The time is here – the veil between the living and the dead lifts on October 31!

As a lifelong fan of horror films and all things macabre, I have a natural affinity for Halloween. In fact, it’s my favorite holiday. I love the food at Thanksgiving, and the family time at Christmas, but Halloween is really where I can let loose and partake in all the spooky festivities.

To celebrate the big day, I thought I’d get you in the spirit by sharing some Halloween history with you. I’ll even throw in some of my own memories of Halloweens gone by!

The origins of Halloween can be traced back to pre-Christian Celtic civilization. The Celtic calendar was divided into two parts – the light half and dark half. “Samhain” was a festival marking the start of the dark half: the completion of harvest and the beginning of winter. Along with harvesting crops, people would typically slaughter livestock in preparation for the winter season. In an agricultural society, this was a very important time; if the growing season did not go as planned, it could be a matter of life and death.

In addition, people believed that the spirit world was more closely connected to our own during this time of the year. The souls of the dead were thought to return for the festival’s feasts as were other sorts of supernatural beings.

As Christianity overtook the Celtic society, the Church sought to displace pagan rituals. The Roman celebration of All Hallows Day was moved from May 13 to November 1 in an attempt to provide a suitable replacement to the established Samhain. October 31 was knows as “All Hallows Evening,” shortened to “All Hallows Eve,” then “Hallowe’en” and finally to “Halloween.” The Church also added “All Soul’s Day” on Nov 2, which gave Halloween further association with death and dead souls.

During the European Middle Ages, All Souls Day was the time when people would pray for those trapped in purgatory (the “waiting room” where souls resided before ascending to heaven or descending to hell). Children went “souling,” begging for soul cakes in remembrance of the dead and to pray for their release from purgatory.

In America, Halloween didn’t catch on until large waves of Scot and Irish immigrants arrived with their old-world Halloween customs. By the early 1900s, it was widely celebrated across the country, leading to its current popularity.

A Halloween tradition, Jack O’Lanterns can be found on doorsteps all across the country. The story behind this festive decoration can be traced to an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack.

Legend has it Stingy Jack was a mischievous drunkard. Every time the devil would try to claim his soul, Jack would find a way to outwit him. Once he even entrapped the devil, only releasing him when the devil swore he would never claim Jack’s soul.

When Jack finally died, he wasn’t good enough for heaven. Keeping his promise, the devil wouldn’t claim him either and simply sent Jack on his way with a carved out turnip holding a glowing coal to light his way. People would carve scary faces in hollowed out pumpkins to ward off stingy Jack or other evil spirits.

Trick-or-treating (and the role of candy in this endeavor) is a recent American spin on “souling.” The activity began to catch on in the 1950s, and is rumored to have been designed to detour children from vandalism, pranks and otherwise mischievous behavior.

Stealing gates and fence posts was a popular prank for early 20th century children; so popular in fact that Halloween was even referred to as “Gate Night.” A gateless fence would allow for livestock to escape, wreaking (relative) havoc on pastoral small towns. Municipal folks sought to replace this activity with something more wholesome and concoted “trick or treat” to buy off the potential hoodlums with candy apples and popcorn balls. Eventually, this transitioned to store bought candies, bringing us to present day “trick or treat” (which is easier to say than “steal-your-gate-or-treat!”).

Des Moines has its own unique spin on “beggar’s night,” which historically takes place the day before Halloween. An interesting summary can be found on the Des Moines Public Library website.

I always make sure to participate in select Halloween activities that really make the season. At the top of that list is watching horror movies throughout the month of October and attending my fair share of parties, complete with girls in slutty outfits (not sure how that relates to Halloween, but no complaints here). However, since Halloween is and always has been about candy to most folks, we’ll stick to that.

I still have vivid memories of trick-or-treating when I was a kid, mostly the aftermath of the event. Who didn’t dump out a pillow case of candy, separating the favorites from the rest (and starting a separate discard pile for the worthless cadies nobody likes). Although you might be surprised by the occasional king size candy bar, you could always count on traditional “fun size” candy bars (I was always left thinking “what’s so fun about getting less?”).

