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- Cheesecake Factory Pumpkin Cheesecake & Pecan Pie
Cheesecake Factory Pumpkin Cheesecake & Pecan Pie
The Cheesecake Factory’s autumnal dessert offering is a clever mashup of pecan pie and pumpkin cheesecake in a traditional flakey pie crust. At first glance, I thought duplicating The Cheesecake Factory Pumpkin Pecan Cheesecake recipe would be easy, but I found it surprisingly tricky to hack since all the components in the cheesecake follow different baking rules.
The first step was to design a crust that could withstand being cooked three times. After a few tests, I came up with a recipe that produces a hardy dough that can be par-baked, then baked again two more times while maintaining flakiness.
The next step was to thicken the pecan filling before adding it to the cheesecake pan. My first version skipped this step and pecan filling soaked through the crust and through the springform pan onto the bottom of the oven, where a charred, dark stain remains to this day.
Cooking the pecan filling before it goes into the cheesecake will thicken it so it won't soak through the crust and wind up dirtying your oven. After the filling cools for 45 minutes, you can build a cheesecake on top of it.
Add the cheesecake filling right up to the top of the crust. If you do a good job making the top edge of the crust even all the way around, the cheesecake filling will fit perfectly.
I'm sharing two ways to make the delicious finishing caramel sauce that goes over the top. The easy way is to simply combine walnuts with your favorite caramel sauce and pour it over a slice. But the best way is to make the sauce from scratch using the recipe I've included here. It's only a few ingredients, it's not too hard, and you'll love the results.
Pour the sauce over the top, add a dollop of whipped cream, and you'll have produced a finished slice of Cheesecake Factory Pumpkin Pecan cheesecake that looks—and tastes—like it was made by a pro.
You might also like my Marie Callender's Pumpkin Pie recipe here.
- 9 ounces (1 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
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Texas Roadhouse RollsRead more
I never thought dinner rolls were something I could get excited about until I got my hand into the breadbasket at Texas Roadhouse. The rolls are fresh out of the oven and they hit the table when you do, so there’s no waiting to tear into a magnificently gooey sweet roll topped with soft cinnamon butter. The first bite you take will make you think of a fresh cinnamon roll, and then you can’t stop eating it. And when the first roll’s gone, you are powerless to resist grabbing for just one more. But it’s never just one more. It’s two or three more, plus a few extra to take home for tomorrow.
Discovering the secret to making rolls at home that taste as good as Texas Roadhouse Rolls involved making numerous batches of dough, each one sweeter than the last (sweetened with sugar, not honey—I checked), until a very sticky batch, proofed for 2 hours, produced exactly what I was looking for. You can make the dough with a stand mixer or a handheld one, the only difference being that you must knead the dough by hand without a stand mixer. When working with the dough add a little bit of flour at a time to keep it from sticking, and just know that the dough will be less sticky and more workable after the first rise.
Roll the dough out and measure it as specified here, and after a final proofing and a quick bake—plus a generous brushing of butter on the tops—you will produce dinner rolls that look and taste just like the best rolls I’ve had at any famous American dinner chain.
This recipe was our #1 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (#2), Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese (#3), Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (#4), Bush's Country Style Baked Beans (#5).
Rao's Homemade Marinara SauceRead more
Getting a table at the 123-year-old original Rao’s restaurant in New York City is next to impossible. The tables are “owned” by regulars who schedule their meals months in advance, so every table is full every night, and that’s the way it’s been for the last 38 years. The only way an outsider would get to taste the restaurant’s fresh marinara sauce is to be invited by a regular.
If that isn’t in the stars for you, you could buy a bottle of the sauce at your local market (if they even have it). It won't be fresh, and it's likely to be the most expensive sauce in the store, but it still has that great Rao's taste. An even better solution is to copy the Rao's Marinara sauce for yourself using this new and very easy recipe.
The current co-owner of Rao’s, Frank Pellegrino Jr., told Bon Appetit in 2015 that the famous marinara sauce was created by his grandmother many years ago, and the sauce you buy in stores is the same recipe served in his restaurants. The ingredients are common, but correctly choosing the main ingredient—tomatoes—is important. Try to find San Marzano-style whole canned tomatoes, preferably from Italy. They are a little more expensive than typical canned tomatoes, but they will give you some great sauce.
After 30 minutes of cooking, you’ll end up with about the same amount of sauce as in a large jar of the real thing. Your version will likely be just a little bit brighter and better than the bottled stuff, thanks to the fresh ingredients. But now you can eat it anytime you want, with no reservations, at a table you own.
This recipe was our #1 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Olive Garden Lasagna Classico (#2), King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls (#3), Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken (#4), Chipotle Mexican Grill Carnitas (#5).
You might also like my #1 recipe of 2019, Texas Roadhouse Rolls.
Olive Garden Lasagna ClassicoRead more
Crafting an Olive Garden’s signature Lasagna Classico recipe became the perfect opportunity to create a beautiful multi-layered lasagna hack recipe that uses up the whole box of lasagna noodles and fills the baking pan all the way to the top. This Top Secret Recipe makes a lasagna that tips the scale at nearly 10 pounds and will feed hungry mouths for days, with every delicious layer copied directly from the carefully dissected Olive Garden original.
I found a few credible bits of intel in a video of an Olive Garden chef demonstrating what he claims is the real formula on a midday news show, but the recipe was abbreviated for TV and the chef left out some crucial information. One ingredient he conspicuously left out of the recipe is the secret layer of Cheddar cheese located near the middle of the stack. I wasn’t expecting to find Cheddar in lasagna, but when I carefully separated the layers from several servings of the original dish, there was the golden melted cheesy goodness in every slice.
This clone recipe will make enough for 8 big portions, but if you make slightly smaller slices this is easily enough food to fill twelve lasagna-loving bellies. If you like lasagna, you're going to love this version.
This recipe was our #2 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce (#1), King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls (#3), Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken (#4), Chipotle Mexican Grill Carnitas (#5).
Pei Wei Wei Better Orange ChickenRead more
This 220-unit downscaled version of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro targets the lunch crowd with a smaller menu that features bento boxes, bowls, and small plates. Obviously, a clone is needed for this one, stat.
The name “Wei Better Orange Chicken” is a competitive callout to Panda Express's signature orange chicken, which is made with pre-breaded and frozen chicken. Pei Wei claims its orange chicken is prepared each day from scratch with chicken that is never frozen, so we’ll craft our clone the same way. But rather than assemble the dish in a wok over a high-flame fast stove like they do at the restaurant, we’ll prepare the sauce and chicken separately, then toss them with fresh orange wedges just before serving.
By the way, Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken goes very well with white or brown rice, so don’t forget to make some.
This recipe was our #4 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce (#1), Olive Garden Lasagna Classico (#2), King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls (#3), Chipotle Mexican Grill Carnitas (#5).
Panda Express Fried RiceRead more
A popular staple of any Chinese chain is fried rice, so it better be good, and the version served at Panda Express most certainly is. Here's my easy Panda Express Fried Rice recipe for when you need a stress-free, low-cost side for your entrées. But I do suggest that you cook the white rice several hours or even a day or two before you plan to make the finished dish. I found that the cooked rice called for in this recipe works best when it's cold.
As for a shortcut, bagged frozen peas and carrots will save you from the hassle of petite-dicing carrots since the carrots in those bags are the perfect size to produce an identical clone. And they're already cooked.
This recipe was our #3 most popular in 2021. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Panda Express Chow Mein (#1), Qdoba 3-Cheese Queso (#2), Outback Baked Potato Soup (#4), Chipotle Carne Asada (#5).
