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Top Cook: Lillie Gilligan, the 'Betty Crocker' cook

Feeding her daughters’ hockey team and marching band buddies is no problem for New Jersey mom.

Lillie Gilligan of West Deptford with her daughter Morgan, 18, and a brownie.    (  Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Lillie Gilligan of West Deptford with her daughter Morgan, 18, and a brownie. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )Read more

IT IS said that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Lillie Gilligan, of West Deptford, N.J., has discovered that that route also works for teenage daughters. Hers - Morgan, 18, and Emily, 16 - are in the marching band and the field hockey team, respectively. They volunteered her to make food for both.

"All they do is eat and rehearse or practice," said Gilligan, "so I adapted this [macaroni-and-cheese] recipe to really appeal to what kids like."

The very substantial casserole also works for family meals because the busy Gilligan household includes a range of palates.

"I'm lucky that my husband eats just about anything," Gilligan said. "Morgan is a little less so, but Emily plays field hockey and is a vegetarian, so I look for something I know she will eat."

Gilligan is a self-taught cook, or what she calls a "Betty Crocker cook." The Food Network is also an inspiration for her. She follows "Barefoot Contessa" Ina Garten, Rachael Ray and country singer Trisha Yearwood, whose show offers Southern family recipes.

"I have relatives in West Virginia, and we do enjoy the fattening, fattening, fattening!" Gilligan said.

Fearless in the kitchen, Gilligan likes to experiment with a recipe or work in leftovers to see what she comes up with.

Her mac-and-cheese recipe developed over time, incorporating aspects of several versions. Gilligan still tinkers with the cheese combinations and sometimes adds leftover ham or sausage - after setting aside some for the vegetarian, of course.

Learning from experience

Gilligan laughs when she recalls her first married Christmas dinner. She was crestfallen when her husband tried to carve the turkey and found virtually no meat on the breast.

"Turns out I had put the turkey in the pan upside-down," Gilligan said. "He was trying to carve meat off the back. Once we turned it right-side up . . . the breast was very juicy. I found out later some people do that to keep the breast moist!"

While Gilligan enjoys cooking, her true love is baking. A family favorite is her grandmother's German Apple Cake, a good recipe for the holidays because it gets better with age.

She advises aspiring bakers to get a heavy-duty Kitchen Aid stand mixer. "I burned through a lot of hand mixers over the years," she said.

Her baking forte is cookies, cupcakes, cake pops and brownies, but she is looking forward to new challenges in the kitchen. "My kids want me to learn how to make fondant and decorate cakes," she said.

If history repeats itself, no doubt Gilligan will once again be volunteered to volunteer.

This heirloom recipe is one of Gilligan's fall favorites. She recommends Granny Smith, McIntosh or other good baking apples for best results.


1 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 cups sugar

4 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup orange juice

2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 tablespoon baking powder

3 cups flour

8 medium apples, cored, peeled and diced

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

For the spice mix: Mix the half-cup sugar and tablespoon cinnamon and set aside.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour a tube pan and set aside.

Mix together oil, eggs, juice and vanilla. Beat in sugar. Add flour and baking powder.

Gently blend ingredients but do not overmix.

Pour half the batter into prepared pan. Place half the apples on top and sprinkle with half the spice mixture. Repeat with batter, apples and end with spice mixture.

Bake one hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove and cool on wire rack for at least an hour.

Run a knife around the edge of the pan before removing cake from pan. Makes 12-14 slices.

Gilligan says the trick to this dish is to make sure the flour is completely cooked and a uniform light brown. She uses three blocks of cheddar and one of colby but notes that you should experiment to find your own cheese blend. If you don't have an entire marching band or field hockey team to feed, you can cut this recipe in half and bake it in a smaller casserole.


1 stick butter

1/2 cup flour

2 pounds elbow macaroni

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon dried mustard powder

2 quarts milk

10 3/4-ounce can condensed cheddar cheese soup

8-ounce container sour cream

2 eggs, beaten

3 8-ounce blocks cheddar cheese, grated

8-ounce block colby cheese, grated

4 ounces Velveeta cheese

Pepper to taste

Cook the macaroni to al dente, drain and set aside in a large bowl. While the macaroni cooks, lightly grease an 11-by-17-inch pan casserole.

Melt butter over medium heat in a large saucepan.

Add the flour and whisk until all lumps are removed, continue cooking, stirring constantly until light brown color.

Add the mustard and onion powder and continue to whisk. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly, until milk starts to thicken.

Add cheddar cheese soup and blend well. Reduce heat if mixture starts to bubble.

Sauce should start to thicken slightly. Add the grated cheese by handsful (reserve two cups for topping) and continue to whisk until melted. Once the mixture is a smooth cheese sauce, add pepper to taste.

Pour cheese sauce over macaroni. It should look very soupy. Add the container of sour cream and the beaten eggs. Stir thoroughly. Pour into the prepared casserole. Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese on the top.

Bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees, until cheese is melted and bubbly. Do not overcook, or the macaroni will dry out. Serves 16-20, a few more as a side dish.