Domino Rosi remembers the melted butter dripping onto the hot popcorn popped in the air popper. His mom then added brown sugar to create the heavenly caramel corn that was a staple of his childhood.
"I probably asked her every night if she would make it," he says with a laugh. "It was one of the staples of snacks growing up. It was better than most stuff we could get at the store."
But it is his sticky, salty version of caramel corn that garnered the Lombard man national accolades.
His Maple, Pecan and Bacon Caramel Corn recently won first place in the sweet treats category in Hungry Jack's Use Up the Box Recipe Contest.
"This is a decadent but a nice way to change a recipe I've been making for awhile," he said.
While his mom taught him how to make caramel corn, Domino adds she also inspired how he cooks for himself and his fiancee, Erica, today.
Growing up, Domino said dinners often had an Italian flair with his mom making noodles 10 different ways. One way she would use pasta was crisping up cooked noodles in a skillet and adding cheese, transforming the dish. She also would combine canned tomatoes with wine, olive oil and basil to make sauces.
"I remember her being very resourceful. I don't know if that was her being creative or that was because of financial reasons, but I do remember she could take a handful of ingredients and make it a bunch of different ways to make it interesting," he said.
"The only reason I know how to make anything is because of Mom. Sometimes I'm cooking. I wonder, 'What would my mom do?' I've learned less is more. and that was the theme growing up."
Experimenting in his own kitchen, Domino has demonstrated his resourcefulness and creativity. One of his favorite recipes is chicken marinated with lemons, garlic and herbs and tossed with green olives and Arborio rice.
He tends to cook lighter fare than the meat-and-potato meals he grew up with. He said he eats salads every day, often dressing them with a quick blend of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic salt and Dijon mustard.
"It is a cheap and really good dressing for almost any kind of salad," he said.
Influenced by Erica, he also has worked fish, such as salmon and kale into his menus. He even has tried tofu.
"I first thought why would I eat that," he said. "I had no idea there are unlimited varieties of tofu and ways to prepare it. It is more an accent than a main course. It absorbs the flavor of the dish."
When entertaining friends, Domino said they often stray from the healthy, grilling burgers, brats or steaks.
Alongside the meat, he may serve his cheesy bread, using fresh Italian or French bread and adding olive oil, mozzarella or jalapeņo cheese, and salami.
"It's not that expensive; it's pretty hearty, and it's really good," he said.
In addition to cooking together, Domino and Erica also enjoy entering recipe contests. When Erica discovered the Hungry Jack Use Up the Box Recipe Contest, she suggested he enter.
Domino twisted his mom's caramel corn recipe, but he also utilized the mandatory ingredient, syrup, and made some salty additions, like pecans he picked up at roadside market in Wisconsin. For another salty and sweet element, he added candied bacon, which Erica taught him to make.
Humbled to win the $1,000 prize, Domino said many friends now are asking him to make the prizewinning snack. And he's looking forward to finding other ways to improve on his childhood favorite.
• To suggest someone to be profiled here, send the cook's name, address and phone number to email@example.com.