Panda Express Chow MeinRead more
I got lucky on the day I picked up a box of chow mein from this huge Chinese chain because they had just run out. This meant that I could watch from the sidelines as they whipped up a fresh batch in a giant wok over a high flame in the completely visible kitchen, and I was able to take plenty of mental notes. The whole dish took just a few minutes for the enthusiastic chef to prepare, and before I knew it I was out the door with a huge box of hot chow mein ready for hacking.
Just like the real Panda Express Chow Mein, the beauty in this re-creation is its simplicity. There are only seven ingredients, and the prep work is low-impact. I used dry chow mein noodles (also called Chinese stir fry noodles) which are easy to find and cheap, and dark soy sauce to get that great caramel color. And if you don’t have a wok for this, a large skillet with sloped sides for tossing will work just fine.
This recipe was our #1 most popular in 2021. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Qdoba 3-Cheese Queso (#2), Panda Express Fried Rice (#3), Outback Baked Potato Soup (#4), Chipotle Carne Asada (#5).
You might also like my #1 recipe of 2020, Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce.
King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet RollsRead more
A recipe for Portuguese sweet bread inspired the soft rolls that became a big hit at Robert Tiara's Bakery & Restaurant in Honolulu, Hawaii in the 1950s. It wasn’t long before Robert changed the name of his thriving business to King’s Hawaiian, and in 1977 the company opened its first bakery on the mainland, in Torrance, California, to make the now-famous island sweet rolls sold in stores across the U.S.
King’s Hawaiian Rolls are similar to Texas Roadhouse Rolls in that they are both pillowy, sweet white rolls, so it made sense to dig out my Texas Roadhouse Rolls clone recipe and use it as a starting point. These new rolls had to be slightly softer and sweeter, so I made some adjustments and added a little egg for color. And by baking the dough in a high-rimmed baking pan with 24 dough balls placed snugly together, I ended up with beautiful rolls that rose nicely to the occasion, forming a tear-apart loaf just like the original King's Hawaiian Rolls, but with clean ingredients, and without the dough conditioners found in the packaged rolls.
Use my King's Hawaiian Sweet Rolls recipe for sandwiches, sliders, or simply warmed up and slathered with soft European butter.
This recipe was our #3 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce (#1), Olive Garden Lasagna Classico (#2), Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken (#4), Chipotle Mexican Grill Carnitas (#5).
Chipotle CarnitasRead more
Braised and shredded pork shoulder is a staple of Mexican cuisine that Chipotle prepares with a simple blend of flavors, and a surprising ingredient you may not have expected: juniper berries. Once you track those down (they’re easy to find online), the berries are combined with thyme and bay leaves in a braising liquid that will transform your own pork roast into an easily shreddable thing of beauty in under 3 hours. Then you can use your Chipotle carnitas clone on tacos, in burritos, or in a bowl over rice and beans just like they do in the restaurant.
When picking your pork roast, try to find one without too much fat. If your roast has a thick cap of fat on it, trim off the excess. You want some fat in your braising liquid, but if the cap of fat is too thick, it may not fully render down and you’ll get chunks of fat in the shred.
It’s often assumed that the pork butt is from the rear end of the pig, even though cuts from the back region already have a name: ham. The pork butt, also known as a Boston butt, is cut from the other end, the upper shoulder of the pig. It’s called a “butt” because in pre-Revolutionary War New England the roasts were stored and transported in barrels called “butts”, and the confusing name stuck.
This recipe was our #5 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce (#1), Olive Garden Lasagna Classico (#2), King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls (#3), Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken (#4).
Outback Steakhouse Baked Potato SoupRead more
Menu Description: “Creamy potato soup topped with melted cheese, bacon, and green onions.”
It’s not called baked potato soup because the potatoes in it are baked. It’s called baked potato soup because it’s topped with shredded cheese, bacon, and green onion, and it tastes like a loaded baked potato. Other hacky hacks for this recipe miss that point and add over an hour to the preparation process by preheating an oven and baking the potatoes, all while hungry stomachs are growling on the sidelines. My version skips that part by adding the raw potatoes directly into the pot with the other ingredients, where they cook in 20 minutes, and the soup is ready to eat in less time than other recipes take just to get the potatoes done.
Also, other clones add way too much flour to thicken the soup—¾ cup! Sure, flour is good at thickening, but it doesn’t add any flavor, so I found a better way. I ended up using just a little flour to make the roux, then later thickening the soup mostly with dehydrated potato flakes, which are used to make quick mashed potatoes. The flakes not only do a great job of thickening the soup, but they also add more delicious potato flavor to the pot, just like the real Outback Baked Potato Soup.
Top your finished soup with shredded cheese, crumbled bacon, and green onion, and every spoonful will taste like a fully decked-out baked potato.
This recipe was our #4 most popular in 2021. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Panda Express Chow Mein (#1), Qdoba 3-Cheese Queso (#2), Panda Express Fried Rice (#3), Chipotle Carne Asada (#5).
Maggiano's Beef Tenderloin MedallionsRead more
For many years this entrée has been a top menu choice at Maggiano's, the 54-unit Italian chain from Brinker, the same company that operates Chili’s Grill & Bar. The $30 restaurant dish consists of three 2½-ounce tenderloin steaks, swimming in a fantastic balsamic cream sauce with sliced portabello mushrooms—but a home version of Maggiano's Beef Tenderloin Medallions is only seven easy steps away, and it won't hit you in the wallet as hard as the pricey original.
Cracking this dish required a perfect hack of the sauce, and that came quickly after obtaining some very reliable information from my incredibly helpful server/informant at a Las Vegas Maggiano’s. Let’s call him Skippy.
According to Skippy, the balsamic cream sauce is as simple as mixing a sweet balsamic glaze with the chain’s creamy Alfredo sauce. So, I first got a sample of Maggiano’s Alfredo sauce and figured out how to replicate it. Once that was done, I measured increments of balsamic glaze into the Alfredo sauce until the color and flavor matched the original. The rest of the recipe was easy.
This recipe will make two servings of the Maggiano's Beef Tenderloin Medallions and includes preparation for the tenderloins and sauce. If you’d like to complete the dish the way it’s served at the restaurant (as in the photo), add some garlic mashed potatoes on the side, using my hack for Olive Garden Garlic Mashed Potatoes.
Olive Garden Stuffed Chicken MarsalaRead more
Menu Description: “Creamy marsala wine sauce with mushrooms over grilled chicken breasts, stuffed with Italian cheeses and sundried tomatoes. Served with garlic mashed potatoes.”
My Olive Garden Stuffed Chicken Marsala recipe includes a marsala sauce that even marsala sauce haters will like. My wife is one of those haters, but when she tried this sauce, her eyes lit up, and she begged for more. That’s great, now I won’t have to eat alone.
Not only is Olive Garden's delicious marsala sauce hacked here (and it’s easy to make), you’ll also get the copycat recipe for the chain's awesome Italian cheese stuffing that goes between the two pan-cooked chicken fillets. Build it, sauce it, serve it. The presentation is awesome, and the flavor will soothe your soul.
Try this dish paired with my recent clone of Olive Garden’s Garlic Mashed Potatoes for the complete Olive Garden Stuffed Chicken Marsala experience.
Thomas' English MuffinsRead more
Samuel Bath Thomas immigrated from England to New York City and opened his first bakery there in 1880. That is where Thomas created skillet bread that would one day become the famous muffins known for their craggy texture when split in half. This hack for Thomas’ English Muffins uses a special kneading process to give the muffins the "nooks and crannies" they are famous for, making craters in the finished bread to better hold on to melted butter and jam.
I have seen several recipes that claim to re-create these muffins, but none produce the large air pockets that a proper Thomas' English Muffin recipe requires, in addition to great flavor and a perfectly cooked interior. To ensure proper nooks and crannies and muffins that are cooked all the way through, I've included some important steps.
The dough you'll make here is like a ciabatta dough in that it is very wet. So rather than kneading the dough, you stretch and fold it over several times on a well-oiled surface. Then, when the portioned-out dough has proofed on baking sheets for another 1½ to 2 hours, you par-bake the muffins.
