Love of cooking leads to blog, cookbook for NRV native

Marty Gordon
Contributing writer

Photo by Sam Linkous
Melissa Sperka (left), a cookbook author and food blogger, and her mother, Barbara Early of Christiansburg, show off the family-favorite corn pudding soufflé that is a regular at the holiday table.

Melissa Early Sperka comes from a long line of Southern cooks and credits her mother and grandmother for her culinary training that has its roots here in the New River Valley.


Sperka lives in Summerfield, North Carolina and has written a food blog for the past seven years, even publishing her own cookbook.

“I remember baking most vividly. Both of my grandmothers and my mom all baked regularly. We enjoyed everything from-scratch layer cakes, cookies, cheesecakes, pies, cobblers and dreamy banana pudding, and biscuits, of course,” she said.

She started the blog in 2011 as a creative outlet for her love of cooking and baking, and as a way to share recipes with friends and family.

“It never occurred to me anyone else would read it. Shortly after it was established, Southern Living and Parade Magazine discovered it and each reached out with opportunities for me,” Sperka said.

She won a national baking contest a short time later, and it was then she realized the blog had opened a new door for her.

Fast forward a few years and her brand, Melissa’s Southern Style Kitchen, is now an incorporated small business in the state of North Carolina, and the blog is now a full-blown website.

It’s through the blog and website that she shares recipes, which in many cases, are connected to her family. She has also become well known as an ongoing contributor to Parade magazines “Community Table.”

In all of this, she strives to provide simple and delicious recipes that use ingredients that are easy to find.

“My hope is that visitors who frequent my website, will find inspiration and mouthwatering dishes to share with their own families. We all live such hectic lives, I believe it’s important to take time to gather around the kitchen table and enjoy a meal with the special people around us,” Sperka said. “There’s no better way to show the love than a home cooked meal.”

Her website has over a million views a month.

Melissa’s Southern Cookbook—tried-and-true family recipes.

In 2015, she wrote a cookbook called: “Melissa’s Southern Cookbook—tried-and-true family recipes,” that features personal family stories and recipes. She calls it a labor of love, “paying homage to those who instilled in her a love for cooking and baking Southern-style.”

In the introduction to the book, she said the tradition of gathering around the kitchen table is a long-held practice for her entire family dating back generations. The table might be filled with southern-fried chicken or meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, green beans, mash potatoes and corn on the cob, with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden. There would always be a pan of hot, buttered cornbread nearby too.

In the book, she comments that the holidays have always been incredibly special for her family filled with Southern traditions, food and fun—each event a memory in the making.

“In particular, I recall how Christmas was celebrated at my grandparent’s home. Christmas was Gramma Vera’s most favorite time of the year. She hosted the family party and planned months beforehand. The kitchen table was abounding with scrumptious holiday savory bites and sweet treats. There were group games to play and prizes to be won by everyone, she made sure we all went home a winner,” Sperka said. “Grandma Vera was a notorious fan of icicles to decorate her Christmas tree. Such a fan that we weren’t always sure whether there was an actual tree under the decorations. I recall one year when her tree was so icicle-laden that it collapsed and fell into the middle of the living room floor as if it had just given up. It was too funny to be upsetting even to her.”

That vision of the Christmas tree lying on the floor remains one of her most favorite holiday memories.

In the cookbook, she also describes how modern families in the South typically eat.

“While we love our downhome comfort food, Southerners eat much like the rest of the country and enjoy many varieties of foods such as Italian, Mexican and Asian inspired dishes and more. So, the recipes in my cookbook are a reflection of that all with a Southern twist,” Sperka said.

But you don’t have to have her cookbook to try some of her recipes. Her website www.melissasouthernstylekitchen.com includes over 1,000 recipes and she admits its hard to pick her favorite, but maybe there’s banana pudding which she is somewhat obsessed with. There are several variations along with the classic version she grew up with.

Sperka and her son also love to make “cutout cream cheese sugar cookies” for the holidays, also on the website. She also included her mom’s recipe for corn pudding soufflé, a favorite around the family table.

One of the most popular recipes belongs to her late Aunt Beulah, a lifelong resident of the Blacksburg/Christiansburg area. It is for a Lemon Lovers Pound Cake.

She also hopes the recipes and her path to get to where she is today is an inspiration to others.

“As I began to blog and share about my kitchen creations, the more I enjoyed the idea that my work has actually helping other people and inspiring many to get back into the kitchen,” Sperka said.

