At some point in the last few years, it suddenly felt very important that I learn & record my family's recipes. Partly, I knew that a lot of them weren't written down (or were, but were prepared from memory and the original recipe was no longer relevant), and if someone didn't capture them, they'd eventually be lost.

I think I also got the sense that this was the art the women in my family have created & offered, but probably without much gratitude, and certainly not the fanfare deserved for an art that shaped our lives.

Like most things we call "American", these recipes have no single origin. Some have been passed down for generations, but all were modified along the way—adding, changing, & removing ingredients, and mixing ideas across families. Some were probably grabbed from Bon Appetite or the back of an Entenmann's box. Similarly, I'd encourage you to add, change, & remove what you see here.

Because this is a collection of mostly poetry, I don't expect you're a proficient baker or cook (as I am not). So, I'm spelling out procedures & techniques that might seem obvious to the more advanced.

Finally, each recipe comes with specific measurements, but that's mostly because I didn't know how else to represent them digitally. (I feel like I should give you some starting point.) Unless I'm baking, I rarely measure anything out. I cook the amount of meat I have; I prepare an amount of veggies & fruit that feels right; I season so that I can see the spice I'm adding. And since I'm not measuring by mass, these numbers aren't especially reliable. I encourage you to think of the measurements as a starting place, if you choose to acknowledge them at all.

Christmas Party Bean Dip

As my parents like to say, this recipe has a romantic origin. Sometime in the 1970s, my mom's aunt & uncle attended a wedding shower in San Diego. People were gathered around one particular food table, jockying to reach one item. It turned out to be this bean dip.

My mom's aunt got the recipe from the host, and brought it back to Buffalo. At my parents' wedding shower, she made the bean dip, and it was a hit again.

Fast-forward to the 90s. Every year for about 15 years, the Dillons threw a party on Christmas night at our Nashville house. We had dinner early, inviting one or two people who were in town without family. Later, friends came over for snacks, drinks, & desserts. The bean dip dish was always cleaned out.

Ingredients

31 oz
refried beans
8 oz
canned green chili peppers
8 oz
quesadilla cheese (shredded)
8 oz
taco sauce
Optional
~1 oz
sour cream
~1 oz
tomatoes (diced)
~1 oz
black olives (quartered)
~1 oz
chives (chopped)

Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°.
  2. Layer a 9x9" baking dish in this order:
    1. refried beans (31 oz)
    2. green chili peppers (8 oz)
    3. cheese (8 oz)
    4. taco sauce (8 oz)
  3. Bake for 20–25 minutes, or until the cheese is melted.
  4. Allow the dip to cool slightly (5–10 minutes) on the counter before adding the optional toppings.
    If adding sour cream, use a pastry bag (or sandwich bag with the corner cut out) to squeeze it into parallel lines or a wavy pattern.

About this recipe

  • Serve this dip with tortilla chips.
  • It sounds simple, and even a little unappealing, but trust me—this dip is addictive.

Found Slush Cake

Mom found this recipe somewhere around the time we arrived in Nashville (summer 1994). It was my brother's choice of birthday cake for all of middle & high school; I made it at his bachelor's party using a spent grain crust from a beer Brandon brewed for the birth of his son. There's a poem somewhere in that.

Ingredients

Crust
1⅓ c
flour (you can substitute crumbled graham cracker at a 1:1 ratio)
¾ c
walnuts (chopped)
¾
butter (cubed)
Cream cheese layer
4 oz
cream cheese (softened)
1 c
powdered sugar
9 oz
Cool Whip
Pudding layer
2x 5.9 oz
instant chocolate pudding mix
3 c
milk
Toppings
9 oz
Cool Whip
⅛ c
semi-sweet chocolate (shaved)
⅛ c
walnuts (chopped)

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Prepare the crust:
    1. In a mixing bowl, blend the flour/graham crackers (1 1/3 c), walnuts (3/4 c), & butter (3/4 c) with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly.
    2. Press the crust mix into the bottom of a 13x9" baking dish.
    3. Bake for 15 minutes.
    4. Allow to cool to room temperature on the counter, then chill in the fridge for several hours.
  3. Prepare the cream cheese layer:
    1. In a mixing bowl, blend the softened cream cheese (4 oz) & powder sugar (1 c) until completely mixed.
    2. Fold in one container of Cool Whip (9oz) until blended.
    3. Spread this mixture on top of the cold crust.
    4. Return the dish to the fridge to allow the cream cheese layer to set up.
  4. Prepare the pudding layer:
    1. In a mixing bowl, pour the milk (3 c), then gradually add all the instant pudding mix (11.8 oz) as you whisk until well blended (a few small lumps are fine).
    2. Spread the pudding over the set cream cheese layer.
  5. Add the toppings:
    1. Top the pudding layer with the second container of Cool Whip.
    2. Optionally, sprinkle the semi-sweet chocolate & chopped walnuts on top.
    3. Return to the fridge and allow to set for at least one hour.