After baking, the muffins are cooked on a griddle or in a pan until dark brown on both sides, then they must cool. This is the hardest part. The muffins will be too soft to open for at least four hours, and now you have to fight off the temptation to eat one. It’s hard, I know. The muffins smell great and you’ve waited all this time, but resist for now and your patience will be rewarded.
When the muffins have had their rest, split them with a fork and toast them as you would any English muffin.
Check out all my top secret recipes for famous bread here.
Qdoba 3-Cheese QuesoRead more
There are many acceptable ways to formulate good queso, but to make this specific queso the ingredients must be correct, and most copycat recipes seem to get it wrong. A few recipes get one of the peppers and two of the cheeses right, but pretty much every recipe out there is a bit of a mess that I will now save you from.
Quesos can be made with a variety of cheeses that include queso fresco, asadero, and Muenster, but this particular queso includes a cheese you probably didn’t expect: Swiss. That cheese is slow to melt, so we’ll shred it first, along with the Jack. And you won't need to gum up the queso with flour or cornstarch by making a roux because the white American cheese in the mix contains sodium citrate or sodium phosphate—additives that help the cheese melt smoothly and stay that way.
Authors of recipes that call for tomatoes in this dish haven’t looked closely. Those are red bell peppers and they are roasted, peeled, and seeded along with the poblano and jalapeños before they are diced and added to the cheese sauce. The sauce cooks on low heat, never bubbling, so that it stays smooth and creamy.
When done, your queso might seem thin in the pan, but it will thicken as it cools to a perfect consistency for dipping tortilla chips, or as a topping for tacos and burrito bowls.
My Qdoba 3-cheese queso recipe was our #2 most popular in 2021. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Panda Express Chow Mein (#1), Panda Express Fried Rice (#3), Outback Baked Potato Soup (#4), Chipotle Carne Asada (#5).
Olive Garden Braised Beef BologneseRead more
Braised Beef Pasta Menu Description: “Slow-simmered meat sauce with tender braised beef and Italian sausage, tossed with ruffled pappardelle pasta and a touch of alfredo sauce—just like Nonna’s recipe.”
It’s a mistake to assume that a recipe posted to a restaurant chain’s website is the real recipe for the food served there. I’ve found this to be the case with many Olive Garden recipes, and this one is no exception. A widely circulated recipe that claims to duplicate the chain’s classic Bolognese actually originated on Olive Garden’s own website, and if you make that recipe you’ll be disappointed when the final product doesn’t even come close to the real deal. I won’t get into all the specifics of the things wrong with that recipe (too much wine, save some of that for drinking!), but at first glance it’s easy to see that a few important ingredients found in traditional Bolognese sauces are conspicuously missing, including milk, basil, lemon, and nutmeg.
I incorporated all those missing ingredients into my Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese recipe, tweaked a few other things, and then tested several methods of braising the beef so that it comes out perfectly tender: covered, uncovered, and a combo. The technique I settled on was cooking the sauce covered for 2 hours, then uncovered for 1 additional hour so that the sauce reduces and the beef transforms into a fork-flakeable flavor bomb. Yes, it comes from Olive Garden, but this Bolognese is better than any I’ve had at restaurants that charge twice as much, like Rao’s where the meat is ground, not braised, and they hit you up for $30.
As a side note, Olive Garden’s menu says the dish comes with ruffled pappardelle pasta, but it’s actually mafaldine, a narrower noodle with curly edges (shown in the top right corner of the photo). Pappardelle, which is the traditional pasta to serve with Bolognese, is a very wide noodle with straight edges, and it’s more familiar than mafaldine, so perhaps that’s why the menu fudges this fact. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which pasta you choose. Just know that a wide noodle works best. Even fettuccine is good here.
For the little bit of alfredo sauce spooned into the middle of the dish, I went with a premade bottled sauce to save time. You can also make this from scratch if you like (I’ve got a great hack for Olive Garden’s Alfredo Sauce), but it’s such a small amount that premade sauce in either a chilled tub from the deli section or in a bottle off the shelf works great here.
This recipe was our #3 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes of the year: Texas Roadhouse Rolls (#1) KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (#2), Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (#4), Bush's Country Style Baked Beans (#5).
And browse my other Olive Garden clone recipes here.
Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish PizzaRead more
A requirement of any visit to Chicago is eating at least one slice of deep dish pizza in the city that perfected it. Deep dish pizza quickly became a Chicago staple after Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo opened the first Pizzeria Uno in 1943 and served a hearty new style of pizza constructed in a high-rimmed cake pan. The yeast crust was tender and flakey, like a pastry, and the cheese was layered under the sauce so that it wouldn’t burn in a hot oven for the long cooking time.
While researching a home hack of this now-iconic recipe, I discovered an unexpected technique that I hadn’t seen in other deep dish recipes. Employees told me the pizza crusts are partially cooked each morning to cut down on the wait time for customers. Before the restaurant opens each day, cooks press the dough into a pan and then sprinkle it with a little shredded cheese. The shells are then partially baked and set aside. Later, when an order comes in, the pizza is built into one of the par-baked crusts and finished off. This way customers get their food faster, and the tables turn over quicker.
Copying that delicious, flakey crust was the task that took me the longest. After two weeks of baking, I finally settled on a formula that was a mash-up of yeast dough and pie crust and made a perfectly tender deep dish crust, with great flavor that exactly mimicked the original. If you like Uno, you'll love this!
Regarding the cheese: be sure your cheese is at room temperature, not cold, or it may not melt all the way through. Also, it’s best if you buy cheese by the block and shred it yourself. Pre-shredded cheese is dusted with cornstarch so that the shreds don’t stick together in the bag, and it won’t melt as smoothly as cheese you shred by hand.
My Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza recipe will make enough sauce for two pizzas. I just thought you should know that in case you get the urge to make another deep dish after this one disappears.
This recipe was our #4 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes of the year: Texas Roadhouse Rolls (#1) KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (#2), Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese (#3), Bush's Country Style Baked Beans (#5).
Cracker Barrel MeatloafRead more
The Southern-themed chain famous for its gift shops filled with made-in-America products and delicious homestyle food is also known to have a particularly good meatloaf. This dish ranks high in popularity, right up there with the Chicken ‘n Dumplins and the Hash Brown Casserole, so a good Cracker Barrel Meatloaf recipe is long overdue.
Making meatloaf is easy. What’s hard is making it taste like the meatloaf at Cracker Barrel which is tender and juicy, and flavored with onion, green pepper, and tomato. I sought to turn out a moist and tender loaf of meat, and one that’s not dry and tough, but my first attempts were much too dense. I wasn’t happy about that, but my dog was thrilled.
After playing around with the eggs-to-breadcrumbs-to-milk ratios and being careful to use gentle hands when combining everything and pressing it into the loaf pan, the final batch was a winner and I get to pass it along to you.
It's best to use a meatloaf pan here which has an insert that lets the fat drip to the bottom, away from the meat. A regular loaf pan will still work, but you’ll want to pour off the fat in the pan before slicing.
Satisfy your Cracker Barrel cravings with more of my copycat recipes here.
KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (Improved)Read more
To get their Extra Crispy Chicken so crispy, KFC breads the chicken two times. This double breading gives the chicken its ultra craggy exterior and extra crunch, which is a different texture than the less crispy original recipe fried chicken that’s breaded just once and pressure fried.
As with my KFC Original Fried Chicken recipe, we must first brine the chicken to give it flavor and moisture all the way through, like the real thing, then the chicken is double breaded and deep-fried until golden brown. KFC uses small chickens which cook faster, but small chickens can be hard to find. If your chicken parts are on the large side, they may not cook all the way through in the 12 to 15 minutes of frying I’m specifying here. To be sure your chicken is cooked, start frying with the thickest pieces, like the breasts, then park them in a 300-degree oven while you finish with the smaller pieces. This will keep the chicken warm and crispy, and more importantly, ensure that they are cooked perfectly all the way through.
