This nutty comfort cake from Sharon Buckner of Rhineland, Missouri, gets a sugary top and caramelized gooey bottom as it bakes.
Sharon often serves her cake at Ronald McDonald House Charities of St. Louis. On her first visit, she met families of ill kids in nearby hospitals, and saw a generosity and courage she wanted to support. The quick visit has stretched to 15 years, with Sharon coming at least every other month, laden with roast beef, pies and her signature apple cake.
After passing the cake, Sharon and her helpers sometimes sit at the table with visiting families. "They like to talk,'' Sharon says. "Then we cry all the way home."
Fresh Apple Cake 
This dish from Max Archer of McPherson, Kansas, packs some heat. Adjust it to suit your taste by varying the amounts of chili paste and poblano chiles.
Max, a 16-year-old high school student, perfected his dish in classes at cookware stores and the Culinary Camp for Kids in nearby Lindsborg. "I have a lot of fun making it," he says. "You just throw stuff in.''
Max started cooking around age 9, inspired by his father, Richard. "When I was younger, he would always cook Italian on Sunday evenings, and I'd always sit there and watch him," Max says. Now, Dad watches him.
This hearty, slow-cooked beef makes its own gravy as it roasts in the oven. Firefighter Greg Drazkowski of Colfax, Wisconsin, shared his specialty with us.
Greg became the most popular cook in the Menomonie, Wisconsin (70 miles east of Minneapolis), fire department when he reached the finals of 2004's national Tabasco Cook and Ladder Competition.
Beef roast works well for the crew because it's easy to reheat if an alarm calls them away. Plus, firefighters appreciate that Greg never spends more than $4 per person per meal. Even on a budget, he creates meals with the power to develop camaraderie. "When you sit down to a meal together, it's an important bonding time for the shift," he says.
Firehouse Beef Roast 
Cocoa and rum flavor the soft butter frosting that crowns this airy three-layer cake from Elizabeth Varga of Barberton, Ohio. The recipe came from her Hungarian grandmother.
Elizabeth keeps the pot bubbling at Lorantffy Care Center, a nonprofit nursing home in Copley, Ohio (near Akron). The home began 33 years ago to provide an old-country connection--including meals--to elderly parishioners of the Hungarian Christ Reformed Church next door.
Elizabeth and the rest of the kitchen crew make three meals, many from Varga family recipes, each day for 120 residents. They often go off-menu to fulfill a request for Hungarian beef stew or seven-layer dobos torte. "If they want something special and we have the time, we'll do it," Elizabeth says.
Coffee-Nut Torte 
Linda Fridley uses this rub to season meats served at the South Dakota governor's residence. Beef rib roast makes an elegant option, but the spice rub complements pork or chicken, too.
Although Linda has prepared state dinners for as many as 650, she hesitates to call herself the South Dakota governor's chef. The atmosphere at the new 14,000-square-foot mansion in Pierre is too laid-back for such titles. But when she does cook, South Dakota beef often headlines the menu. Juicy, spice-rubbed prime rib is Linda's favorite.
Linda uses a family recipe to give the beef a savory crust. Over the years, she's learned that the secret is rubbing the meat with olive oil before putting the spice rub on top. "After [people] eat it, they want the recipe," Linda says. She sends them home with a bag of dry rub.
Ohio cooking school expert Bev Schaffer uses fragrant, nutty-tasting basmati rice for this colorful side dish. You'll find it in large supermarkets.
Bev shares her good-for-you recipes in cooking classes at Mustard Seed Market in Fairlawn and Solon, Ohio (20 miles southeast of Cleveland), as well as on local television and radio, at hospitals and even at City Hall. When the local police chief saw some of his officers gaining weight, he recruited Bev in an effort to help slim down the force.
Italian Rice Salad includes fiber-rich brown basmati rice, bell peppers in a variety of colors, red onions and plenty of garlic. "It's kind of soft, kind of crunchy, a little sweet and a little tangy," says Bev. "A co-worker took it to a family reunion several years ago, and he can't go to a reunion without it now.''
For more of Bev's recipes, check out her The Mustard Seed Market and Cafe Natural Foods Cookbook ($29.95, Pelican Publishing) at Amazon.com.
Italian Rice Salad 
Joe Schadler of Celebration River Cruises in Moline, Illinois, loves this colorful make-ahead main dish. Passengers savor the sweet-tart taste.
When the Celebration Belle glides away from its Mississippi River berth in Moline, Joe finishes greeting guests and trades the boat's wheel for a chef's knife. Even in the rare world of modern riverboat captains, he's rarer still: one who doubles as a chef.
"I base everything on a lot of food and a lot of fun,'' says Joe, a 25-year veteran of the excursion-boat business. Passengers enjoy a floating feast, whether they're aboard the paddle wheeler for a five-hour sightseeing trip, a dinner and dance cruise or an all-day voyage. "When they get off, they can't eat anymore," Joe says.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® April/May 2009.)