In the kitchen with Sweet Sugar Mama

Written and Photographed by Liesa Cole

Carol Clancy and Ava

When I was a young girl, those annual summer road trips to Grandma’s house in rural Georgia always commenced in similar fashion. Upon arrival, we’d unfurl ourselves from the Buick sedan, untangle our cramped legs, and slip in the creaky back-porch screen door that slapped shut behind us with a sudden thwack that sent Grandma fluttering from the kitchen. She would be frantically drying her hands on her apron in a jubilant rush to hug our collective necks. Then we would be shooed out of the hallway and into her kitchen. We eagerly took our places at the well-worn wooden table as she ladled out bottomless bowls of steaming vegetable soup and generously buttered hot triangles of golden cornbread. This wasn’t Campbells or Jiffy Mix, mind you. Grandma Holloway’s stockpot was blessed with the bounty of her own backyard garden, all of which was selected, shelled, shucked, stringed, seeded, sliced or snapped by her own busy hands. Is that why it tasted so deliriously good? Or was it the re-enactment of this familiar welcome that seasoned the broth with such wonderful memories of the good and simple times we craved? I feel certain both are true.

As I grew up and developed my own interest in cooking, I would often think of recreating some of Grandma Holloway’s specialties. Several times I called her in hopes of obtaining the recipe for a particular childhood favorite only to be disappointed in her standard response;  “Well, I don’t have directions, child. You just have to be in the kitchen with me and see what I do. I can’t tell you. I have to show you because the knowing is in my hands, not my head.” I regret that I never took her up on that. If I had, I might not have unwittingly used the self-rising flour to make the dough in a disastrous attempt to recreate her savory chicken and dumplings. As a newlywed. On my in-laws’ very first visit for dinner. And, if I hadn’t misappropriated that tricky ingredient, those little dumpling grenades would not have violently exploded upon entry as I dropped them into the bubbling broth, spraying my freshly wallpapered kitchen and my late 80s perm with scatter shots of hot, gloppy dough.

Sadly, my maternal grandmother’s ultimate comfort combo of vegetable soup and cornbread, along with her impossibly fluffy biscuits, glorious chicken pie and luscious Grand Duke Cake are pure, sweet memory now. So I dedicate this project to her on Mother’s Day.  She expressed her love in so many ways. But the time she spent in the kitchen, preparing those predictably delicious meals for us, is what seems to stand out the most after all these years.

By the way, I am fully aware that not all maternal beings excel in the kitchen.  And cultural roles have certainly shifted to clear a path for dear ol’ Dad to strut his culinary prowess while maintaining the security of his manhood.  But the nostalgic stereotype of the doting mother or grandmother donning her ruffled apron and cradling a mixing bowl of some heavenly batter is as comforting to me as anything I can conjure. Apparently I am not alone in my periodic pining for the  comfort foods of my youth. According to a recent survey, most grown men admit they prefer their mother’s cooking to that of their wives.

So I put feelers out all over town.  I posted on Facebook and tweeted:  “Does the matriarch in your family have an heirloom recipe that everyone agrees is the best they ever tasted?” We could fill a book with the responses. And we just might. But for this round, we decided to feature this charming collection of ladies and their time-tested, family-reunion-finishing, sweet-tooth-slaying desserts.  These crowd-pleasers are the crowning glory of any potluck buffet table. Most are familiar Southern classics. But the versions we chose have been prepared so many times by the same caring cooks, subtly tweaked and embellished over the years to tried and true, dependable perfection. These gracious women were so kind to share their kitchens and their sweet secrets with us. It was a delight to spend time with them, as they regaled us with the family lore while confidently preparing these divine concoctions. Each time we were lucky enough to be invited to share in the result. And I can tell you, my gleeful taste buds agree wholeheartedly with their families’ assertion. These Mamas really do reign supreme!