On my CMT show Top Secret Recipe I chatted with Winston Shelton, a long-time friend of KFC founder Harland Sanders. Winston saw the Colonel's handwritten secret recipe for KFC Original Recipe chicken, and he told me one of the secret ingredients is Tellicherry black pepper. It's a more expensive, better-tasting black pepper that comes from the Malabar coast in India, and you should use it here if you can find it. Winston pulled me aside and whispered this secret to me when he thought we were off-camera, but our microphones and very alert cameramen caught the whole thing, and we aired it.
I first published my KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken recipe in Even More Top Secret Recipes, but recently applied some newly acquired secrets and tips to make this much-improved recipe of one of the most familiar fried chicken recipes in the world.
My KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken recipe below was our #2 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes of the year: Texas Roadhouse Rolls (#1), Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese (#3), Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (#4), Bush's Country Style Baked Beans (#5).
Bush's Country Style Baked BeansRead more
In the Bush’s Beans commercials, Duke, the family golden retriever, wants to sell the secret family recipe, but the Bush family always stops him. The dog is based on the Bush family’s real-life golden retriever, and the campaign, which began in 1995, made Bush’s the big dog of the canned baked beans market practically overnight. Their confidential baked beans formula is considered one of the top 10 biggest recipe secrets in the U.S.
Bush Brothers & Company had been canning a variety of fruits and vegetables for over 60 years when, in 1969, the company created canned baked beans using a cherished recipe from a family matriarch. Sales jumped from 10 thousand cases in the first year to over 100 thousand cases in 1970. And just one year later sales hit a million cases. Today Bush’s makes over 80 percent of the canned baked beans sold in the U.S., and the secret family recipe remains a top food secret, despite Duke’s attempts. A replica of the original recipe book—without the original recipe in it (drat!)—is on display at the company's visitor center in Chestnut Hill, Tennessee.
I chose to hack the “Country Style” version of Bush’s Beans because I don’t think the Original flavor has enough, uh, flavor. Country Style is similar to Original, but richer, with more brown sugar. My recipe for Bush's Country Style baked beans starts by soaking dry small white beans in a brine overnight. The salt in the water helps to soften the skins, but don’t soak them for more than 14 hours or the skins may begin to fall off. You can skip this step if you've got a fancy Instant Pot using my directions below.
My first versions tasted great but lacked the deep brown color of the real Bush’s beans, which include caramel coloring—an ingredient that can be hard to find on its own. I eventually discovered that the “browning” sauce, Kitchen Bouquet, will add the dark caramel color needed to our home version of the beans so that they’ll look just like the real thing.
This recipe was our #5 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes of the year: Texas Roadhouse Rolls (#1) KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (#2), Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese (#3), Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (#4).
Chipotle Carne AsadaRead more
Chipotle’s popular limited offering is a good example of how straightforward and flavorful carne asada can be. It’s not overly mysterious since Chipotle is transparent about the ingredients used for the restaurant's entire menu—53 ingredients in all—but identifying those is only the beginning of the process. There was still plenty of work to do in establishing ratios and settling on an ideal preparation method.
Carne asada is almost always made with flank steak or skirt steak. A server at Chipotle told me they use skirt steak, which is surprising since that is the tougher of the two cuts. Perhaps she was wrong about that? Flank steak also has a better flavor than skirt steak, so I'm recommending flank here. Just be sure not to marinate it for more than 2 days or the acid in the marinade may toughen your steak and you certainly don't want that.
After you grill it, slice the meat across the grain and use it in burritos, tacos, bowls, or as a Southwest-style salad topper.
My Chipotle carne asada recipe was our #5 most popular in 2021. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Panda Express Chow Mein (#1), Qdoba 3-Cheese Queso (#2), Panda Express Fried Rice (#3), Outback Baked Potato Soup (#4).
California Pizza Kitchen Butter CakeRead more
Imagine a giant soft sugar cookie with sweetened cream cheese on top and served warm as if it just came out of the oven and you have California Pizza Kitchen's Butter Cake, a delectable dessert described on the menu with five simple words: “Trust us…just try it.”
This dessert is an easy one to prep in the restaurant since the cakes are made ahead of time and chilled until ordered. Once an order comes in the cake is zapped for a minute in the microwave, then topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and surrounded by dollops of whipped cream. You can prepare your CPK Butter Cake this way at home as well—make your cakes in advance, then chill them until dessert time. Or, you can serve the cakes right after they come out of the oven. Either way works.
The construction is an easy one—you’ll need four 4-inch cake pans, or ramekins, or anything you can bake in that is 4-inches across. To make the batter I used a stand mixer with the paddle attachment and it worked great, but a hand-held granny mixer also works.
I think you're gonna love this one. Trust me.
Find more amazing CPK copycat recipes here.
Panera Bread Cinnamon Crunch SconeRead more
After the success of Panera Bread’s Cinnamon Crunch Bagels, the popular sandwich chain went back into the development kitchen and came out with these incredible scones, filled with the same crunchy cinnamon drops found in the bagels and drizzled with cinnamon icing.
When first released, these scones were cut as triangles and frosted, but in 2018 the shape was changed to more “rustic”-shaped round blobs with drizzled or piped icing on top. I like to hack the newest version, so my Panera Bread Cinnamon Crunch Scones recipe here re-creates that scone.
These are cream scones, so cream is the main wet ingredient that holds the dough together—but keep the dough crumbly as you mix it, and try not to compress it much, or you risk making the final product too dense. The best way to form the scones is to use both hands and shape the dough like you’re making a loose snowball. Then use one hand to place the dough onto the baking sheet and form it into a rough dome shape. The scones will flatten and spread out a little bit as they bake, creating the same rustic shape as the original.
Try my Panera Bread Cinnamon Crunch Bagel recipe here.
Olive Garden Five Cheese Ziti al FornoRead more
Menu Description: “A baked blend of Italian cheeses, pasta, and our signature five-cheese marinara.”
Creating a recipe for Olive Garden’s famous baked ziti would not be possible without a perfect clone of the chain’s popular five-cheese marinara sauce. I started with my previous recipe of the plain marinara for Olive Garden’s Chicken Parmigiana and enhanced it with the addition of five kinds of Italian cheese and heavy cream.
Determining which five types of cheese are in a prepared sauce is tough without some insider assistance, so before cooking I focused my efforts on convincing a server to ask the chef for the list…and I got it! The blend of cheese used here in the sauce comes straight from the kitchen of my local Olive Garden. When you taste it, you’ll know the intel was legit.
After the sauce is added to the pasta it’s topped with a cheese-and-breadcrumb mix called “ziti topping,” then it’s browned under a salamander (for the restaurant version) or a broiler (for your version). The result is a beautiful dish with great sauce and a cheesy topping that should satisfy even the pickiest baked ziti fanatics.
I've cloned a ton of dishes from Olive Garden. See if I hacked your favorite here.
Cheesecake Factory Oreo Dream Extreme CheesecakeRead more
The Cheesecake Factory’s latest decadent dessert goes extreme with America’s favorite cookie. You’ll find Oreos in the middle of the cheesecake, in the cookie mousse layer, pressed onto the edge, sprinkled on the whipped cream, and even up on top where an Oreo wafer crowns each slice. In fact, I’ve designed my copycat Cheesecake Factory Oreo cheesecake recipe to use every Oreo in a standard size-package—all 36 of them!
This beautiful cheesecake starts with a chocolate cake layer, topped with a layer of chocolate buttercream icing, followed by a no-bake cheesecake layer, Oreo cookie mousse, and more chocolate icing. It’s a chocolate lover’s—and Oreo lover’s—dream, and not surprisingly, one of Cheesecake Factory’s best sellers.
