Sunny Anderson's Secret Ingredient

Published December, 2008

Sunny Anderson, Food Network host, puts extra care into holiday recipes

Sunny Anderson, 32, host of the popular Food Network shows Cooking for Real and How’d That Get On My Plate? says her childhood as an army brat meant that getting the family together for the holidays wasn’t always a given. Those years when she was able to spend Christmas with her grandparents remain the most memorable.

"When we did get a chance to celebrate with everyone together, they were holidays times ten! There was a ton of cooking and eating, especially eating. As a child I remember eating pies and cakes and candy because grandparents never say 'no.'"

At her grandmother’s house, those cakes and pies were always made from scratch because, she says, her grandmother was a "cake person."

"My grandma made the best cakes, and I am lucky I got the gene! I always think of her and never make cake from a box or use frosting from a can, especially when I know I am going to serve it to my family," says Anderson.

After serving in the U.S. Air Force followed by a career as a radio host and in other entertainment media, Anderson’s feet are finally firmly planted in Brooklyn, but when traveling the world as an army daughter, Anderson’s parents encouraged her to experience and experiment with new cuisines. Later, when she enlisted in the Air Force, she recalled and supplemented her understanding of the world’s culinary diversity during her travels. This, she says, along with her parents' teachings and experiences and her grandparents’ Southern comfort food formed the foundation of the traditions that have become the essence of her career.

She also tries to incorporate these lessons learned into her own Christmas celebration, maintaining traditions while creating new ones.

"I try to maintain traditions of my grandparents' holidays so that I can pass them on," she says. "The memory of the greens, yams, and mac n' cheese are dishes will always be what I bring to the table."

No matter where the celebration may be, says Anderson, parents and grandparents alike need to take the time to put heart and soul into holiday meals as a way of showing grandchildren that love is the most precious ingredient in a great meal.

Sunny Anderson's Spicy Macaroni and Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is dolled up in a creamy sauce with a touch of spice and a crisp, crunchy topping

2 cups raw elbow pasta, cooked until almost al dente
16 ounces Cheddar cheese, 1/2 cubed, 1/2 shredded
8 ounces Monterey pepper-jack cheese, cubed
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
4 tablespoons sour cream
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup half-and-half
4 slices bread
1 tablespoon butter

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, toss together pasta with the cheese cubes and pour into a 2-quart baking dish.
2. In a large bowl mix together the flour, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, dry mustard, nutmeg, sour cream, egg, heavy cream, and half-and-half. Pour over the pasta and cover with shredded Cheddar.
3. Bake uncovered until top is just beginning to brown, about 35 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the bread into crouton-size squares. In a skillet over medium heat, melt butter, add cubes and toast until golden. Sprinkle the bread cubes on top of the macaroni and cheese and bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes more.

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Cornish Hens With Sage Butter
Sunny Anderson's irresistible wedding of sauce, sage, and bacon creates an elegant dish

4 (1 3/4-pound) Cornish game hens, butterflied
1 stick butter, softened
5 to 7 sage leaves, finely chopped
1 lemon, zested
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil, for sautéing
4 strips bacon, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Place hens on a sheet tray fitted with a cooling rack in the refrigerator for 1 hour to dry out skin. Meanwhile, in a small pan over medium heat, melt butter with sage, zest, salt and pepper.
2. Remove hens from refrigerator. Preheat 2 large sauté pans over medium heat, lightly coat with oil. Season hens with salt and pepper and sear, skin side down, in the pans. Saute until skin caramelizes and turns golden brown and crispy, about 7 to 10 minutes.
3. Flip birds over, and baste with sage butter. Sprinkle tops with chopped bacon and place in preheated oven to finish cooking, 25 to 30 minutes, basting occasionally. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.

Yield: Makes 4 servings.

Sunny Anderson’s Mini Espresso Cakes With Peanut Butter Frosting
Traditional sour-cream coffee cake experiences a lively makeover with an espresso addition

For the coffee cakes:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for pans
1/2 heaping teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup instant espresso powder
2 sticks butter, softened, plus extra for pans
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs, plus 2 yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the frosting:
1 stick butter, softened
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 cup confectioners' sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour 4 3/8-pound mini-loaf pans. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix together the sour cream and espresso until dissolved.
2. In a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and mix until well incorporated. On low speed, add half the flour mixture. Mix until just combined. Add half the sour cream and mix until combined. Repeat with remaining flour and sour cream. Pour into prepared loaf pans filling halfway with batter. Bake 40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center. Cool in pans 10 minutes. Remove from pans and cool on racks.
3. For the frosting: In stand mixer, beat together butter and peanut butter over medium-high speed until smooth. Add confectioners' sugar and mix until smooth. Top mini-loaves with peanut butter frosting.

Yield: Make 4 mini loaves.