Saturday, March 15, 2014

dinner on the farm (chocolate sheet cake)


Eight years ago, I moved to a small town in Iowa, never thinking that my roots would have grown so deep so fast. I thought I would have high tailed it back to Minneapolis within a year, two at most. I can hardly catch my breath when I count the years that I haven't lived in Minnesota (12!), and wonder what life would have been like if a quick decision I made after college had been any different.

Life in Washington has been nothing short of amazing. Nic and I grew together as an engaged couple living in our first apartment together above a funeral home (best apartment ever!) into a mostly happy married couple, we have grown professionally, we have left our professions to pursue passions, and we have dreamed many dreams about what path we will travel next and what future it will lead to.

Perhaps it is the effect of living in a small town, perhaps it is just in my blood, but one dream that never fizzles is my desire to buy a chunk of land and farm on a very small scale. I often tell people I am one generation removed from the farm - my mom grew up on a farm, and moved to the cities to raise our family. The farm is in my blood though, and I fondly remember many weekend trips and summer vacations spent on my Grandma and Grandpa's farm.

Visits to the farm were never the same. We might spend the entire day playing in the old shed that was barely standing in the small woods, digging up beads of a broken necklace in the mud just outside the door that had belonged to my mom or one of her sisters, thinking of course that we were unearthing some old Native American ceremonial bracelet. We might spend an afternoon walking with the cows down to the big woods, keeping a safe distance as stories of Mom being chased up a tree by a bull remained fresh in our memories. In the winter, we would bundle up, gather all the sleds we could find and Grandpa would give us a ride down on the tractor to our favorite sledding hill where we would spend hours sledding in to the woods and trudging all the way back up to do it all over again. The corn crib on the corner, near the gravel road, would become our home base, scaling the sides to see who could climb the highest, sweeping out loose corn kernels and emptying them out for the cows on the other side of the electric fence (and only getting shocked once).

As varied as our visits were, a few things always remained the same. Saturday mornings I would be lured from sleep by the smell of blueberry muffins in the oven and coffee brewing (a combination of scents that will always bring me back to that upstairs bedroom, in that twin bed in the corner, on the farm), Sunday mornings were for church and children's time with the Pastor, followed by coffee and donuts (and old ladies) in the church basement.

And then, always, Sunday dinner back at the farm. Just the thought of it, and I swear I can smell my Grandma's kitchen. A roast with potatoes and carrots in the oven, mashed potatoes and gravy bubbling away on the stove, and maybe some fresh bread cooling on the counter...nothing can top this combination of scents. A smell that nearly every farm family, and every family in the Midwest is familiar with. A smell that can comfort the soul. If someone could figure out how to bottle up that specific smell, I am sure it would be a best seller to people in the Midwest and those who have moved away, but still crave the memories of Sunday dinners on the farm.

These dinners would be followed by naps in the recliner (Grandpa) and walks in the woods. Really, these were just moments to create a little more room for the pots of coffee and dessert that followed.

This cake, a humble chocolate sheet cake with the most incredible coconut topping, is the kind of cake that we would dig in to, with those multiple mugs of coffee. It is one of those cakes that would be served after church in the basement. Best served with a mug of weak Midwestern coffee, with family surrounding you.

Chocolate Lazy Daisy Sheet Cake

The recipe is from Amy Thielen's The New Midwestern Table cookbook, that captures the real food of the Midwest. She should know - she is a Minnesotan, who after a stint in the Big Apple, moved back to Minnesota in 2008. She won a James Beard journalism award for her work appearing in The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Men's Journal and Saveur. Amy is also the hostess of Food Network's Heartland Table.

Chocolate Lazy Daisy Sheet Cake
From Amy Thielen's The New Midwestern Table, available here.

2 1/4 cups cake flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon baking soda
9 ounces salted butter
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup buttermilk
2 large eggs
3/4 cup cold coffee
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 cup coconut milk
2 cups flaked or shredded coconut, sweetened or unsweetened

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Sift flour, cocoa powder and salt in a medium bowl. In a small dish, pour the boiling water over the baking soda and stir to combine.