When creating your own version of this dessert masterpiece at home, be sure to use a 10-inch springform pan. This is a big cheesecake, so you'll get 12 large slices out of it. The restaurant charges around 56 bucks for a whole cheesecake this big, but thankfully, a homemade version will cost you much less than that.
Pizza Hut Meaty Marinara PastaRead more
One of two pasta dishes currently on the pizza giant’s menu, the Meaty Marinara Pasta was first introduced in a 2008 April Fool’s publicity stunt when Pizza Hut claimed it was changing its name to “Pasta Hut.” No one fell for the prank but they did fall for the pasta, and that's why the Tuscani Creamy Chicken Alfredo Pasta and Meaty Marinara Pasta have been on the menu ever since. The sauce is the big secret here; it's simple and classic, but customized to produce a marinara with that distinct Pizza Hut taste. And the recipe will make more than enough pasta to go around.
My Pizza Hut Meaty Marinara Pasta recipe is an easy one. After browning the seasoned beef, you add it to the sauce, simmer the sauce until thick, then spread it over one pound of rotini pasta in a baking dish in two layers so that every bite is filled with flavor. Sprinkle shredded mozzarella over the top and melt it until golden brown under your broiler. Boom! No one can resist. You rule.
This simple and inexpensive meal will feed eight, and leftovers keep well in the fridge for a couple of days.
Find more of my Pizza Hut recipes here.
Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew ChickenRead more
This popular chain wrangles a wide variety of dishes and cooking styles day after day with consistently high quality. From pasta to burgers to tacos, from salads to pancakes to beautiful cheesecakes for dessert, there is something for everyone at the Cheesecake Factory.
The thorough menu's Asia-inspired plates include Thai, Korean, and Chinese dishes, but one that consistently stands out is this excellent Mandarin-style spicy chicken entrée, served over your choice of white or brown rice.
The secret of the great flavor is in the sauce, which has now been hacked for you in my Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew recipe below. Plus, I’ll walk you through the process of creating perfect crispy chicken from scratch using juicy chicken tenderloins.
If you’d like to save time, you can bake up some pre-cooked breaded chicken tenders and focus all your efforts on the amazing sauce. Tips on that shortcut can be found below in the Tidbits.
This recipe was our #4 most popular in 2022. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Traditional Meatballs (#1), Chipotle Pollo Asado (#2), Wendy's Seasoned Potatoes (#3), McDonald's Chicken McNuggets (#5).
Olive Garden Chicken ParmigianaRead more
Menu Description: “Two lightly fried parmesan-breaded chicken breasts are smothered with Olive Garden’s homemade marinara sauce and melted Italian cheeses. We serve our Chicken Parmigiana with a side of spaghetti for dinner.”
Chicken parmigiana is a forever favorite, and it’s not a difficult dish to whip up at home. But for it to taste like the Olive Garden signature entree, we’ll need to take some very specific steps.
Olive Garden’s chicken is salty and moist all the way through, so we must first start by brining the chicken. Give yourself an extra hour for this important marinating step. The marinara sauce used on the chicken is an Olive Garden specialty and no bottled sauce compares, so we’ll make our own from scratch using canned crushed tomatoes and the formula below.
While the sauce cooks, filling your house with its intoxicating aroma, the chicken is breaded and browned. When the marinara is done, top the chicken with the sauce and mozzarella and stick it under your hot broiler until bubbling.
Hopefully, everyone at your house is hungry, because the Olive Garden dinner portion is two chicken fillets, and my Olive Garden Chicken Parmigiana recipe will yield a total of four 2-piece servings. Add a small serving of spaghetti on the side, topped with more of the delicious sauce, and you'll have a perfect match to the restaurant plate.
Can't get enough Olive Garden? Click here for more of your favorite copycat recipes.
Chipotle Pollo AsadoRead more
In 2022, for the first time in its 29-year history, Chipotle debuted a new style of grilled chicken, and it became an instant hit. At least it was at the Chipotle near me, where the Pollo Asado was ordered more than any other protein, according to servers there. But the new flavor is for a limited-time-only, and when it’s gone, my exclusive Chipotle Pollo Asado recipe may be the only way to satisfy your deep desire.
It appears that Chipotle’s new chicken is marinated in a vacuum meat tumbler similar to the way the Mexican chicken chain El Pollo Loco does it. I sure wish I had one of those awesome tumblers because they speed up and improve the marinating process, producing moist chicken packed with flavor all the way through. But those tumblers are expensive and bulky, and I have absolutely zero space left in my kitchen to store one. So, an overnight marinade, along with a bit of patience, must suffice.
The next day, grill your marinated chicken, chop it up, toss it with the secret citrusy sauce hacked here, add some fresh cilantro and lime juice, then use it as you see fit on burritos, tacos, salads, and bowls.
Try my Chipotle Pollo Asado recipe below and find more of my Chipotle recipes here.
This recipe was our #2 most popular in 2022. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Traditional Meatballs (#1), Wendy's Seasoned Potatoes (#3), Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew Chicken (#4), McDonald's Chicken McNuggets (#5).
Einstein Bros. Bagels Twice-Baked Hash BrownRead more
I’m not sure why Einstein Bros. claims there are just four cheeses in the new Twice-Baked Hash Brown when the ingredients clearly list six kinds of cheese, plus cream cheese. Regardless, the shredded Asiago, Romano, Parmesan, provolone, and mozzarella listed there can be found combined in an “Italian Blend” at many supermarkets, making for an easy start to our home clone. And don’t just be thinking about breakfast for these cheesy potatoes. They work great as a side for any meal.
In the detailed description of the new item, Einstein Bros. claims the hash browns contain two kinds of schmears, which is true, but a little misleading because one of them is just plain cream cheese. The other is onion-and-chive cream cheese, which we can make from scratch. We’ll combine those two shmears into one blend by doubling the cream cheese added to our onion-and-chive schmear formula.
Follow my Einstein Bros. twice baked hash brown recipe below, and mix everything together. Then, load the ingredients into a standard 12-cup muffin pan with circles of parchment paper cut out to fit into the bottom of the 12 cups. Without these parchment circles, the hash browns may stick and break when they’re released. You can also use paper muffin cups, if you don’t mind the less crispy, ridged sides.
Bake them the first time for 30 minutes, then cool and store. Now you have a dozen servings of cheesy hash brown potatoes that are easy to finish off by baking them a second time until crispy. These Einstein Bros. Twice Baked Hash Browns are great served with breakfast, or for dinner as your starchy side alongside beef, chicken, lamb, and many other savory entrées.
You can also make homemade Einstein Bros bagels, sandwiches, and shmears. See if I hacked your favorites here.
Pepperidge Farm Chesapeake Dark Chocolate Pecan CookiesRead more
The Chesapeake brand of cookies from Pepperidge Farm are crispy cookies with a light crunch and filled with various chunks of chocolate and nutty bits. One of the most popular choices features big chunks of dark chocolate along with pecan bits, and it can be duplicated at home with a few twists to one of my chocolate chip cookie recipes.
To make a crispy cookie that’s tender and not tough, I’ve replaced some of the butter with shortening, replaced one egg with an egg white, and tweaked the baking powder/baking soda ratio.
Nestle makes a 10-ounce bag of oversized dark chocolate chips that are delicious and work nicely for this clone. If you can’t find those, you can chop up a couple of your favorite dark chocolate bars into small chunks and add those to the mix.
When the cookies are cool, they should be lightly crispy and filled with flavor, just like the original Pepperidge Farm Chesapeake cookies. Store them in a covered container in a dry spot.
Try more famous copycat cookies and brownie recipes here.