About this recipe

  • There are a lot of substitution possibilities here. Two excellent ones are butterscotch pudding with toasted coconut topping, or pistachio pudding with chopped pistachio topping.

Gramma McCarthy's Coffee Cake

Gramma McCarthy was my mom's grandmother. She was born in Hungary (part of the Burgenland Croats enclave) but claimed German (and sometimes Austrian) citizenship, and even changed her surname—before marrying, and not in any offical way.

For many years, I wondered if her secrecy & the timing of her emigration from Europe were signs that she was hiding Jewish ancestry (I now know that's not the case). She was, as far as those of us interested in our geneology can ascertain, a mysterious woman.

This is the recipe that she passed down to her daughter & granddaughter. Mom made it every Thanksgiving & Christmas morning and typically no other time during the year. It was sort of a breakfast appetizer to eat while we were opening & then playing with our presents.

Ingredients

Batter
¾ c
white sugar
½ c
unsalted butter (room temperature)
1 tsp
vanilla extract
3
eggs
2 c
all purpose flour
1 tsp
baking soda
1 tsp
baking powder
2 c
sour cream
Strudel
1 c
brown sugar (packed)
½ c
unsalted butter (room temperature)
2 tsp
cinnamon
1 c
walnuts

Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°.
  2. Grease a Bundt pan.
    You can use the parchment paper that wraps a stick of butter for this.
  3. Prepare the batter in a mixing bowl:
    1. Using beaters or a mixer, cream ½ cup butter with the white sugar & vanilla.
      To cream a mixture, the butter should be at room temperature, and cut into squares.
    2. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each.
    3. In a separate mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, & baking powder.
    4. Alternate adding the sour cream & the flour mixture to the creamed mixture, blending after each addition.
  4. Prepare the strudel in another mixing bowl:
    1. Add ½ cup butter, the brown sugar, cinnamon, & walnuts.
    2. Mix the ingredients by crossing two butter knives, almost as if sharpening them.
      Don't over-mix; the strudel should have small chunks of butter.
  5. Layer the Bundt pan in this order:
    1. Half the batter
    2. Half the strudel
    3. Remaining batter
    4. Remaining strudel
  6. Bake for 40 minutes, then check for doneness.
    The cake is done when a toothpick comes out cleanly. It will probably take closer to 60 minutes to fully bake.
  7. Let the cake cool for 20–30 minutes before removing it from the pan.

About this recipe

  • The original recipe calls for only one cup of sour cream, but Gramma always made it with two.
  • I know we're baking here, but I feel like cinnamon is one of those ingredients you have a lot of leeway with. Like, 2tsp should be fine, but 1 or 3 (or more) is probably also fine.
  • Taste the batter; enjoy your life.

Gramma Teresi's Lasagna, prepared by Yia-Yia

This is another recipe from Uncle Joe's family that we've modified throughout the years. This lasagna was a traditional Italian recipe. My paternal grandmother (Yia-Yia here) once suggested to my mom that she add cinnamon & egg to the ricotta. To me, lasagna still tastes like it's missing something without the cinnamon.

Ingredients

Main
9
lasagna noodles
15 oz
ricotta
1
egg
1–1.5 tsp
ground cinnamon
2
garlic clove (minced)
1–2 tbsp
olive oil
½ lb
ground meat
beef, lamb, pork, veal, or some combination
1 oz
diced celery
1 oz
diced onion
1 oz
diced bell pepper
8 oz
shredded mozzarella
Red Sauce
32 oz
canned tomatoes
1 c
beef stock
to taste
salt
pepper
oregano
basil
thyme
parsley
red pepper flakes

