie Jacobs’ granddaughter.
The recipe came from Jacobs’ best friend, Judy Givens, and became a Christmas dinner staple 15 years ago, along with their traditional homemade pizzas and red punch.
After Jacobs’ stopped cooking as often last year, Simmons was determined to keep the tradition alive. She cried through the painstaking process of rolling out Velveeta cheese and even called her mom for support before finally achieving a perfect, shorter replica of the log.
“When I started, I wanted to find quicker ways to do it, but it’s a lot like Grandma — hardworking, taking your time,” says Simmons. “It’s what she instilled in us growing up and it’s how you make the cheese log.”
Following tradition, Simmons is preparing her seven-year-old daughter for the cheese log, substituting the cheese with Play-Doh.
“I never actually got to make it with my Grandma, and I want to have the experience with my daughter,” she says.
• 1 package Velveeta (chilled for easier rolling)
• 1 pound cream cheese
• 2 cups diced jalapenos
• 2 cups diced green onions
• 2 cups chopped pecans
Set chilled Velveeta between two pieces of wax paper. Roll the Velveeta into a thin layer. Repeat with the cream cheese and then remove the top layer of wax paper from both. Flip the cream cheese onto the Velveeta. Sprinkle the onions and jalapenos evenly and then tuck and roll the layers into a log shape. Roll the completed log through the pecans. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes and serve with your choice of crackers.
Smoked Chicken Chipotle Tacos
Sundays are about cooking for Bob Renock and his family. And it’s not just about cooking long-time or traditional family recipes. Sometimes it’s about trying something new.
“We have Sunday dinner for the whole family and it’s one of those things where we try new things,” says the director of brand experience at Old National Bank.
About eight years ago, Renock decided to try a new, simple recipe for his family dinners — smoked chicken chipotle tacos. The recipe has become a big hit and a regular among the family gatherings since. Through the years, the dish also has found its way to Renock’s table for quick weeknight meals (where he uses chicken breasts instead of a whole chicken).
“I’ve just been tweaking it over the last seven or eight years,” he says. “I think the smoked chicken adds a lot more depth to the dish. And the chipotles are smoked too, so that adds to that real smoky flavor.”
The dish also can take on an authentic street taco vibe with the additional garnishes, from crunchy radishes to slices of avocado and a small dollop of sour cream. Though the tacos can be dressed however the eater wishes, Renock feels the traditional offerings allow the flavor of the smoked chicken and chipotle adobo sauce to shine.
“I like the crunch of the radishes on them, because I normally use a soft shell and like to have something with a crunch in it,” he says. “It’s really an easy dish. It can be a quick, weeknight dinner or it can be elevated where you’re smoking whole chickens and really taking your time with it.”
And while Sundays can be for trying new things, Renock’s family also likes passing on the tasty dishes they all love to dig into frequently.
“These dishes on Sunday are something that others will eventually start making on their own,” he says.
• 1 whole chicken, or four chicken breasts
• Adobo seasoning
• Salt and pepper
• 2 cans diced tomatoes and green chilies
• 1 large can of diced tomatoes
• 1 onion
• 1 to 2 Chipotles in adobo sauce
• Taco shells
• Sliced radishes
• Sour Cream
Rub the chicken or chicken breasts with adobo seasoning to coat evenly. Smoke whole chicken or breasts in smoker or in oven until internal temperature of breasts is 160-165 F and thighs is 170-175 F. Allow chicken to rest, then shred. In a large pot, sauté one onion. Chop one to two chipotles from the adobo sauce; add more if you would like more heat. Stir in one tablespoon of adobo sauce (add more to taste). Stir in diced tomatoes and tomatoes and green chilies. Once heated, stir in shredded chicken. Serve warm with sliced radishes, diced avocado, and sour cream in hard or soft taco shells.
Asian-Spiced Short Ribs
Stepping into the home of Janice Stratton and you’re likely to be enveloped by a variety of delicious smells. Cooking for Stratton isn’t just about putting food on the table — it’s about creating something new and sharing her kitchen as well as her recipes with those she loves and cares for.
Her love of cooking is more than a hobby; it truly is a passion. When not in the kitchen, Stratton loves perusing cookbooks. Several table surfaces in her home contain well-loved magazines from Food & Wine and Bon Appetit. Learning to cook happened for Janice as it does for most — at her mother’s side in her childhood home.
“My mother was a very good cook and so I learned a lot from her,” says Stratton. “Interestingly enough she didn’t venture out much — she stayed with her tried and true recipes. Versus me, who has a whole bookcase of cookbooks and loves to do different things.”
Stratton has a multitude of recipes that are favorites for her family and friends, but the one that gets the most raving reviews is the Asian-spiced short ribs.
“The short rib recipe takes hours — it’s one of those slow and low dishes that’s really delicious,” she says.