Outback Steakhouse Toowoomba SteakRead more
Here’s a hack that might help when you feel like doing something special with those steaks in the fridge. Or maybe you have salmon fillets in there? Doesn’t matter, this recipe works great on both. And it also makes a great pasta sauce.
The secret Toowoomba sauce is a variation on alfredo sauce that Outback served over pasta at one time. These days the sauce is only used to top steak and salmon at the restaurant, but you can also use it on just about any type of pasta.
In my early batches of the sauce, I noticed that if the shrimp are added at the beginning they get too tough. To solve that problem, I sautéed the seasoned shrimp separately, then added them closer to the end, and they came out perfect.
Spoon your homemade Toowoomba sauce over grilled tenderloin filets (or salmon filets) for an easy way to elevate your entrée. My Outback Steakhouse Toowoomba sauce recipe will make enough for four servings.
If you love Outback Steakhouse, check out my other clone recipes here.
Chipotle Queso BlancoRead more
Social media shredded Chipotle’s first queso dip which debuted in 2017, calling it “gritty,” “bland,” “watered-down,” and “a crime against cheese.” Chipotle was in desperate need of a re-do.
In early 2020, after months and months of test-marketing an improved cheesy dip recipe in Dallas, Detroit, and San Diego, the Mexican chain introduced Queso Blanco to the entire U.S., and this time the reviews were much better.
Chipotle claims their new formula contains exactly 13 ingredients, including 2 kinds of cheese and 3 different chile peppers. With cornstarch as the thickening agent, the preparation starts by making a white sauce with milk and cream. When the cheese is fully melted and smooth, the veggies go in, and in about 10 minutes it’s ready to serve.
Use my Chipotle Queso Blanco copycat recipe as a dip with tortilla chips or as a topping on your copycat Chipotle carne asada or carnitas tacos and barbacoa burritos. Find all my Chipotle recipes here.
American Coney Island Chili Dogs (Detroit Coney Island Sauce)Read more
Over a century ago, Detroit, Michigan became the Coney Island chili dog capital of the world, even though Coney Island is nowhere near there. Greek immigrants who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island adapted a recipe for the hot dogs they ate while visiting Coney Island, New York, on their way to the Midwest. When they settled in southern Michigan, many opened restaurants to sell their clones of the food they ate when they first got to America, turning New York-style Coney Dogs into a Midwest phenomenon.
Two of the most famous Coney Island restaurants in Detroit are Lafayette Coney Island and its next-door neighbor, American Coney Island. The two buildings were originally one building with a single restaurant inside, built by brothers Gus and Bill Keros in 1915. But somewhere along the way the brothers had a falling out and split the restaurant in half, right down the middle, and it stayed that way. Today, the two Coney Island restaurants are under different ownership, but they still remain next-door rivals.
I decided the best Coney dog to hack is from American Coney Island, not only because of the restaurant’s deep history, but also because I was able to order the chili dogs shipped to my house in a kit. That’s always good news, since shipped foods must list ingredients, and I get to see exactly what’s in the chili. Built the traditional way, a typical Detroit Coney Island chili dog features a natural-casing hot dog in a soft white bun, smothered in chili sauce, drizzled with mustard, and topped with a pile of diced sweet onion. The kit came with everything I needed, including the tub of chili with clearly-labeled ingredients that I was counting on.
With the help of that information, I was able to create a thick, flavorful chili sauce that you can use on your favorite hot dogs to make a delicious clone of American Coney Island Chili Dogs. Crushed soda crackers thicken the chili, and extra beef fat adds a smooth quality that mimics the famous 100-year-old American Coney Island chili recipe.
The chili must simmer for four hours to properly tenderize the meat, so plan your Coney dog cloning adventure accordingly.
Try making your other favorite condiments at home, like ketchup or mustard, with my copycat recipes here.
KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) Chicken Pot Pie (Improved)Read more
KFC's Chicken Pot Pie is a classic. It's packed with lots of shredded white and dark meat chicken, potatoes, peas, and carrots; all of it swimming in a delicious creamy gravy and topped with a tantalizing flakey crust. It seems more like homemade food than fast food. And now it can be made at home better than ever before with this improved hack of my original recipe (found here). The crust now has a better flavor (more butter!), and the gravy tastes closer to the original with the addition of more spices.
You can make my KFC Chicken Pot Pie recipe using ramekins or small oven-safe baking dishes, or get some recyclable aluminum pot pie pans you can find in many supermarkets. Those pans are the perfect size for four single servings, and they make cleanup easy after the feast.
Shakey's Mojo PotatoesRead more
Sherwood Johnson survived a case of malaria while serving in World War II, which left him with some residual nerve damage and a new nickname: Shakey. Despite his affliction, Shakey Johnson was still able to bang out toe-tapping Dixieland jazz on the piano night after night in the pizza parlor he opened in Sacramento in 1954, where live jazz accompanied the thin crust pizza and cold pitchers of beer.
Shakey’s became the first franchised pizza restaurant in the U.S., and by 1974 the chain had 500 stores across the U.S. The #1 dish is clearly the made-to-order pizza, but the chain’s trademarked crispy battered potato slices are a close runner-up and a perfect tasty subject to hack.
Recipes that claim complete pancake mix is the secret breading ingredient in Mojo Potatoes fail to observe that pancake mix contains sugar, and there is no noticeable sweetness in the breading of the Mojos. I also decided that dry breading wouldn't work since in my tests the paprika failed to bloom and give the coating a perfect hue like it does when the mixture is wet.
I eventually settled on a simple wet batter made with seasoned salt, flour, and little cornstarch for crunch to best match the flavor, crispiness, and red/orange tint of the real thing from America’s first pizza chain. Use this original technique, and these handy step photos, to make extra crispy potatoes the Shakey's way.
There's your appetizer, now what's for dinner? Find clones for some of your favorite famous entrées here.
Rao's Traditional MeatballsRead more
Tweaking a classic recipe with a few special prep tricks leaked to me by a server was the key to developing this spot-on hack for the famous meatballs from the iconic 125-year-old Italian dining room. With just two locations in the U.S. (Los Angeles and New York), sinking your fork into a fresh meatball at the restaurant requires quite a trip for most people, but my Rao's Traditional Meatballs recipe, refined through multiple batches, will make you a meatball master in your own kitchen, producing ten 5½-ounce meatballs that look and taste like the real thing.
Fortunately, I could squeeze in a reservation at the Las Vegas Rao’s location a few weeks before it closed its doors forever at Caesar’s Palace in late November 2021. While there, I made sure to ask my server for any information about the recipe, and was informed about the secret two-step process described in this hack to create giant meatballs that are cooked through, but so moist that they practically crumble when cut with a fork.
Rao’s has shared a meatball recipe in the past, but don’t be fooled. That recipe produces decent meatballs, but they are not the same as what’s served in the restaurant. If you want to make meatballs that taste like the classic original, use my Rao's meatballs recipe below.
And when they're done, top the meatballs with your favorite marinara or use my hack here to re-create Rao’s famous sauce.
This recipe was our #1 most popular in 2022. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Chipotle Pollo Asado (#2), Wendy's Seasoned Potatoes (#3), Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew Chicken (#4), McDonald's Chicken McNuggets (#5).
You might also like my #1 recipe of 2021, Panda Express Chow Mein.
Wendy's Seasoned PotatoesRead more
Reviewers of Wendy’s tasty seasoned potatoes point out that the skin-on slices stay crispy even when cool. That tells us the breading is most likely made with a non-wheat flour blend, an assumption confirmed by the website ingredients list for the potatoes where nary a gram of wheat flour is included. Yep, these seasoned potatoes are gluten-free.
Wendy’s uses a blend of food starches plus rice flour for the breading on their version, but my tests confirmed that cornstarch is all you’ll need for a great clone of Wendy's seasoned potatoes. The secret process starts by coating the potato slices with the dry breading mix, which contains salt. The salt in the blend will draw water out of the potatoes, magically transforming the dry breading into a wet batter in about 20 minutes.