Preparation

  1. Create a simple red sauce:
    1. In a blender, combine canned tomatoes (32 oz) & stock (1 c), and blend until uniform.
    2. Transfer the mixture to a skillet or sauce pan, and heat at medium-low.
    3. Add salt, pepper, & other spices (to taste).
      It's probably more salt than you think is enough, but remember that it will taste saltier as the sauce thickens.
    4. While you prepare the rest of the meal, let the sauce to simmer until it reaches your desired thickness, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.
  2. Prepare the meat:
    1. In a separate skill, heat olive oil (1–2 tbsp) over medium heat.
    2. Add any combination of the celery, bell pepper, & onion (~1 oz each).
    3. Add salt & pepper (to taste).
    4. Add the ground meat (½ lb), breaking apart and cooking until brown.
    5. Drain any grease from the meat, and set it aside.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350°.
  4. Cook the lasagna noodles according to the directions on the package.
  5. Create the ricotta mix by using a fork to mix together:
    • ricotta (15 oz)
    • egg (1)
    • cinnamon (1–1.5 tsp)
    • garlic (2 cloves)
  6. Layer the 9x9 pan in this order:
    1. thin layer of sauce on the bottom of the pan to prevent sticking
    2. 3 noodles
    3. mozzarella (3 oz)
    4. ricotta mix
    5. 3 noodles
    6. mozzarella (2.5 oz)
    7. meat
    8. sauce (½ of total)
    9. 3 noodles
    10. mozzarella (2.5 oz)
    11. remaining sauce
  7. Bake for 30 minutes.
  8. Let the lasagna cool for 15–20 minutes before serving.

About this recipe

  • Makes enough for about 4 people.
  • The red sauce will take at least an hour to simmer to a reasonable thickness. I usually plan for two hours. If you're really old school, you're making about a gallon of it, and you start it after church to simmer all day until Sunday dinner.
  • The sauce can obviously get more complicated (adding garlic & onion, substituting spices, other fats), but I like a simple sauce for this recipe to let the ricotta mix stand out. For me, that's the defining flavor of this dish.
  • If using pork, be aware that it tends to overpower other flavors. Adjust the balance of meats if you don't want that to be the dominant flavor. Maybe 30% instead of 50%.

McCarthy-Pinelli meatballs, with red sauce

Gramma Pinelli is the grandmother of my Uncle Joe, who my mom's oldest sister (Aunt Karen) married. This recipe made it to Aunt Karen, who gave it to my mom, who gave it to me when, years ago, I started rethinking what my first collection of poetry would look like.

Along the way, everyone made tweaks, including me. My mom has an entirely new meatball recipe these days. I hope I'll get to try it next time I'm home, but this is the closest to the dish I grew up eating.

Ingredients

Meatballs
1 lb
ground beef (or a mix of ground meats)
1 c
stuffing mix (or bread crumbs)
¾ c
whole milk
1 c
parmesan cheese (shredded)
to taste
salt
pepper
oregano
basil
thyme
parsley
red pepper flakes
Red Sauce
32 oz
canned tomatoes
1 c
beef stock
to taste
salt
pepper
oregano
basil
thyme
parsley
red pepper flakes

Preparation

  1. Create a simple red sauce:
    1. In a blender, combine canned tomatoes (32 oz) & stock (1 c), and blend until uniform.
    2. Transfer the mixture to a skillet or sauce pan, and heat at medium-low.
    3. Add salt, pepper, & other spices (to taste).
      It's probably more salt than you think is enough, but remember that it will taste saltier as the sauce thickens.
    4. While you prepare the rest of the meal, let the sauce to simmer until it reaches your desired thickness, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.
  2. Soak the bread crumbs (1 c) in the milk (¾ c) for 5–10 minutes to make mushy.
  3. To the bread crumbs, add parmesan (1 c) & seasoning (all to taste): salt & pepper, red pepper flakes, oregano, parsley, thyme, & basil.
    Obviously, you can substitute any seasonings here. Other great options are ginger, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, & asafetida (which is a great substitute for garlic & onion).
  4. Add raw ground beef (1 lb), mix thoroughly, and roll into balls.
    I prefer golfball-sized meatballs, but they're traditionally larger.
  5. Let the meatballs cook in your sauce—very low heat for a few hours.
    If you're short on time, bake for 20 minutes at 325°, then allow them to finish in sauce.

About this recipe

  • Makes enough for 3–4 people.
  • As always, the quality of your ingredients really matters, but especially for such a simple dish. If you have the time & willingness to reduce your own stock from chicken/beef/pork bones, use that as the base for your sauce. If you can afford & have a meat CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) available to you, buy their meat.
  • Remember to plan at least two hours for the red sauce to simmer to a palatable thickness. This sauce, by the way, is the star of the show. You can honestly make any ground beef taste good with seasoning, but the sauce ties everything together.
  • I like to make these with pasta for a simple dish. Personally, I think it pairs best with something substantial like fettucine or linguine.

