QUINCY -- Leah Erke never doubted she was headed for a career tied to cooking.
"I started cooking at age 5, the time my mom became a quadriplegic. She would read the recipe out loud. I'd do the work," Erke said.
The early start in the kitchen provided one key ingredient to success in cooking -- practice.
"The more you do something, the better you are. That's why I'm fast at things now," the Quincy woman said.
More lessons in the kitchen came through her grandmother, a "fantastic" cook, 4-H and Future Homemakers of America, or FHA, in high school in Pleasant Hill before earning a degree in restaurant management in college.
Career stops had her cooking for hundreds daily as director of food service at Hannibal Regional Hospital and teaching the next generation of chefs as chair of the hospitality management program at John Wood Community College. Now she works for University of Illinois Extension providing professional development for schools in the national school lunch program in Adams, Brown, Hancock, Pike and Schuyler counties.
"I really love going into the schools," Erke said. "They really do care about the kids. They do not want to prepare things those kids are not going to eat."
Outside of work, Erke focuses on cooking for her family -- her husband Dale and their kids Sierra, 19, and 15-year-old twins Lauren and Logan.
They enjoy the easy and delicious Quiche, a recipe from Connie Graham, and although she makes main dishes like the hearty Delicious Corn Chowder, a wintertime favorite, "everybody says I'm a better baker," Erke said.
With its combination of angel food cake and strawberries, Very Berry Cloud Cake "is just light and good for summer," she said, and Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies, made this time with cranberries, are a year-round favorite.
Another summer favorite, Raspberry-Cranberry Soup, is one Erke made with the culinary students at JWCC. "It's sweet, very refreshing. It kind of tastes like melted sherbet," she said. "It's beautiful garnished with a fresh raspberry and a mint leaf."
The JWCC students also mastered Tangy Lemon Chiffon Pie. "If you like lemon, and I love lemon, this is a showstopper. It's light. It melts in your mouth," she said.
Another showstopper dessert is White Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake, a Taste of Home recipe, and Erke's Sticky Buns are another popular sweet treat.
Erke admits she rarely measures. "I kind of eyeball stuff, except in baking. You can't in baking," she said, but in dishes like her Meat Loaf Betty Crocker Style, "if you don't have enough bread, crunch up crackers and throw them in there. This one will melt in your mouth as long as you don't overcook it."
Delicious Corn Chowder
5 slices bacon
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cans whole kernel corn
1 cup potato, cooked and cubed
1 can cream of mushroom soup
2 ½ cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Cut bacon into bite-size pieces, and then cook and drain. Cook onion in small amount of bacon drippings. In a large pot, combine all ingredients. Heat just to boiling, then simmer until heated through.
Yields six to eight servings.
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
2 cups unsweetened apple juice
1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
½ to 1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 cups half and half
Fresh raspberries and mint for garnish (optional)
In a large saucepan, bring cranberries and apple juice to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Press through a sieve; return to the pan. Also press the raspberries through the sieve; discard skin and seeds. Add to cranberry mixture; bring to a boil. Add sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon; remove from heat. Cool four minutes. Combine cornstarch and cream until smooth; gradually stir into the pan. Bring to a gentle boil. Cook and stir for two minutes or until thickened. Serve hot or cold. Garnish with whipped topping, raspberries and mint.
1 (nine-inch) pie shell, unbaked
½ pound Swiss cheese, finely diced
½ pound ham, finely cubed
1 cup half and half
¼ teaspoon salt
Fill pie shell with alternate layers of ham and cheese; refrigerate. Beat together eggs, half and half and salt; refrigerate. When ready to bake, stir egg mixture with a fork, and pour over pie. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Turn oven down to 325 degrees, and continue baking for 30 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before serving.
Meat Loaf Betty Crocker Style
1 ½ pounds ground beef
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon dried sage
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground dry mustard
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 clove finely chopped garlic
1 large egg
3 slices bread, torn into small pieces
¼ cup chopped onion
½ cup ketchup
Combine all ingredients except ketchup. Spread mixture in an ungreased 8 ½ x 4 ½ by 2 ½- or 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pan or shape into a 9x5-inch loaf in an ungreased 9x13-inch pan. Spread ketchup over top. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 1 to 1 ¼ hours or until internal temperature reaches 155 degrees. Let stand five minutes; remove from pan.