When all the breading is wet, the potatoes go into the oil for partial frying. After resting a bit, they get dropped in again until golden brown and crispy. And, thanks to the cornstarch, these potatoes will stay crispy, even when they’re completely cool. Pretty cool right? Give my Wendy's seasoned potatoes recipe a try.
This recipe was our #3 most popular in 2022. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Traditional Meatballs (#1), Chipotle Pollo Asado (#2), Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew Chicken (#4), McDonald's Chicken McNuggets (#5).
Cracker Barrel Baked Apple DumplinRead more
One of the best choices you will make in life is having this dish for dessert when you’re at Cracker Barrel. They call it a “dumplin” but it’s just a little streusel-covered apple pie, served up hot in its own small baking dish with two scoops of vanilla bean ice cream on top, and drizzled with warm apple/caramel sauce—it's good stuff. Take a bite and you may notice the apples inside taste like Cracker Barrel’s Fried Apples side dish, so we'll use my previous hack for that part to bring it all together.
My Cracker Barrel Baked Apple Dumplin recipe makes two small pies that serve up to four. Check out more of my cool copycat recipes from Cracker Barrel here.
Cracker Barrel Buttermilk PieRead more
Not having ever lived in the southern US my experience with this dessert was about as minimal as it gets. The first buttermilk pie I tasted was at Cracker Barrel and I was immediately hooked on the sweetened vanilla custard with its distinct, but not overwhelming, tang from the buttermilk and lemon juice, balanced with a sweet garnish of strawberries and whipped cream. It’s a versatile dessert that is as well-suited for summertime get-togethers as it is for traditional southern winter holiday meals.
Now I’ve tasted over a dozen variations of this decades-old favorite—all but one of them coming out of my own oven—on my quest to discover the best way to make Cracker Barrel’s popular dessert. And finally, I hacked it.
The beauty of my Cracker Barrel Buttermilk Pie recipe is its simplicity: you’ll need just a handful of common ingredients, a whisk, and an unbaked pie shell. You can make your own pie shell using your favorite recipe or buy a frozen unbaked crust at the supermarket to save time. My pie shell was made by Marie Callender’s and it was delicious.
Whisk together the filling in stages as described here, pour it into your pie shell, and bake it starting on the lowest rack so that the bottom of the pie gets browned. If you have a convection oven, this is a good time to use it so you’re sure to get even browning on top.
After about an hour your pie will be done, and when it cools, it's slicing time.
Find more of my Cracker Barrel copycat recipes here.
KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) Potato WedgesRead more
“Don’t call them fries,” says KFC about its popular side made with sliced, skin-on russet potatoes. What sets these potatoes apart from all the others is the secret breading made with a similar seasoning blend to the one used for Colonel's Original Recipe Fried Chicken. To achieve the proper crispiness, the potatoes are par-fried, frozen, then fried again until golden brown.
One important ingredient that completes the flavor is MSG. Monosodium glutamate is a food additive derived from glutamic acid, which is an important amino acid found in abundance in nature, food, and in you right now. Over the last 60 years of study and use, MSG has not only been found harmless in normal amounts, but tests have shown glutamate to be a chemical messenger that benefits gut health, immunity, and brain functions such as memory and learning. In addition to all of that, it imparts a unique savoriness that enhances flavors in other ingredients and makes your food taste amazing. Using MSG in your food is, literally, smart cooking.
Another important ingredient is ground Tellicherry black pepper, a select black pepper from India. Winston Shelton, a friend of Harland Sanders who invented the first high-volume pressure fryers for KFC, confirmed this. Shelton recalled seeing the ingredient when Sanders showed him the secret formula for the fried chicken seasoning he had scribbled on a piece of paper.
While we were shooting the first episode of my TV Show, Top Secret Recipe, Winston pulled me aside and whispered to me that Tellicherry pepper is crucial to creating the unique KFC aftertaste. It was a great tip, and fortunately, we caught that moment on camera and you can see it in the show. Later, I conducted a side-by-side taste test with common black pepper and Tellicherry black pepper and discovered Winston was right. If you want the best taste for your copycat KFC Potato Wedges, you'll need Tellicherry pepper, which you can find online and in some food stores. Be sure to grind it fine before using it.
For my KFC Potato Wedges recipe, just two russet potatoes are all it takes to make the equivalent of a large serving of fried potato wedges, which will be enough for at least four people.
Bonchon WingsRead more
Korean chicken is famous for its extra crispy coating, and Bonchon’s recipe—especially the wings—is one of the best in the world. That chain's famous formula is why there are now over 340 Bonchon outlets in nine countries, including over one hundred in the US and more planned to open here in the near future.
The biggest challenge when creating my Bonchon chicken wings recipe was finding the perfect magical mixture for the batter that fries to a golden brown, and with tender crispiness that stays crunchy long after the wings have been brushed with the flavorful glaze.
I knew that a traditional double-frying technique would help create the crunchy coating we needed, but it would take some trial-and-error to determine the best time splits. The wings are par-fried, rested, then fried again until done, but just how long to give each stage was yet to be determined since every recipe I found for Korean chicken used different times and temps. Some recipes even changed the temperature between frying steps, but I found those made the recipe too difficult to manage when frying multiple batches.
I eventually settled on 350 degrees F with most of the frying done up front in the par-fry stage. A three-ingredient batter is all that’s needed for crispy golden-brown wings, and the soy garlic sauce is an easy hack that’s made quickly in your microwave oven. The spicy version is made by adding Korean red chili paste (gochujang) and Korean red pepper powder (gochugaru) to the soy garlic recipe. You can find these ingredients at Asian markets or online, and if you like your wings spicy you'll want to add these perky ingredients.
Click here for more delicious appetizer recipes.
Applebee's Chicken Wonton TacosRead more
Menu Description: “A deliciously different way to taco. Tangy grilled chicken, sweet Asian chile sauce and dumpling sauce stuffed into crispy wonton shells and topped with a crunchy slaw and cilantro mix.”
Re-creating Applebee's Chicken Wonton Tacos requires cloning four parts; none of which are difficult: Grilled chicken, coleslaw, secret dumpling sauce, and the crispy wonton shell to hold all of it together. For the chicken, we’ll grill a couple of thighs and chop them up. Then we’ll use bottled sweet chili sauce—usually found in your grocery store where Asian foods are parked—to punch up the flavor.
The coleslaw is easy with a dressing that’s only five ingredients. The slaw is best when it has some time to sit and wilt a bit, so plan ahead for the best flavor. You can slice the cabbage yourself, but a coleslaw kit that’s a combo of sliced cabbage and shredded carrots is a big time-saver. Just measure out 4 cups of the cabbage blend and mix it with the minced cilantro and dressing.
Wonton taco shells are not a thing you can usually find in stores, so we’ll make our own using wonton wrappers and a skillet of hot oil. When the oil is hot, add a wonton wrapper and use tongs to fold it over diagonally as it fries until it’s crispy on both sides. It takes less than a minute to fry each wonton taco shell, and you’ll get better at it as you go. Just be sure to leave plenty of room in the taco for the delicious fillings to come.
Try my Applebee's Chicken Wonton Tacos recipe below, and find more copycat recipes from Applebee's here.
Carl's Jr. Fried ZucchiniRead more
For decades, Carl’s Jr. has effectively cornered the market on fried zucchini at major fast food chains by serving a great crispy breaded version that’s flavorful all the way through. Now you can make zucchini that tastes just as good, as long as you know the secret step that other fried zucchini recipes miss. It makes all the difference.
The secret is a brine. I found that this fried zucchini tastes best when it takes a salted water bath before breading. In 60 minutes, the salt in the brine is absorbed by the zucchini, spreading good flavor all the way through. After the brine, the zucchini is rinsed, coated twice with flour and once with seasoned breadcrumbs, and fried to a beautiful golden brown.