Mom's Lemon Cheesecake

This cheesecake is famous in Nashville. If you attended or know someone who attended a Dillon Christmas party (ca. 1995–2008), you’ve probably heard about Jane Dillon’s cheesecake. It’s divine. The best cheesecake there ever was or will be. I am not presently receiving comments on this topic.

The final product, prepared for Thanksgiving 2021

Ingredients

Crust
3 c
graham crackers (crushed into crumbs)
½ c
unsalted butter (melted)
2 tsp
cinammon
½ c
walnuts (chopped)
Cream cheese filling
24 oz
cream cheese
5
eggs
1 c
white granulated sugar
1 tsp
vanilla extract
1 tbsp
lemon juice (fresh-squeezed)
1 tbsp
lemon rind (grated)
Sour cream icing
2 c
sour cream
1 c
white granulated sugar
1 tsp
vanilla extract

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Prepare the crust:
    1. Line the bottom of a springform pan with parchment paper.
    2. Melt the butter (½ c), and use the parchment that wraps the butter to grease the bottom & sides of the springform pan.
    3. To a mixing bowl, add the graham cracker crumbs (3 c), cinnamon (2 tsp) & melted butter, and mix so the crumbs are well coated with butter.
    4. Pour about half the crust mix into the springform pan, and use another sheet of parchment paper to press the mix into the bottom of the pan.
    5. Pour the remaining crust mix along the side of the pan, and use the parchment paper to press the mix along the sides of the pan.
      The mix won't reach the top of springform, and you might not even need all the crust mix. Later, the icing will set above the crust.
    6. Bake the crust at 350° for 5min, then allow it to rest on a counter.
  3. Prepare the cream cheese filling:
    1. In a mixing bowl, add the cream cheese (24 oz) and beat until creamy (1–2min).
    2. Crack one egg and beat into the cream cheese.
      Repeat for 5 total eggs.
    3. Add white granulated sugar (1 c), vanilla extract (1 tsp), & lemon juice (1 tbsp), and beat until well blended.
      The amount of lemon juice is really to taste; 1 tbsp is a starting point. My mom quarters a lemon and squeezes all of that juice in. As always, let your taste buds guide you.
  4. Bake the crust & filling:
    1. Gently pour the the cream cheese filling onto the baked crust, starting at the edge and circling in.
      Use this circular technique and pour slowly so you don't break the crust. The filling here should look like ribbons as you pour.
    2. Grate a bit of lemon rind (to taste, ~1 tbsp) over the top of the filling.
    3. Place the springform pan onto a baking tray, and into the center rack of the oven.
      The butter from the crust may leak during baking, and the tray is there to prevent a mess.
    4. Next to the tray, place an oven-safe ramekin filled partly with water.
      The amount of water isn't strictly important; its purpose is to keep the oven environment moist so neither the crust nor filling crack.
    5. Bake at 350° for 20min, then turn the oven off and allow the cake to continue baking for another 60min.
    6. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool on a counter for 30–45min
  5. Prepare the sour cream icing.
    Make the icing while the crust & filling are in the oven so it's also near room temperature when you top the cake with it.
    1. To a mixing bowl, add the sour cream (2 c), sugar (1 c), & vanilla extract (1 tsp).
    2. Hand mix the icing until blended.
  6. Bake the cake again:
    1. Preheat the oven to 475°.
    2. Once the crust & filling have cooled, gently pour the icing on top using the same technique as earlier—starting at the edge and circling in.
    3. Return the cake to the oven for 5–10min, keeping a constant eye out for the following:
      • A ring of bubbles will form at the edges of the icing when it's done.
      • You want the icing to set, with no jiggling.
      • You do not want the icing to brown.
      You may want to handle this by turning the oven off after 3–4min and allowing the cake to soft bake for an additional few minutes, like you did when baking the crust & filling.
  7. Serve:
    1. Allow the cake to cool 30–45min on the counter.
    2. Cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator overnight to set.
      leave the cake in the springform until you're ready to cut & serve it.
    3. Serve with fresh berries.
A photo of the cheesecake recipe my mom's is based on. It's on magazine paper that's yellowed & stained.
The recipe that my mom later perfected

About this recipe

  • Prepare this dessert the day before you intend to eat it. It needs to cool & settle in the refrigerator overnight; and in my opinion, is at its best after a couple days.
  • You'll notice the image of the recipe calls for 4 cups of sour cream. My mom has always made it with 2 cups because 4 seemed excessive.
  • There are endless ways to vary this recipe. My favorite is a "cappuccino cheesecake" that replaces the lemon juice & zest with a shot of espresso in the cream cheese filling. (Sub the espresso for 2 very concentrated ounces of coffee if you can't make espresso at home.)