While her cooking adventure continues to this day, Sperka has racked up credits ranging from Southern Living magazine featuring one of her recipes in an upcoming issue, to being invited to Birmingham, Alabama to meet the Test Kitchen team behind the food items in the magazine itself. She continues to be a contributor to Parade and has appeared on QVC to promote her cookbook.

“I just never know what opportunities the next day will hold. The best part is, showing my two sons that if you find your passion you’ll never work a day in your life,” she said.

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Old fashioned banana pudding: (Courtesy of Melissa Sperka)

Ingredients:

1 [12] oz can evaporated milk
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt
6 large egg yolks, reserve egg whites
2 1/3 cup half & half
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
11 oz box vanilla wafers

Four medium bananas, sliced

Meringue:
6 reserved egg whites
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp cream of tarter
6 Tbsp granulated sugar

Directions:

In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk together the evaporated milk, granulated sugar, flour and salt until dissolved.  On the stove top in a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium-high, warm the evaporated milk mixture.  In the same mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the half & half.  Whisk into the warmed evaporated milk mixture.

Cook stirring constantly for 10-15 minutes over medium heat until the flour has cooked and the custard has thickened.  Once thickened remove from the heat and whisk in 2 Tbsp of butter and 1 Tbsp of pure vanilla.  Set aside.

Layer the bottom of a 7 x 11-inch oven safe dish with vanilla wafers.  Top with banana slices.  Cover with 1/2 of the custard.  Repeat ending with custard.

Whip the 6 reserved egg whites with the vanilla, and cream of tarter.  Sweeten with granulated sugar. Whip for 3-5 minutes or until stiff peaks form.  Spread the meringue on top of the banana pudding.

Set the oven to broil to toast the top until golden.  Do not walk away. Garnish the edge with vanilla wafers, if desired.

Yield: 12 servings.

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Mom’s corn pudding soufflé

Ingredients:

24 oz frozen super sweet corn, thawed & drained [or 2 [16] oz cans sweet corn, well drained]

½ cup [1 stick] butter

1 Tbsp all-purpose flour

½ cup granulated sugar

1 [5 oz] can evaporated milk

1½ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

1/16 tsp ground nutmeg, plus add’l for the top

2 large eggs, beaten

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray or butter a 9X9-inch baking dish with cooking spray.

Drain the corn well. [The corn needs to be very well drained to prevent the custard from separating.]

In a small saucepan over medium-high, melt ½ cup of butter. Add one tablespoon of all-purpose flour and ½ cup of sugar to the melted butter.

Stir and continue to cook until the sugar is completely dissolved and the flour is incorporated. Remove from the heat.

Add the evaporated milk, baking powder, salt, nutmeg and two beaten eggs. The baking powder will cause the mixture to foam slightly.

Pour the custard over the corn. Mix well.

Pour into the prepared baking dish. dusting the top lightly with additional nutmeg, if desired.

Bake for 40-45 minutes or until golden and the center is set when gently shaken.

Serve immediately.

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Cream Cheese sugar cookies:

(Serves 24.)

Ingredients:

3 cup all-purpose flour

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp ground nutmeg

1 cup butter, softened

4 oz cream cheese, softened

2 tsp pure vanilla extract

½ tsp pure almond extract

1 ½ cup granulated sugar

2 large egg yolks

Frosting, sprinkles and seasonal pareils for decorating

Directions:
Sift together the flour, salt and nutmeg. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the softened butter, cream cheese, vanilla and almond extract. Beat for 2 minutes until fluffy and light.

Add the sugar. Beat for 2 minutes or until fully creamed together.

Add the egg yolks one at a time beating well after each addition. Beat for 2 minutes on high. The creamed mixture should be fluffy and light yellow in color.

Gradually add the flour and mix on low speed until combined. Divide the dough in half and shape into a disc. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours or until firm.

To bake preheat the oven to 375°F and line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

On a floured surface, roll one disc of the chilled dough to ⅓-inch thickness. Cut into desired shapes using floured cutters. Place at least 1½-inch apart on the parchment lined cookie sheets.

Bake for 10-12 minutes until the edges are golden. Cool completely on a cooling rack.

When the cookies have cooled frost and decorate as desired.

Note: Prior to baking cookies may be lightly brushed with egg wash and sprinkled with colorful sugar crystals, if desired.

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