I don’t eat a lot of candy, but I love the culture – I have several vintage candy manufacturing books that are from the early- to mid-twentieth century. Since candy is a relatively recent component to Halloween, most of the books don’t even mention it.

Recently, my tastes have changed and I find myself craving things I didn’t care for when I was younger – for example, the black and orange peanut butter taffy and ubiquitous candy corn. As a kid, I thought those were about the worst Halloween treats ever – just above getting a piece of fruit in your bag! These days, however, those are the first things I buy to get in the Halloween mood.

Sadly, candy on Beggar’s Night is victim to the class system. For some people (myself included), there were many classes, akin to the Indian caste system. At the very least, there were two groupings – the bourgeois and the proletariat. The selections were different for each person: take a look at this MASSIVE list of all things candy and segregate them yourself. Perhaps I forgot your favorite?

100 Grand
3 Musketeers
Almond Joy
Baby Ruth
Bit O Honey
Blow Pops
Boston Baked Beans
Bottle Caps
Brach’s Jube Jels
Candy Buttons
Candy Corn
Charleston Chews
Clark Bar
Fun Dip
Good and Plenty
Gummy snacks
Heath Bar
Hershey’s Bar (plain or with almonds)
Hershey’s Kisses
Hot Tamales
Jelly Belly
Jolly Ranchers
Junior Mints
Kit Kat
Laffy Taffy
Life Savers
Mars Bar
Mike and Ike
Milk Duds
Milky Way
Mr. Goodbar
Necco Wafers
Nestle Crunch bars
Nik’L-Nip Wax Bottles
Now and Later
Oh Henry
Orange and black peanut butter taffy
Pixy Stix
Pop Rocks
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (and Pumpkins)
Reese’s Pieces
Root Beer Barrels
Shock Tarts
Slo Poke
Sour Patch Kids
Sugar Babies
Sugar Daddy
Swedish Fish
Take 5
Tootsie Pops
Tootsie Rolls
Wonka Runts
York Peppermint Patty


Is there any breakfast food more classic or more beloved than the donut? Bagels may have the urban vote, croissants get the support of globetrotters and Francophiles, but a donut represents Americans of all regions, religions and classes. And while you can find donuts in gas stations and supermarkets, I think the best place to experience a top-notch donut is at an old fashioned, no-frills neighborhood donut shop.

I wonder how long this guy has watched Des Moines diners enjoy their donuts….

I get a special feeling when I walk into a donut shop – more often than not, the place looks like it’s frozen in time. There are pictures and newspaper clippings on the wall showing much younger (and usually much thinner) versions of the same people working behind the counter. The characters sitting at the counter are on a first name basis with the shop owner, and their orders are set out seconds after they enter the place.

Now, the donut shop is not a place for any paleo-Atkins-South-Beach-gluten-free-Doctor-Oz-weekend-cleanse converts. Each recipe has been perfected over the years, and any attempt to “healthify” it is sacrilege.

A mix of donut styles: cake, raised, fritter and old-fashioned.

Cake, Chocolate, Spice and Sugared Donuts
Leavened with baking powder or soda and hand-rolled or dropped from a metal dispenser, these donuts are what come to mind when you think of classic American donuts. I prefer hand-rolled or scooped cake donuts because they have a more old fashioned texture than machine-made. They are fried, cooled and glazed or frosted and topped with things like toasted or raw coconut, sprinkles or chopped peanuts. But these donuts can stand on their own merits – often times a simple dusting of cinnamon sugar right out of the fryer is all these babies need!

Raised, Glazed, Long John, Jelly or Filled Donuts
These donuts are made with yeast, which give them a lighter, airier quality than cake donuts. They’re rolled out, cut, proofed and fried. Although they can be topped with many of same ingredients as the cake donut, simple glazed and frosted donuts are by far the most popular of this style.

Old Fashioned
These donuts have a crispier crust and feature characteristic jagged edges. They often include sour cream or buttermilk in the dough. Some examples are crullers and French crullers.

Apple Fritters
One of my favorite donuts is the apple fritter. Any of you donut enthusiasts might already know that most homemade apple fritter recipes are a version of what is referred to as the cake donut. These are not the same as the wonderfully fried, crusted and perfectly glazed beauties found in the donut shop.

