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.


  1. I love your stories, I've always told my husband I would love nothing more than to live on a small farm. My great aunt/godmother recently passed away right before Christmas, she left me tons of old family recipes, including one for this sheet cake. I've been really intrigued by it but have yet to make it.

    1. Steph - have you had a chance to make the sheet cake yet? When I visit my Grandma, I love looking through all of her recipes and beg her to let me take them home with me.

  2. Oh my gosh! I found your blog while I was looking for other bloggers from Iowa, and my mother ALWAYS made Lazy Daisy Cake growing up! Such a fan favorite. I knew I loved Iowa. Wanted to let you know I loved your blog description- I can't count the number of times I've said "Yes, Iowa!" when people say "really? Why Iowa?" I'm originally from Canada actually, and have fallen completely in love with the state. Can't wait to read more, thanks for sharing :)

    1. Hey Lauren! Glad you stumbled across this occasionally updated blog! I always tell people that I blog when inspiration strikes - and I just am so in love with this post about dinner on the farm - so I am glad you were able to discover the blog with that post up!

      And yeah for Iowa! Glad you have enjoyed your time at the U! Have plans for after graduation?

  3. Came across your blog finding "Iowa blogs"!!! :) I've lived in Iowa for most of my life-- Marion/Cedar Rapids for many years, now in Cedar Falls. Love your blog---will be adding it to my blogroll!