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup stick margarine or butter, softened
½ cup shortening
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
3 cups quick-cooking or old-fashioned oats
1 cup flour
1 cup raisins, chopped nuts or semisweet chocolate chips, if desired
Mix all ingredients except oats, flour and raisins in a large bowl. Stir in oats, flour and raisins. Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls about two inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 375 degrees for 9 to 11 minutes or until light brown. Immediately remove from cookie sheet. Cool on wire rack.
NOTE: Substitute dried cranberries, as Erke does, for a change of flavor and color in the cookies.
18 frozen dough rolls
1 (three-ounce) package butterscotch pudding mix (not instant)
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup butter or margarine
½ cup pecans (halves or whole)
Melt butter. Mix in butterscotch pudding mix and brown sugar. Pour into a 9x13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle nuts over mixture. Top with rolls. Cover, and let rise at room temperature (approximately three hours). Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, or until rolls are golden brown. Turn over on a serving plate to let caramel mixture cover rolls.
Tangy Lemon Chiffon Pie
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
¼ cup water
1 cup sugar, divided
¼ teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks
½ cup lemon juice
2 cups heavy whipping cream
3 to 4 drops yellow food coloring, optional
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2 teaspoons shortening
1 (nine-inch) pastry shell, baked
Fresh raspberries and mint leaves
In a small saucepan, sprinkle gelatin over water; let stand two minutes to soften. Add ½ cup sugar and salt. Cook and stir over low heat until sugar is dissolved.
In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks on high speed about five minutes or until pale yellow. Gradually drizzle hot gelatin mixture into yolks, beating constantly. Return yolk mixture to same saucepan. Stir in lemon juice. Cook over low heat until mixture thickens and bubbles around the edges, stirring constantly. Cool to room temperature.
In a large bowl, combine cream, food coloring if desired and remaining sugar. Beat at high speed until soft peaks form. Add cooled lemon mixture. Continue beating at high speed until stiff peaks form.
Microwave chocolate chips and shortening in a small resealable plastic bag on high for 30 seconds. Knead bag to mix. If necessary, microwave at additional 10 to 15 second intervals until melted.
Spoon half of lemon filling into pastry shell. Cut a small hole from corner of bag, and drizzle half of chocolate over filling. Top with remaining filling. Drizzle remaining chocolate over pie. Chill pie at least two hours before serving. Garnish with raspberries, mint and lemon.
Very Berry Cloud Cake
2 (three-ounce) packages strawberry gelatin mix
2 (eight-ounce) cartons frozen whipped topping, thawed
1 prepared angel food cake, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 pints strawberries, sliced and divided
½ pint blueberries
In a bowl, combine gelatin and 2 cups boiling water. Add 1 cup cold water. Chill until gelatin is the consistency of thin mayonnaise. Gently fold 1 container whipped topping, torn cake pieces and 2 cups strawberries into gelatin. Pour mixture into a 10-inch tube pan lined with plastic wrap; cover and chill overnight.
To unmold cake, pull up plastic, and lift cake from pan. Remove plastic wrap. Frost cake with second carton of whipped topping. Garnish with remaining strawberries and blueberries.
White Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake
1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
3 (eight-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
¾ cup sugar
1/3 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 (10 to 12-ounce) package vanilla or white chips
¼ cup seedless raspberry jam
In a small bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and butter. Press onto the bottom of a greased nine-inch springform pan; set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Beat in the sour cream, flour and vanilla. Add eggs; beat on low speed just until combined. Fold in the chips. Pour over crust.
In a microwave-safe bowl, melt raspberry jam; stir until smooth. Drop by teaspoonfuls over batter; cut through batter with a knife to swirl.
Place pan on a double thickness of heavy-duty foil (about 16 inches square). Securely wrap foil around pan. Place in a large baking pan; add 1 inch of hot water to larger pan.
Bake at 325 degrees for 80 to 85 minutes or until center is just set. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Carefully run a knife around edge of pan to loosen; cool 1 hour longer. Refrigerate overnight. Remove sides of pan.