Comfort Food: A Story + a Recipe From a Mom to Her Son

This dish was inspired by Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Cookbook- filled with some of the best comfort food recipes I have ever tasted.
The only way to make this is in bulk. It is as good leftover as it is first out of the oven.

Because I make some product recommendations in my blogs, I may get a small commission as an affiliate, Anything I recommend I personally use and am trying to make it easier to shop for items you may not have or need to replace.

This blog is a bit lengthy, so feel free to scroll past it to get to the recipe, but when you have a chance to come back to it, please do, it really adds to the meaning of Comfort Food.

Dearest Michael,

You were born on your due date. As I reflect back to your younger self, this is no surprise now that I know you as a grownup.
You have always been a reliable and trustworthy soul.

I have never worried about you being late for a curfew, nor have I ever had to set a bedtime when you were in school. I never had to even wake you up for school.

You were born organized and as much as I would like to think my parenting skills created this behavior, I am more inclined to think that this is just who you are as a person.

An old soul in some ways.

When I was pregnant with you, my old boss, a happy, round faced and robust Greek man showed me the custom of kissing you on the third eye center of your forehead. I can’t remember the why part of this, but it had something to do with spirit and power and I took his advice and did this constantly.

Nevertheless, from infancy through your toddler years, the one area where you gave Dad and me trouble was not sleeping through the night. I was so sleep deprived that most nights I would just let you sleep with us so I could get some much needed sleep.

This created challenges as you approached your twos and threes. The supposed experts were all saying that you were supposed to be sleeping in your own bed by then. Let him cry it out, they would say. I just couldn’t do it.

Every time you screeched and howled, it would end with you throwing up anyway and it was traumatic for all of us. Dad and I felt like constant failures as parents in the sleep department.

Even for your daily naps, you required a drive in the car and you would never just easily go down for a nap. When I brought you to day care which was around the corner from our house to a wonderful Italian mama, I was astounded by her ability to simply put you down for a nap.

I soon realized that this sleep issue likely had more to do with me than with you. The constant interruption and lack of sleep was rough the first three years of your life and Dad and I were fried from the battle; you would just not sleep in your own bed. We were exhausted parents.

You were almost four years old and we just knew we needed to get this under some semblance of control. Sleep deprivation is a real thing, though back in 2001, the long and short term effects of not getting enough of it was not nearly as much of a hot button topic like it is today.

Throughout all of this bedlam, though, we did manage to have a lovely bedtime ritual. I always read to you and sang you Hebrew songs planting their melodies in your little brain so that when we went to temple together, the songs would be familiar to you as you got older. I loved our routine even if it didn’t create an immediate sleep, the ritual was a memory I will surely treasure.Without fail, it was dinner, bath, read, sing and pray for sleep.

One particular evening really stands out in my memory. We had quite the rough patch and lots of crying ensued. I finally gave in and let you in bed with us thinking that maybe the following night I would try again. Maybe the next night would be better, I had thought. I needed to sleep and we all slept peacefully together postponing the inevitable for one more night.

That evening stands firm in my recollections. It is a night that is hard to forget because it was the night before September 11th. September 11th was a Tuesday. I worked from home on Tuesdays and I had already dropped you off at day care. The phone rang at 9:00am. It was my friend, Kathy calling.
“Alayne, are you watching TV?” She asked.

As we all made our way through that nation changing moment, I had the clearest of thoughts. What about all of the mothers in the buildings on that day?

How many mothers were trying to get their kids to sleep in their own beds and didn’t cave like I had? This was one of my first thoughts.

The mothers in the building. How many who knew their fate wished they had given in, How many wished for just one more night of cuddling and snuggling? How many?

Like all of us who woke up that day, 9:00am was a totally different day then 8:30am was that day. When I picked you up from day care, I was a different mother, a different human; we all were. I had decided that this, whole sleep in your own bed, topic seemed irrelevant.

