TUPELO • Melanie McNeal wasn’t allowed in the kitchen when she was growing up in New Albany.

“I’m left-handed and they wouldn’t let me near a knife,” said McNeal, 48. “So I was a late bloomer in the kitchen. When I married, I could make grilled cheese sandwiches and pancakes – enough to get by. Everybody teased my husband that he was going to starve.”

McNeal knew she needed to hone her skills so when her husband, Kenneth, went hunting on Saturdays, she began watching Martha Stewart on TV.

“I started trying her dishes,” McNeal said. “She would do basic things, nothing elaborate then. Then I started collecting her cookbooks.”

Once she’d mastered Stewart’s tea cakes, McNeal moved on to her pound cake, homemade breads and cinnamon rolls.

“I think my husband and I gained 10 pounds apiece,” said McNeal, who works one day a week at her husband’s office, Gum Tree Mortgage. “But watching Martha Stewart gave me the confidence to cook. Honestly, I tried anything. The kitchen can be an intimidating place. Once you have confidence, you can cook anything.”

Today, McNeal prepares meals four to five times a week for her family, which includes sons Reed and Patton and daughter Meg.

“I’ve geared my cooking toward the kids to get them to eat,” she said. “The two left at home keep me busy in the kitchen.”

A weeknight meal might feature lasagna with a Caesar salad and garlic bread, a chicken potpie or maybe beef stew with Mexican cornbread.

“And every Sunday after church, we have a big breakfast,” she said. “It could be biscuits and chocolate gravy with fried eggs, or pancakes with sausage and bacon, or breakfast quesadillas with hash browns, sausage, scrambled eggs and cheese, which are my favorite.”

Even though she didn’t learn to cook much from her mother – McNeal’s parents, Martha and D.L. Cook, still live in New Albany – she does use her recipes for cream cheese pound cake, pancakes and chicken tortilla soup.

“But my most requested dish is a bread pudding I learned to make probably seven years ago or more,” McNeal said. “I sent it to The Orchard one time with my husband and I mean they loved it. That’s the one thing I make that everybody wants, especially at family gatherings.”

PEANUT BUTTER BARS

BARS

1 stick butter

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/3 cup peanut butter

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

ICING

3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

2 ounces peanut butter

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons milk

For the bars, combine butter, sugars, egg, vanilla and peanut butter and mix until smooth.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt and add to the peanut butter mixture. Spread batter in a greased 9x13-inch pan. Bake at 350 to 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly brown. Let cool.

For the icing, combine sugar, peanut butter, vanilla and salt and milk and blend until smooth (you may need more milk). Spread over cooled mixture in pan and cut into bars.

WHITE CHOCOLATE BREAD PUDDING

PUDDING

1 loaf French bread

3 eggs

2 cups sugar

1 stick butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 quart whole milk

Sugar-cinnamon mixture

ICING

1 stick butter

6 ounces white chocolate

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

6 tablespoons water

1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

For the pudding, pull the bread apart into chunks and place in a greased 9x13-inch pan. In a bowl, beat together eggs, sugar, melted butter, vanilla and milk. Pour over bread. Combine some sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over the top of the mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. Punch holes in the top and pour the icing over all.

For the icing, melt butter, white chocolate, vanilla and water. Add confectioners’ sugar. Microwave a few seconds longer and stir well. Pour over hot bread pudding. Serve warm.

MAMMAW’S CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS

Salt and pepper

1 pound chicken

1 stick butter

2 chicken bouillon cubes

1 1/2 cups self-rising flour

3 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon baking powder

2/3 cup milk

Add salt and pepper to a large pot of water with chicken and boil until chicken is tender. When chicken is done, remove it from the pot and shred the meat; return meat to the pot. Add butter and bouillon and bring to a boil.

Place flour in a mixing bowl and make a hole in the middle. Put oil and baking powder in the hole and add milk. Work the mixture together until dough forms. Dust a board with a little flour and roll the dough out. Cut it into strips and add them, one piece at a time, to the boiling broth. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes or until the dumplings are done.

BEEF STEW

2 pounds boneless beef, cut in 1 1/2-inch cubes

2 tablespoons shortening

1 large onion, sliced

1 clove garlic, chopped

4 cups hot water

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika

2 bay leaves

Dash of ground allspice

4 beef bouillon cubes

6 small potatoes, peeled and sliced

3 carrots, cut in 1-inch pieces

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cold water

Brown beef in hot shortening in a large Dutch oven. Add onion, garlic, hot water, salt, lemon juice, sugar, Worcestershire, pepper, paprika, bay leaves, allspice and bouillon cubes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 1 1/2 hours. Add potatoes and carrots, cover and simmer an additional hour or until vegetables are tender. Remove and discard bay leaves. Combine flour and cold water, stirring until smooth. Stir into stew; cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly. Makes 2 1/2 quarts.

CREAM CHEESE POUND CAKE

3 sticks butter

1 (8-ounce) block cream cheese

3 cups sugar

6 eggs

3 cups unsifted all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

Let butter and cream cheese come to room temperature, then beat together. Add sugar and beat well. Add eggs, one at a time. Add flour and salt and beat for 3 minutes. Add vanilla and beat 2 more minutes. Pour batter into a greased and floured tube pan. Put in a cold oven and bake at 325 degrees for 1 1/2 hours.

DO YOU KNOW A GOOD COOK? Send your nominations to Ginna Parsons, Cook of the Week, P.O. Box 909, Tupelo, MS 38802. Or you can call Ginna at (662) 678-1581 or email them to ginna.parsons@journalinc.com.

ginna.parsons@journalinc.com

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