The slow cooking time allows the flavorful ingredients to infuse into the meat. By the time the dish is pulled from the oven, the meat practically falls off the bone and melts in your mouth. Stratton tops off the meal by whipping up creamy garlic mashed potatoes and roasted butternut squash.
• 8-16 Bone-in beef short ribs
• Kosher salt
• Ground fennel (for dusting)
• 1 cup ketchup
• 1 cup dry red wine
• 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
• 1/2 cup unsulfured molasses
• 3 tablespoons dried onion flakes
• 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
• 1 tablespoon soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon garlic powder
• 1 tablespoon chipotle chile in adobo (seeded and minced)
• 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
• 3 quarts water
Preheat oven to 325 F. Light a grill. Season ribs with salt and fennel. Grill over high heat, turning until charred all over — 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a flameproof roasting pan. In a large bowl, mix ketchup, wine, vinegar, molasses, onion flakes, fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic powder, chipotle chile, sesame oil, and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Whisk in the water. Pour over the ribs and bring to a simmer on a stove top. Cover the pan and braise in the oven, turning the ribs once until very tender — 2 1/2 hours. Transfer the sauce to a large saucepan, cover, and boil over high heat for 1 hour. Meanwhile, keep the ribs warm in a 200 F oven. Increase oven temperature to 350 F. Pour the sauce over the ribs and roast about 15 to 20 minutes.
Cured Country Ham
There are no hidden secrets when it comes to smoking hams in Kentucky. It’s an art that’s been passed down through generations of families throughout the state — Houston Keach’s family is one of them.
At his home in Henderson, Kentucky, Keach keeps up the tradition that has been in his family as long as he can remember. His property was purchased by his grandfather in 1922 and the family moved in around 1928. The smoke house is original and, except for a few years when it was abandoned, Keach estimates the building has been in use since it was constructed in 1852.
Keach remembers he and his brother Scott helping their grandfather and father to cure entire hogs at the beginning of the year. Nowadays, Keach sticks to just hams.
“This has just always been something we’ve done since I was a child,” says the Henderson native. “Now it’s kind of a social event for us. A lot of our friends have been doing this with us for decades.”
Each January, family and friends (young and old) gather at the home to start the process — 45 hams are covered in salt, sugar, and a little bit of salt peter (potassium nitrate) to help with coloring and preventing botulism. A few more steps are completed through the year (including smoking) and by Thanksgiving, the hams are ready to be unwrapped. And though the meat is generally a marked meal for holidays, Houston enjoys eating his smoked delicacies year round.
“I just go in the refrigerator and slice off some for a sandwich. And my wife Lowery (sister of Jingle Hagey on page 38) makes the best biscuits in the world so, country ham on biscuits is a staple,” he says.
Makes 10 pounds of mixture for 100 pounds of ham (1 pound of mixture will cure 10 pounds of ham)
• 8 pounds of salt
• 2 pounds of sugar (white or brown)
• Black pepper (optional)
• Red Pepper (optional)
• Paprika (optional)
• Saltpeter (potassium nitrate, optional)
Mix salt and sugar. Pepper, paprika, and saltpeter optional for coloring. If using saltpeter, be sure to follow manufacturer’s guidelines. Separate the lean from the bone and the muscle from the skin with your finger. Add at least four tablespoons of cure mixture into opening. Rub cure mixture on the surface of the ham. Allow ham to rest on butcher paper in cool, dry place for six weeks — internal temperature shouldn’t raise above 45 F. After six weeks, wash the cure mixture from the hams in warm water. Season cleaned hams with red and black pepper. Place in mesh bag with the hock at the bottom of the net. Hang the ham, hock pointed down. Smoking is an optional step after four weeks of hanging. Smoking can be done with a green wood cool fire — typically with fruit or nut wood. Hams are ready around Thanksgiving after curing in summer heat.
There was always a routine to Christmas for Leigh Anne Howard and her family. Visit one set of grandparents on one day, and the second pair the next with long drives back home to their dairy farm in rural Kentucky at the start and end of each day. With chores to be done, there wasn’t a lot of time to make an intricate, festive holiday meal. The solution? The family’s traditional oyster stew.
“My earliest memory of the stew was having it for Christmas Eve,” says Howard, who serves as chair of the communications department at the University of Southern Indiana. “And we didn’t have it that often, so it was really sort of special to have it that night.”
She also has extended the tradition beyond her family — the USI communications department faculty hosts a tradition of cooking a variety of soups and grilled cheese sandwiches to share with students at the end of a semester.
A simple four-ingredient “stew” (that resembles a bisque), the recipe was one Howard and her sister learned in the kitchen from their mother. It wasn’t until recently, however, she was told the stew recipe actually came from her paternal grandmother.