Aside from these traditional styles, donut-like items can be found on menus across the globe. Some of those exapmles include churros, buñuelos, zeppole, bombolone, And the Sicilian sfinge. Of course, you can’t forget the newly developed cronut!

Coffee + Donuts, a Perfect Marriage
You can’t mention donuts without talking coffee – the two were made for each other. It wasn’t until recently that I began to appreciate old-school donut house coffee. This is NOT coffee that should ever be poured out from a beaker and nothing any Seattle or Portland native would ever let cross their lips. On it’s own, it’s a pretty vile thing. But paired with a donut, it’s transformed – the acid and tannins counter the ultra rich donuts still glistening with their fresh sheen of glaze.

The Des Moines Donut Circuit
My very fist donut memories were at Dunkin’ Donuts. Back when I was growing up, the brand still had a presence in Des Moines, and I’m glad to see it making its way back to town. However, it’s pretty plain to see that I’m a bit of a history buff and a hopeless romantic – that’s why I gravitate to the older established donut shop, it’s seasoned veteran donut makers and their time-tested recipes.

Hiland’s an old-fashioned bakery on the north side with great donuts.

Hiland Park Bakery may be one of the best places to buy donuts in Des Moines. Although they offer more than donuts, they’ve perfected the art. There aren’t tables and booths – just cases full of baked goods and a crew of staff more than happy to help you get your fix! The décor and atmosphere puts this place squarely in the “no-frills, just quality” camp. All of the donuts were top notch; their cake donuts have a nice crust and a moist interior and downplay the traditional spices (nutmeg and mace) that less skilled bakers focus on. All of this attention results in a very flavorful donut that gives you just a hint of those strong, sweet spices.

A selection of some of Hiland’s finest, including an apple fritter.

However, the apple fritters were the star on top of the Christmas tree for me. These were everything a classic deep fried apple fritter should be: the characteristic craggy edges, the expertly prepared glaze covering every nook and cranny, the slight crunch upon the first bite. The fritter was not overly sweet, with subtle apple and cinnamon flavors that kept my taste buds engaged from first bite to the last.

A 5:30am trip to Donut King guaranteed the freshest donuts available.

Donut King is a prime example of a classic, old school donut shop with hand-crafted wares. They offer an assortment of cake and glazed donuts, some of which you just can’t find anywhere else in Des Moines. A highlight for me was the chocolate covered, chocolate cake donut. Although I’m not the stereotypical chocoholic, it has everything I look for in a donut: a thin sheen of glaze, a pleasant donut crunch and a moist interior. You really only get that quality from donut shops – their products are meant for immediate consumption, not sitting all day and night in a display case.

Our early-morning Donut King haul, including classic donut shop coffee.

Donut King’s toasted coconut glazed donut was honestly a donut that I have not been able to forget since I visited. The glazed donut itself was extremely fresh (visiting at 5:30 a.m. certainly didn’t hurt!) and had the satisfying “chew” I enjoy. There was just enough glaze to make the toasted coconut adhere to the donut through every joyful bite.

A beautiful thing: Donut Hut’s donut case.

Donut Hut is yet another classic shop with a variety of the standard favorites, but the highlight here for me was their old fashioned donut. The crunchy, jagged edges hearkened back to homemade donuts, and the thin glaze was just sweet enough to get you through the morning.

Some of the “new-school” options available from Topped Doughnuts in Ankeny.

Although I naturally gravitate to the old-school joints, there are plenty of folks across the country injecting new life into donuts. Des Moines is no exception – Topped Doughnuts takes that new-school approach. Their products resemble a cross between a donut and a cupcake – two very fine items cleverly combined with an artisan bakery feel. They take classic dessert ideas spin them into donut form. A perfect example of this is their red velvet donut; it’s all you expect from a red velvet cake, but in an intense, concentrated donut.

Whether old-school or new-school, donut shops are a treasure for their neighborhood or community – they’re one of the few places where interns rub elbows with CEOs. My challenge to you: some morning, try being a regular at your local donut shop. Grab a couple donuts, a cup of coffee and the daily newspaper and relax with an American classic!