Minnie Johnson’s

Minnie Johnson

Peaches and Dumplings:

Minnie is a cherished wife, a devoted “Mama” to four grown kids and an indulgent “Granny” to 11 little ones.  Most weekends, her home overflows with family members and church friends sharing the good food and fellowship that she and husband James dish out.  Minnie truly loves to cook,  but with the demands of work and family and church, her time in the kitchen is stretched thin.  However, she has devised clever ways of spoiling guests and loved ones with dishes she can whip up in a flash.  Here is her twist on peach cobbler that keeps everyone smacking their lips and queuing up for seconds.


  • 4 cans (15 oz) peaches.  (Minnie prefers “light” peaches, which are not too sweet)
  • 1 cup sugar, divided.
  • 1 tsp nutmeg, divided
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 stick butter, unsalted
  • ½1 cup Tropicana Peach Orchard Punch
  • 2 sheets refrigerated pie crusts


Drain peach juice from cans into a stock pot.

Add the stick of butter, ½ cup of the sugar, ½ tsp of the nutmeg and ½ tsp of the cinnamon.

Heat to boiling.  Meanwhile, empty drained peaches into casserole, sprinkle remaining spices and sugar, and toss to coat evenly.

Roll out one sheet of the prepared dough.  Cut into 1-inch strips, vertically and horizontally like a grid.  Separate the squares of dough and drop one at a time (so they don’t stick) into the boiling syrup.  Cook the dumplings in the syrup until they begin to brown and puff a bit.  (Approximately 15 minutes)

Stir in the vanilla.

Pour the dumplings and thickened syrup over the peaches in the casserole.

Cut several hashes into the second sheet of dough in a decorative pattern to prevent bursting while baking.

Now place the dough on top of the dish and seal edges.

Brush the top with milk for a browner, crisper crust.

Bake  at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Minnie dishes hers out warm and tops with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Jerri Sanders

Banana Pudding

Jerri Sanders

Jerri Sanders has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the nicest people you will ever meet.  And she is well known for many of the dishes she totes to church suppers, sick or bereaved friends or just about anybody in her community that needs a little TLC.  She has been cooking as long as she can remember.  In fact, she welcomed us into her childhood home where she learned to cook by assisting her mother in this very kitchen. Her family includes husband Milton and their three grown children, as well as several Grandchildren.  They all agree, “If Mama’s cookin’, it’s gonna be good.”  This recipe for banana pudding has a hint of almond extract that kicks up this classic Southern specialty an elegant notch.


  • 2 cups milk
  • 6 medium eggs, separated
  • 8 tbsp sugar, plus 12 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tbsp cornstarch  (or 6 tbsp  flour)
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 ½tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 6 large or 8 medium-sized,  well-ripened bananas
  • 1 small box vanilla wafers


Scald milk in top of a double broiler.  Beat egg yolks then add 8 tbsp of the sugar, 1/8 tsp salt, 3 tbsp cornstarch (or 6 tbsp flour); mix well.  Add part of hot milk to egg yolk mixture; stir well.  Return this mixture to boiler and mix thoroughly with remaining milk.  Cook until pudding starts to thicken, stirring frequently.  Remove from heat.  Stir in vanilla extract and almond extract.

In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart oven-proof dish, place vanilla wafers along bottom and up the sides one layer deep.  Over this, cut three bananas in approx 1/4-inch rounds. Spoon approx 1/4 of the custard sauce over this and spread gently.  Repeat and pour remaining sauce over top.

Beat reserved egg whites until stiff peaks form.  A small portion at a time, add the 12 tbsp of remaining sugar, beating well after each addition.  Cover pudding with meringue and brown to golden bliss in a 350 degree oven.

Refrigerate any unlikely leftovers.

Mrs. Joy Raine-thrash’s


Joy Raine-Thrash

Mrs. Joy Raine-Thrash is no shrinking violet.  This lively mother of seven and grandmother of 14 brings her feisty brand of fun to just about everything she does.  And when she mixes it up in the kitchen, you can bet the laughter will be dispensed as generously as the helpings.  Most of Miss Joy’s special dishes celebrate her rich Italian heritage.  And who doesn’t seriously love Italian food?  Sometime we may get lucky enough for her to teach us how to make her life- changing con sardo pasta sauce.  Or “Pasta Mama,” a surprisingly simple way to repurpose last night’s leftover pasta for this morning’s delicious breakfast plate.