“My mom was a home economics teacher back in the day. Thinking about oysters and their availability to rural Kentucky, I just assumed this recipe was something she encountered in the course of her study and work as a teacher,” says Howard. “When we were talking about the recipe last year, Mom told me that actually it’s my father’s mother’s recipe and that she learned to make it from her. I had no idea.”
Howard’s paternal grandparents traveled frequently due to her grandfather’s job working as a 4-H Extension Agent and being active in the American Dairy Association. During their travels, her grandmother would look for recipes using dairy ingredients. And there’s been no changing the recipe over the decades either. It’s that simplicity of the dish that has made it such a staple for her family over the years.
“You could put other ingredients in, but it’s not going to be oyster stew,” she says. “That’s what my mamaw called it, and in the family that’s what it is.”
• 1/2 stick of butter
• 1/2 cup of flour
• 1 teaspoon of salt
• 1 teaspoon of pepper
• 1/2 gallon of whole milk
• 3 cans of oysters (or 1 pint of fresh oysters)
Combine butter and flour in a soup pot and cook over heat until you have a light roux. Add salt and pepper. Stir in 2 cups of whole milk until roux and milk are blended. Stir in remaining 5 to 6 cups of milk. Continue stirring over medium heat until the stew reaches desired thickness. Stir in oysters, along with oyster liquor (natural juice of the oysters). Continue stirring a few minutes until heated through. Serve with grilled cheese sandwiches.
Strawberry Nut Bread
Every May, Patty Moore’s mother Marcella Meredith would go out and pick strawberries to make her specialty strawberry nut bread.
Meredith, an avid baker, would often cook with her daughter as it was one of her favorite things to do.
“She was all about cooking and giving food away,” says Moore. “She liked spending the time doing it.”
Meredith’s giving spirit continued when she lived in the senior apartments at the University Nursing and Rehabilitation. During her time there, she would make a big pot of soup that she would roll down the hallways of the apartment on a cart to offer to the residents who lived there.
A compassionate baker, Meredith would also often make large buckets of buckeyes (peanut butter fudge balls dipped in chocolate) for her grandsons.
“She loved to do that,” Moore says.
Moore says her mother would plan months in advance to make sure her strawberry bread would be ready for Christmas time, as she would freeze dozens of them in the spring to give as gifts. She made sure to use fresh strawberries as it worked better for baking the bread than frozen strawberries.
“It’s really sweet” she says. “A lot of times when you think of bread, you don’t think of such a sweet bread. It’s almost more of a dessert than it is a bread.”
Though Meredith has passed away, her strawberry bread recipe lives on through her daughter. While giving the bread as Christmas gifts was more of her mother’s idea, Moore still bakes the recipe a couple times a year to keep the tradition alive.
• 2 cups of flour
• 1 teaspoon of baking soda
• 1 teaspoon of salt
• 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
• 2 cups of sugar
• 4 eggs beaten
• 1 1/4 cup of vegetable oil
• 2 cups of sliced strawberries
• 1 1/4 cups of chopped pecans
Combine dry ingredients. Add eggs, oil, strawberries, and pecans. Stir until all ingredients are moistened. Spoon the batter into two well-greased 9-inch by 5-inch by 3-inch loaf pans. Bake at 350 F for 60 to 70 minutes, or until done. Cool in pans for 5 minutes then remove to wire rack to cool.
While turkey and ham are the centerpieces for most holiday meals, Roxane Patton’s family fights for dibs on something sweeter — chess pie.
Known as “egg pie” by the Pattons, this creamy custard dessert is simple to make on paper, but Roxane’s secret is in the process, something she learned from her late mother-in-law Esther Patton, who was taught by her mother-in-law Margaret Patton.
“There is a kind of technique but if I give it away, no one will buy my pie,” says Roxane, a Macy’s Merchandising team member.
Born in Japan, Roxane has lived in Evansville since 1975 and has been in charge of the holiday pies for 20 of her 27 years of marriage to Frank Patton Jr. Each year, she makes two pies at Thanksgiving and Christmas and about one pie a week to sell through Frank’s catering business.
“My father-in-law used to take one and hide it and everyone would start bickering and asking how many pies I brought,” she says. “[The pie] makes us stay cohesive and want to stay together. It keeps the family history.”
With four sons and one daughter, Roxane plans to continue tradition and reveal the full recipe to one of her daughters-in-law. While we can’t disclose Roxanne’s specific mixing instructions, you can compare your chess pie to her version by purchasing a pie from Frank Jr.’s Catering at 812-475-9880.
• 8 egg yolks
• 1 cup of sugar
• 1 tablespoon flour
• 1 can of evaporated milk (preferably Carnation for extra smoothness)
• One-half of a stick of unsalted butter, melted
• 1 teaspoon of vanilla
Mix ingredients together and pour into a pie crust. Bake at 350 F for about 30 minutes. Turn oven down to 250 or 275 F until pie is evenly browned and has a creamy, jiggly consistency.