Melt 10 tablespoons of the butter and pour into a large bowl. Whisk in sugar, buttermilk, eggs, coffee and vanilla. Add the flour mixture, whisk until smooth, and then stir in the baking soda mixture, scraping the dish to get all of it.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and bake until a thin tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Let cool.

Turn on the broiler and position an oven rack 6 inches below it.

For the topping, combine the remaining 8 tablespoons butter, brown sugar and the coconut milk in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring to cook until the grains of brown sugar melt, about one minute. Stir in the flaked coconut and remove from heat.

When the broiler is ready, spread the coconut topping gently and evenly over the top of the cake. Broil the cake, keeping watch and rotating as necessary, until the entire surface has browned, about three minutes. Cool before cutting the cake into squares.

Enjoy with aforementioned weak coffee and family, or in a church basement with your grandparents friends.

Source: Thielen, Amy. "Chocolate Lazy Daisy Sheet Cake." Recipe. The New Midwestern Table. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers. 325. Print.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

a winter's walk

Like the rest of the midwest, Iowa has been hit with a brutal winter. A brutal winter that I have been able to take full advantage of now that I work in education. High schools have had so many late starts and snow days that no one can possibly keep track (except for all of the teachers and administrators who keep watching their summer vacations dwindle one day at a time...), and even Kirkwood has had its fair share of late starts and snow days - yeah for me.

Monday was the latest snow day. We slept in just a bit, enjoyed an extra cup of coffee during breakfast and then all chaos ensued as we attempted to make our house shine for an 11:15 showing. An 11:15 showing that arrived 30 minutes early, leaving me to corral the dog, throw on the closest winter gear and hightail it out of the house, leaving the cat behind to fend for himself.

The roads were blanketed with five fresh inches of the most beautiful fluffy snow, hiding a thick layer of ice. This made it impossible for me to load Maia in the car and go for a drive, so we walked instead.

We really trudged. But it was fun trudging through all that snow, on roads that were completely covered, no cars ruining the perfect blanket of white.

Just me and Maia.

Monday, January 13, 2014

happy 2014

2014 is going to be a decidedly exciting year for the PS Family as we are both heading in completely new directions with our careers!

Yes, after an amazing 7+ year career with the American Cancer Society, I will say goodbye to the amazing volunteers and co-workers (and late nights and busy summers) who made the last 7 years absolutely fly by, on January 17th.  This was a tough decision and it remains bittersweet, but I know this is the right move for myself and our family at this moment.

Beginning January 20th, I will begin working with Kirkwood Community College at the Washington location as the Career Development Coordinator. In this role, I will be building relationships with local schools, encouraging and recruiting students to take courses at the new Kirkwood Community College Washington Regional Center. I am excited for the new challenge (and working in an office! with people!), and look forward to having summers off and exploring other passions (or packing a few outfits and traveling the world for three months!).

In addition to my new role at Kirkwood, I also started working part time as a prep cook at the Kalona Brewing Company in December 2013 and look forward to exploring my passion for cooking and baking in a professional kitchen.

After nearly a decade working with M&H Broadcasting (KNIA/KRLS/KCII Radio), Nic accepted a full time position at Kalona Brewing Company, a local craft brewery that opened in September 2013, on January 8th. In his new role, he will be wearing many hats, focusing on marketing and sales - with a bit of brewing, IT and manning the tap room.  From just an interest in home-brewing a little over a year ago, Nic gave up his nights and weekends and began working part time as a bartender at the brewery, and in just a short time was able to turn his passion in to a full time career.

While 2014 isn't taking the direction that we dreamed about all of 2013 (think quitting jobs, selling the house and travelling the world for 365 days), we are excited/scared/anxious/ecstatic to see where it takes us.

"Pursue Passion" is our motto for 2014 and we couldn't be happier about the path that lies ahead.
With much love,

Kier + Nic

(Our house still is for sale, and there is a $250 finders fee to anyone who finds us a buyer! Our dream of a round the world trip will come true in the next few years!)