I wanted to hang on to every snuggle, every kiss, every smell of your skin for as long as possible. It was part selfish, part homage to the thousands of parents who died without a chance to say goodbye to their children after dropping them off at day care that very same day I dropped you off at yours.

That evening when I read you your story and sang you your songs, you closed your little eyes and slept through the entire night without incident- in your own bed. From that night forward, you never troubled us with sleeping in your own bed again.

Children pick up their parents’ energy and I am convinced you had picked up mine and the magnitude all that terrible day encompassed. We all needed to comfort each other and it seemed that you sensed a shift.

Dad and I had surrendered.

Rituals and routines became much more important after Sept 11th. Eating together, being with each other felt imperative. Food offers comfort and love during the dark times of sickness and sadness.

Food is comfort.

This recipe symbolizes comfort, love and sleep because from the first delicious and soothing bite to the last, you want to sleep from the weight of it all.

This is also a nod to our relatives and roots in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota where Hotdishes are a staple. Our cousin, Marylee taught me about the famous Midwestern Hotdish. This is a reminder to you that family can give you comfort and foods from family can make it feel like they are always at your table.

You probably have a great baking dish that you use for lasagnas, and a strong beautiful mixing bowl and spoon that give you pleasure when your eyes land on it in your cabinet. Use those, but if you want some new recommendations, I have made some recommendations for some items I love below.

Mom's Hot Dish Interpretation

  • Prep: 30 mins
  • Cook: 30 mins
  • Total: 60 mins
  • Servings: Alot, but it also depends less on how hungry you are and more how your taste buds respond once it hits them.


  • 1 large bag of frozen Tator Tots (or 2 small bags)
  • 1 stick of butter, melted
  • 1 medium onion finally chopped
  • 1 16 oz container of sour cream
  • 1 16 oz bag of shredded sharp cheddar cheese (I have also used a blend of pepper jack and cheddar) Reserve 1/2 cup for topping at the end.
  • 1 -2 small cans of cream of celery soup - if the mixture seems on the dry side, you may need to add all or part of the 2nd can, this is a vibe that happens while you are mixing.
  • 1 bag of frozen corn kernals, (can be partially thawed or not, it doesn't matter)
  • Optional: Add 1 small jar of your favorite salsa in a layer in the middle for some kick and some color

Topping: An additional 1/2 stick melted butter mixed with 1 sleeve crushed fine Ritz Crackers, (topping of the Gods:)

Hot dish recipe bubbly browned cheesy potato bake


Preheat Oven to 350.

1. Prepare Topping: Melt 1/2 stick butter butter and mix crushed Ritz Crackers to form a crumble, set aside.

2. Mix all ingredients except Ritz Cracker topping and the reserved 1/2 cup of cheese (and optional salsa) If using salsa layer 1/2 jar salsa between 1/2 of the mixture and top with remaining.

3. Place in buttered casserole dish.

4. Spread top with prepared Ritz Cracker/ melted butter mixture.

5. Sprinkle with 1/2 bag of the 8oz package of cheese or the whole bag, your choice.
This is optional. I enjoy it to be extra cheesy, but you can decide on this.

6. Place in oven and bake for about 35-45 minutes or until golden, bubbly and fragrant.

Use this as a base for your imagination. Add chicken or ground beef, top with bacon slices, whatever you can come up with.

Like life, the possibilities are endless.


To mix everything into one glorious mix, a matching 3 quart mixing bowl from Le Creuset does the trick. I love the wide mouth of this.

3 quart wide mouth mixing bowl from Le Creuset

This delightful covered and practical life lasting Le Creuset Casserole dish is so useful. Plus it is my favorite color, though they come in a multitude of colors if turquoise isn't as much of the love as it is mine.

recatangular covered casserole dish by Le Creuset

If you like this story, the recipe or the recommendations, please share with someone in your life.

Recipes are like love, they are meant to be shared.

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