Mom's Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

This is another recipe that came down through Gramma McCarthy. There's no cute story about these cookies; they just happen to be my favorite.

Ingredients

1 c
unsalted butter (room temperature)
1 c
white sugar
2
eggs
2 c
all purpose flour
¼ c
milk
1 tsp
baking powder
½ tsp
baking soda
1 tsp
salt
1 tsp
cinnamon
2 c
rolled oats (quick oats or blended)
1 c
raisins (you can substitute cranberries or chocolate chips at a 1:1 ratio)
1
apron (I always make a mess)

Preparation

  1. Cream the butter (1 c), gradually adding the sugar (1 c), until (?).
    Don't skimp on creaming. Spend at least 5min on this process to aerate the batter.
  2. Add the eggs (2) one at a time, and continue beating.
  3. Gradually add all the dry ingredients except the oats & raisins.
    When the mixture becomes too dry to beat, add the milk (¼ c). Don't worry about overmixing the batter.
  4. Gradually fold in the oats (2 c) with a wooden spoon.
    The batter will likely be too tough for beaters.
  5. Fold in the raisins (1 c).
  6. Grease a baking sheet.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350°.
  8. Use two big spoons to scrape roughly golf ball-sized cookies onto the baking sheet.
    This was Gramma's technique, anyway.
  9. Bake 8–10min at 350°F , until the dough is no longer wet, and they're slightly toasted.

About this recipe

  • Taste the batter; enjoy your life.

Sarah's Lemon Donut Painkiller

My partner Sarah has an outstanding palate. She could be a chef, baker, barista, mixologist if she chose. Early in the pandemic, she decided to experiment with tropical drinks at home. During those first months, she came up with this drink.

This is my favorite cocktail, of any style, by far.

Ingredients

2 oz
white rum
1 oz
lemon juice
1 oz
orange juice
1 oz
coconut cream

Preparation

  1. Half-fill a cocktail shaker with ice.
  2. Add each ingredient to the shaker, and shake vigorously for 30 seconds.
  3. Pour into a glass and serve.
    I prefer to leave ice out of the serving glass so that it doesn't melt & dilute the drink, and so the colder temperature doesn't mute all the rich flavors.

About this recipe

  • This recipe is a variation on the classic tropical drink, The Painkiller.
  • Use Coco Lopez for the coconut cream; other coconut creams have grainy mouthfeels, or quickly separate after mixing.

Yia-Yia & Papou's Braised Lamb

Here, Yia-Yia & Papou refer to my Dad's grandparents, who emigrated separately from Greece. (Sometimes I refer to my grandmother as Yia-Yia, though I never called her that when she was alive.) They owned Marathon Restaurant, a Greek restaurant in Wellsville, NY, where my dad spent a lot of time as a kid, and learned the correct way to make a chocolate shake—vanilla ice cream & chocolate syrup; not with chocolate ice cream.

At some point, my Mom learned this recipe; it was one of my favorites as a kid.

Ingredients

Lamb
~3 lbs
lamb shoulder or butt
to taste
garlic cloves (halved)
32 oz
diced tomatoes
16 oz
green beans
to taste
salt & pepper
Optional
1 lb
chopped potatoes
16 oz
chopped carrots

Preparation

  1. Pierce the lamb several times, about an inch deep, and fill each with a halved garlic clove.
  2. Salt & pepper the lamb.
  3. Oil a large cast iron braising pan or Dutch Oven, and sear the lamb on all surfaces at medium-high heat.
  4. Slow cook the lamb:
    1. Reduce heat to medium-low.
    2. Add the diced tomatoes (32 oz), chopped potatoes (1 lb), chopped carrots (16oz), and more salt & pepper (if desired).
    3. Cover the pan.
    4. Cook for 1–2 hours.
  5. Add the green beans (16 oz).
  6. Re-cover, and allow to cook for another 60 minutes, then serve.

About this recipe

  • Canned diced tomatoes are great for sauces and this recipe. They're canned fresh, which isn't always the state of whole tomatoes at the grocery store.
  • For the same reason, I like canned green beans. I also prefer regular cut beans, as opposed to French cut beans that will quickly become mushy.
  • Because you're searing the lamb on relatively high heat, I like avocado oil, which has a higher smoke point than olive oil.