I’m giving you a couple choices here. You can make the recipe all the way through and serve it immediately, or if you want to serve it later, you can par-fry the zucchini and freeze it for several days. After that, when an occasion arises, a couple minutes is all it takes to finish off the dish and serve it. My Carl's Jr. Fried Zucchini recipe makes enough for a small gathering, but you can easily cut it in half for a more intimate hang.
Click here for more amazing Carl's Jr. copycat recipes.
Chick-fil-A Chicken Noodle SoupRead more
Like at Wendy’s, where unsold and broken burger patties provide the beef for their famous chili, Chick-fil-A gets the chicken for this delicious noodle soup by chopping up the leftover chicken used on their grilled chicken sandwiches. But grilling isn’t the first step to take when whipping up a home hack of this famous Chick-Fil-A chicken noodle soup. First, you must brine the chicken to fill it with flavor and keep it juicy like the real thing. A couple of hours later, when the brining is done, it’s grilling go-time.
The pasta shape Chick-fil-A uses in their soup is an uncommon one, and you might have a hard time finding it at your local market. It’s called mafalda corta (upper right in the photo), which is a miniature version of the ruffled-edge malfadine pasta used in my hack for Olive Garden Beef Bolognese. It also goes by the name “mini lasagna.” If you can’t find mafalda corta (I found it online), you can instead use your favorite small fancy pasta here, such as farfalle, rotini, fusilli, or whatever looks good at the store.
Looking to make the popular Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich or their Mac & Cheese? Click here for more of my Chick-fil-A clone recipes.
Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q Cheese BiscuitsRead more
The barbecue at Jim N' Nick's is good food. But it's the irresistible mini cheese biscuits served with every meal that have become the signature specialty of this 40-store chain. The sweet little biscuits are made from scratch every day at each restaurant using the same wholesome ingredients I'm including here in my Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q Cheese Biscuits recipe.
A bag of dry mix can be purchased at the restaurant, but you’re still required to add eggs, butter, cheese, and milk, so why not just make the whole thing from scratch? It's much cheaper than buying the bag of mix, and the biscuits come out better when you use fresh buttermilk rather than relying on the powdered buttermilk included in the dry mix.
Use a mini muffin pan here to make your biscuits the same size as the originals or use a standard muffin pan, if that's all you've got, for bigger muffins. It will take a little longer to cook the larger biscuits (instructions are below), but they will still turn out as addictively delicious as the famous tiny restaurant originals.
Now, what's for dinner? Find recipes your favorite entrées here.
Shake Shack Frozen Vanilla CustardRead more
What started as a single food cart in Madison Square Park in New York City in 2000 has become one of America's fastest-growing food chains. In 2014, Shake Shack filed for its initial public offering of stock, and shares rose by 147 percent on the first day of trading. The chain’s success can be attributed to a simple menu of great food that makes any bad day better, including juicy flat-grilled burgers, thick shakes, and creamy frozen custard.
Custard is made just like ice cream with many of the same ingredients, except custard has egg yolks in it for extra richness. Also, custards are made in ice cream machines with paddles that move slowly so minimal air is mixed in. Home ice cream makers work great for custard, and will churn out a thick, creamy finished product. Using the right ratio of cream to milk and just enough egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla, you can now make an identical hack of Shake Shack frozen vanilla custard, which is great on its own or topped with syrups, fruit, and candy bits.
And don’t forget that custards taste best when they’re fresh. Shake Shack serves the custard within a couple of hours of making it, so consume your homemade Shake Shack vanilla custard as quickly as you can after it’s churned.
If you're a fan of Shake Shack Vanilla Milkshake, you can duplicate it at home using this custard recipe as a base. Use my recipe here, and re-create the juicy Shake Shake Burger with my hack here.
Church's Chicken Honey Butter BiscuitsRead more
It took more than good chicken for the small fried chicken shack in San Antonio, Texas to blow up into an international fried chicken superstar with over 1000 units in 35 countries. Thanks to these biscuits—so good they trademarked the name—hungry mouths have more than one reason for a quick Church’s run.
No need for a biscuit cutter to make Church's Chicken Honey Butter Biscuits at home since these are drop biscuits you form by hand. But it is recommended to use a silicone baking pad if you have one to keep the bottoms as light as possible.
Brush on the honey butter the moment the biscuits come out of the oven, and when they cool they’ll have glistening tops just like the real ones.
Now, what's for dinner? Check here for cool copycat recipes for famous entrees.
Dole Dole WhipRead more
The real Dole Whip is a non-dairy dessert that includes artificial flavoring, a small amount of real pineapple juice, and more gums than a candy store. Everything in this Hawaiian ice cream is combined in a powdered form including the pineapple juice in 4.4-pound bags that are sold to soft-serve machine operators at fairs, sporting events, and amusement parks. On the back of the Dole Whip mix are instructions to dissolve the powder in 2 gallons of cold tap water, then immediately pour the syrup into a soft serve machine and hit the switch.
Up until now, almost all recipes that claim to reproduce Dole Whip—including one shared by Disneyland during the coronavirus outbreak—include ice cream, to make what is supposed to be a "non-dairy" dessert one that is quite full of dairy. The results you get from these recipes may be tasty, but they are nothing like Dole Whip because Dole Whip is sorbet and sorbet isn't made with ice cream.
One thing that makes Dole Whip special is its creamy consistency, which may lead some people to believe it has dairy in it. Dole Whip creates this thickness with the assistance of six different natural gums and gels: cellulose gum, xanthan gum, locust bean gum, guar gum, karaya gum, and pectin. In addition, there is a small amount of coconut fat solids in the mix to help simulate the fat found in dairy.
For my Dole Whip recipe, I limited the gels to two that are easy to find: unflavored gelatin and pectin. When these two ingredients are heated, then cooled, they form a gel similar to what’s in the real Dole Whip, and the result is a thick-and-creamy consistency. Another trick often used to help thicken sorbets is the use of viscous corn syrup to replace much of the sugar. Corn syrup will give the sorbet body and it helps tone down the acidic pineapple juice.
But the best part of this recipe, unlike the real thing, is that it contains all-natural ingredients and it's mostly made of real Dole pineapple juice, plus a little tangerine juice to round out the flavor and enrich the color. This homemade Dole Whip is ridiculously easy to make (you'll need an ice cream maker) and fans of the real thing will love it. Plus, now you can have this DIY Dole Whip whenever you want—no amusement park required.
Click here for more of my hacks of delicious desserts and sweet treats.
Chili's Original ChiliRead more
Over the years I've hacked a bunch of items from Chili's menu, including their Fajitas, Baby Back Ribs, Salsa, Chili Queso, Southwestern Eggrolls, Chicken Crispers, Boneless Wings, and more, but it wasn’t until recently that I got the chance to create a recipe for the Chili's award-winning Original Chili. Why it took so long, I have no idea.
The chili served at Chili’s is a Texas-style con carne recipe, which traditionally means no beans and no tomato. You won’t find any beans in this recipe or chunks of tomato, but their chili does have a tomato base to boost flavor, so I’m adding that into the mix by including one 6-ounce can of tomato paste. As it turns out, that small can is just the right amount.
The preparation technique for my Chili's Original chili recipe is simple: brown the beef, drain off the fat, then add some of the fat back to the empty pan to sauté the onions and peppers in. When those are done, you add the beef back to the pan along with the remaining ingredients and simmer for 1½ hours. That will be just long enough to braise the beef and tenderize it, and to thicken the chili to a perfect consistency.
When the chili’s done, top each serving with a cheddar/pepper Jack blend, and some crispy tortilla bits. Then pass out the spoons.
For over 30 years I've been deconstructing America's most iconic brand-name foods to make the best original clone recipes for you to use at home. Welcome to my lab.