Earlier this summer, I decided to go on a little tour of the attractions and eateries of small town Iowa. Now, I love rural Iowa – it’s chock full of those hidden gems that are sadly overshadowed by the Des Moines-centric culinary scene. Although this trip was intended to be food-focused, I knew what destination would guide my route.

When you’re on a summer road trip in Iowa, you’ve got to throw in an improv cornfield photo shoot.

I’ve had a lifelong love of horror films and all things macabre. Halloween is the holiday I get most excited for – if there’s mayor of Halloween Town, consider me a candidate! So the natural destination for this rural Iowa outing was the Villisca axe murder house.

Located in Villisca, Iowa, this is the house where J.B and Sarah Moore, their four children and two young house guests were tragically murdered on June 10, 1912. The murder remains unsolved, and the house is reputed to be haunted. The house has been restored to 1912 condition and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for tours and overnight stays if you dare. The house has been featured on many TV shows and holds the top spot on the “America’s Most Terrifying Places” list.

Aunt B’s
We departed Des Moines with the goal of enjoying breakfast in a small town café. I targeted Walnut, Iowa as our destination – specifically, a cafe called Aunt B’s. Walnut is a picturesque town just off I-80 west; we headed to Antique Street in the old downtown. The brick-lined street is packed with great antique shops – visiting them would have been a great day trip on its own!

Aunt B’s – a perfect stop for a rural Iowa breakfast on the road!

We headed in to Aunt B’s and were promptly seated. It’s important to understand how to order when you are in unfamiliar territory. Look around and see what others are having and if they’re locals, follow their lead! I was looking for good, honest, small-town cooking and zeroed in on the “Everything Hash Browns” with shredded potatoes, slices of link sausage, mushrooms, diced onion and peppers finished with melted American cheese. I upped the ante by requesting two fried eggs on top it all off.

A heartier breakfast than I’m used to… but well worth the splurge.

It was everything I love about small town Iowa – comforting, delicious and satisfying. Although I don’t typically eat that style of breakfast, its heft did not overwhelm me and proved to be a great base for our trip.

Even though we were there in the morning, I couldn’t pass on their made-from-scratch pies. A variety of cream and fruit pies were available, and I opted for a slice of cherry. It was one of the finest pies I’ve ever tasted with tender, flaky crust.

I always say that the scenery plays a huge role in the success of a meal. Eating a meal in Paris overlooking the Eiffel Tower, or enjoying a Ceviche Oceanside in Mexico make those signature meals taste better. The same holds true for me when it comes to small town America and scratch cooking, and the antique décor and knickknacks of Aunt B’s captured the culture of the neighborhood.

After breakfast, we passed through a few of the neighboring antique shops. I picked up an old beer bottle from Heidel Brau, a Sioux City-based brewery. I also picked up a Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows board game from the late 60’s. From Walnut, we drove south toward Atlantic and on our way to Villisca.

Villisca & TJ’s Cafe
When we drove into the town square, the locals instantly knew why we were there. “You looking for the house?” They pointed us in the right direction, just four blocks away from the center of town.

The Villisca Axe Murder House.

We pulled up to a house with large sign identifying it as the “Villisca Axe Murder House.” At first glance, the house (and several others in town) looked frozen in time. A walk around the property gave us our spooky fix – then we made a quick stop by the town cemetery to pay our respects.

It might not have been the most appetizing way to spend the pre-lunch hour, but I still had food on the brain so we ducked into TJ’s Café. If you’re ever in Villisca, I’d suggest you do the same and order their hand breaded, deep-fried pork tenderloin. The sandwich is larger than most, expertly breaded and fried without being greasy and capped with a “white squishy bun.” Their tenderloin is a bit thicker than the standard, which offers a greater meat-to-breading ratio.

Coon Bowl III
We took a different route as we headed back toward Des Moines which brought us through Coon Rapids. We had two goals with our visit – the first was a stop at the 2012 Iowa’s Best Burger Award-winning restaurant (which also happens to be the town’s premier bowling facility), The Coon Bowl III.

Winner of the 2012 “Iowa’s Best Burger” contest.