This time she treats us to her famous “Lady Locks cream-filled horns,” or as they call these elegant stuffed Italian cookies back in the home country, “Cannoli.” I should pass along the caveat I received from Miss Joy:  This recipe is not one for the faint of heart.  This time-consuming process is a genuine labor of scratch-baked love.  And it’s one of the reasons they remain a very special treat for the most special occasions, like weddings or Christmas.

Special tools:  You’ll need 40 or so wooden sticks, about the diameter of a nickel and cut in 4-inch lengths, for wrapping dough to bake the horns.


For dough:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp granulated white sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 tbsp shortening (or butter) melted
  • 3/4 cup sweet Marsala
  • 1 large egg white


  • 3/4 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese, drained overnight with cheesecloth and squeezed dry.
  • 3/4 cup mascarpone cheese
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tsp Grand Marnier
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • pinch of salt

For finishing:

  • mini-chocolate chips, chopped pistachios, candied orange peel or chopped chocolate
  • powdered sugar, optional.

Prepare shells:

Combine the dry ingredients and mix in the butter and Marsala until you get a stiff, smooth dough. Form the dough into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours.

Roll out dough 1/16 to 1/8 inch thick.  Cut into 4-inch circles.  You can use a biscuit cutter) Wrap dough circles around prepared wooden sticks.  (spray generously with non-stick cooking spray or coat with butter)

Place 1 inch apart on baking sheet.  Bake at 400º for about 20 minutes or until golden.  Cool.  Remove sticks.  Reserve until ready to fill.

For filling:

Mix filling ingredients together. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use (at least a couple of hours).

When ready to fill the cannoli (do so only a few hours before serving; if you fill them too far ahead, they will begin to get soggy), place filling in a pastry bag with a wide tip opening (or simply a freezer zip bag with the corner snipped off). Hold a cannoli shell in one hand and the squeeze bag in the other. Gently squeeze filling into both ends of the shell to fill it. Let the filling come out of each end a little bit. Edge the cannoli with desired decor, such as mini-chocolate chips, chopped chocolate, chopped pistachio. Remove to a platter and repeat with remaining shells. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, give the cannoli a sprinkle of powdered sugar on top if you wish.


•Vanilla extract may be substituted for the Grand Marnier.

•Metal cannoli tubes can be ordered online, but they can also be found in well-stocked cooking stores.

•Cannoli shells can be made a day or two in advance.   Store in a sealed plastic container

•If you cannot locate mascarpone cheese, you can substitute cream cheese.

•And if you want to make this really, really easy… purchase some ready-made cannoli shells at a good Italian deli and fill them with this delicious filling.

Carol Clancy Couch’s

Old -Fashioned Orange Marmalade

Carol Clancy and Ava

This creative lady puts her artistic spin on everything she does.  Whether knitting or painting or sculpting with clay, Carol Couch’s nimble fingers are happiest when they are in the act of making. And though Carol is very modern in her thinking, she prefers the old-fashioned, no-shortcuts path in the kitchen. In fact, she still uses cookbooks from the 1930s that belonged to her grandmother. She is passing on these traditions to her own granddaughter, Ava. One of their favorite ways to spend time together is cooking up something to share. This recipe for old-fashioned orange marmalade is one that Carol learned from her paternal grandmother. It is a perfect accompaniment to any tea party.


  • 3 dozen oranges
  • 1 dozen lemons
  • sugar


Slice fruit into bite-sized bits or grind. Pour three times as much water as fruit. Let stand over night. Cook until tender. Let stand over night again.

Add 1 cup of sugar for each cup of fruit mixture. Cook until proper consistency for marmalade. Follow directions for canning and sealing in Mason Jars.

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One Response to “In the kitchen with Sweet Sugar Mama”

  1. Jerri Sanders says:

    Leisa you did a wonderful job on this Mother’s Day segment. Mother’s were well represented in this delightful article. Love .

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