Hardin County's Finest Cooks: Jo Ellen LaRue Thomas

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Food column by Nora Sweat

By Nora Sweat

This week, I want to honor a very deserving “One of Hardin County’s Finest Cooks,” Jo Ellen LaRue Thomas. She was nominated by her sister, Ruth Lindsey. The script is so beautiful, I am going to let her tell you.

“The torch of love is lit in the kitchen. Growing up as a country girl on the farm meant many meals prepared for family and farm hands. My mother, Mary Ella LaRue, was the inspiration for my love of cooking. I think most of us grow up thinking our moms are the best cook ever. Mother may not have been the best, but to me she certainly was. Mother taught my sisters, Ruth Lindsey, Anna Mae Walker and me to never let anyone leave our homes hungry. From Mother and my sisters, I’ve learned one sure way of letting people know you care is to cook for them.

“We grew up raising our groceries. As a child, there were few purchases made at a grocery store. My parents ran a dairy so we had fresh milk, cream and butter. We processed our own meat with pork and chicken being our primary staple. Vegetables and fruits were grown and preserved during the summer. The depression era made a huge influence on Mother’s cooking. She would put together a wonderful meal with what she had. She lovingly passed along many tricks to us. If you wanted a lemon pie and you had not lemons, you could use vinegar. The recipe for Vinegar Pie reflects this. My dad’s favorite pie was lemon. During the depression lemons were not available. Mother often made a vinegar pie to satisfy my dad.

“In the summer, my dad always raised a huge garden, raising every vegetable imaginable. All of us loved corn and our favorite way to eat it was fried. There were not many days during the summer that fried corn was not on the table. Mother fixed corn in many ways, corn on the cob, creamed style, corn with green beans, corn casserole but fried corn was a hit for everyone. Daddy raised the corn and we always had fresh jowl bacon that had been cured during the winter. Corn and bacon, that’s all needed for a wonderful dish.

“It was nothing for my mother to get up, help my dad with the dairy, put a breakfast of biscuits, sausage, gravy and eggs on the table for my dad and then feed a dozen farm hands a meal of fried chicken and all the fixings along with a wonderful apple pie for desert. I look back and find myself amazed at how she accomplished all she did. My cooking style is much more planned and methodical. My sister Ruth, reminds me of my mother. Both Ruth and Mother can put a wonderful meal together will little time for preparation. Growing up and seeing Mother and Ruth cook it soon became clear that cooking is love made visible.

“Our family grieves and celebrates occasions of love and happiness with food. Growing up, if someone lost a love one, became ill, had a baby or other reasons for celebration or grief, my mother usually went to visit with a basket full of food for their dinner complete with a gallon jar of sweet tea or lemonade. The recipients would always find meat, vegetables, hot biscuits and usually a pie made with whatever Mother had available at the time. I grew up learning that worries go down better over a good home cooked meal.

“As I grew into an adult, my love for baking flourished. Never will I be able to make biscuits as good as my mothers or my sisters. I really feel to make really good biscuits one must make them often. Mother made biscuits twice a day for most her life. That just doesn’t happen in my kitchen. However, I love baking pies, cakes, sweet breads and such. Growing up Mother made pies often. When Christmas came we made cakes.

“Anyone who visited was offered a slice of jam cake, German Chocolate, white chocolate or often Italian Cream. There was always a new cake recipe to try. As mother grew older, the cake baking became my job over the holiday season. Italian Cream Cake soon became a favorite of my husband, Rick. During the holidays, I find much joy in baking and gifting cakes. Because Italian Cream is a family favorite, I’ve fiddled with different variations of the original. My love for caramel caused me to grow to love the Caramel Italian Cream. This cake is as tasty and moist as the original recipe but with a hint of brown sugar.

I find that cooking is as much a means of self expression as any of the arts. Many are wonderful musicians or artist, for me cooking is a love and a way to express what’s found in my heart. As an educator, I’ve always loved to read. Cook books are my favorite type book. I’m always finding a new recipe or ideas for that next new dish. Whether it’s brownies for the kids at school, peanut butter dog treats for my favorite pooch or a jam cake or chocolate meringue pie for the neighbor, cooking is a way of saying “I care about you.” Cooking is also a means of therapy. Cooking a meal for my family or a pie for a friend who is struggling helps me to know that I’ve done something to show I care. The kitchen is a happy place, a place of love, laughter and good food. My family is like music, we’ve had some high notes, some low notes but we always have a beautiful song in our hearts and a wonderful meal on our table.”

Congratulations, Jo Ellen.
Mother’s Vinegar Pie

1½ cups sugar
1 cup water
3 eggs separated
2 tablespoons vinegar
2 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 baked pie crust

Combine sugar and flour. Beat egg yolks well with water. Combine sugar mixture with egg and water mixture and place in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until thick. Remove from heat and add vanilla and butter. Blend until butter is melted. Pour into a baked pie crust and top with your favorite meringue.

Fried Corn

10–12 ears fresh corn cut from the cob
2-3 slices jowl bacon
Salt and pepper to taste

In an iron skillet, fry the jowl bacon until browned. Once the bacon is done, pour the corn into the skillet and add salt and pepper and enough water to cover most of  corn. Cook till the liquid has been cooked out.

Caramel Italian Cream Cake

1 cup finely chopped pecans
½ cup butter softened
½ cup shortening
1½ cups sugar
½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
5 large eggs, separated
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup toasted coconut for topping

Place shaved coconut in a single layer in a shallow pan. Place pecans in a second shallow pan. Toast coconut and pecans at the same time for 5-7 minutes at 425 degrees or until coconut is toasted and pecans are lightly toasted and fragrant, stirring halfway through.

Beat butter and shortening at medium speed with an electric mixer until fluffy; gradually add white and brown sugars, beating well. Add egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Add vanilla, and blend.

Combine flour and baking soda; add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed just until blended after each addition. Stir in pecans and 1 cup sweetened flaked coconut.

Beat egg whites at high speed until stiff peaks form, and fold into batter. Pour into 3 greased and floured 9-inch round cake pans.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes, remove and cool completely.

Use your favorite caramel icing for between layers and top of the cake. Use your favorite cream cheese icing for the sides. Garnish with the toasted shaved coconut.

Nora Sweat, author of “Mama and Me,” is a native of Hardin County and a retired home economics/family and consumer science teacher. She can be reached at norasweat@thenewsenterprise.com or by mail at 408 W. Dixie Ave., Elizabethtown, KY 42701