The Coon Bowl III serves up half pound burgers grilled on a flat top grill, lightly seasoned and simply dressed. You can’t go wrong with a basic cheeseburger here!  The burger grind was neither too fine nor too coarse; combining that with an ideal fat content and well heated griddle resulted in a perfectly juicy burger, even at well-done.

The wall of news clippings at Coon Bowl III.

The burgers used quite possibly the freshest, squishiest of the packaged buns on the market. American cheese was the perfect companion; there was no need for condiments, but they’re provided if you insist. The burger is worth the trip alone – in fact, I’ve traveled many more miles for less!

The last event of our day trip was a visit to the figure eight races (also in Coon Rapids), quite possibly the most entertaining sporting event out there. It was my first time at “the races,” and I can’t wait to go back. It was clear to me that the participants don’t do it for the money or the trophy… but rather because they love doing it. It was at the end of the night that I realized that chefs and figure eight drivers have a lot in common; we both love what we do and we’re a little bit crazy!

I encourage you to take a little time and enjoy some of Iowa’s hidden treasures – we live in a beautiful place, and every bit of it is worth exploring.


Today, we recognize one of the greatest foods to have ever been created by man – the cheeseburger. Although many restaurants claim to be the birthplace of the sandwich, I’m less concerned about where it came from and more interested in who’s doing it right… and there are plenty that fit the bill!

Foursquare released a list “America’s Favorite Cheeseburger Spots” – the 10 top U.S. burger locations based on more than 4.5 billion check ins. A lot of big names are featured on the list (including Shake Shack and In-N-Out Burger) – I’m happy to say our own Zombie Burger + Drink Lab made the cut at number 6!

In celebration of the holiday, I’ve compiled a list of some of my past “burger-centric” posts including recipes and general burger discussion. Happy National Cheeseburger Day to you all!

These burgers, cooked in lard with onions, might be the best burgers you will make.

George’s 1 a.m. Burger Bar – This post is all about a delicious spin on a classic – the deep fried burger.

Praise the Lard! – This is a burger recipe styled on the classic roadside joints of the Midwest. The patties are griddled with lard and onions for one of the most flavorful burgers you’ll ever have the pleasure of eating.

A Foodie’s Foraging Near and Far – This one’s all about the cheese-stuffed Juicy Lucy, a Minneapolis specialty.

A Zombie Burger Manifesto – In this post, I reflected on Zombie Burger being named “Best Restaurant Period” by Des Moines Cityview, and how Zombie Burger works to uphold the title.

When Burgers Were King – A reflection of the fast food joints of days gone by and a local joint where you can relive that era.


In honor of Aug. 30 being “National Toasted Marshmallow Day,” I thought I’d share the story of the origins of one of our most popular toasted marshmallow dishes – “George’s Marshmallow Sundae” at Centro.

Sometimes when we create a new dish at one of our properties, there’s a rather interesting story about how it came to be. Maybe we were inspired by something we tasted on one of our many travels. Perhaps it comes about from using a combination of experience and experimentation to satisfy our “off the wall” cravings.

The Centro Sundae was a dream. Quite literally, in fact; those who know me know that I am a very restless sleeper. My brain gets full of recipes, ingredients and ideas and I can’t turn them off. So while other people are counting sheep, I’m thinking about all the ways I can turn them into lamb tacos!

On a particularly restless night, I had dessert on my mind. I’d spent most of the evening reading vintage confectionary books with a goal of making Halloween candy. I was focused on the section about marshmallow formulas (side note: Check out the local marshmallows from Beaverdale Confections – we carry them at Gateway).

My dream was centered on assembling the ultimate sundae. Although I was alternating between gelato and ice cream, I worked my way through a very specific ingredient list: dense fudge (rather than cake) brownie, a rich dark chocolate sauce, Virginia peanuts and marshmallow cream. As I completed the final touch – toasting the marshmallow on top – I woke up.

It’s like I had chugged a coffee and was ready to get to work. I had already worked the recipe out in my sleep; since I was experimenting with shakes for Zombie Burger, I had all the ingredients on hand. I sneaked down to the kitchen, gave it a quick test run, and it worked!

The next day, I picked up my pile of supplies and hightailed it downtown. After a quick preliminary stop at Django (which yielded little interest from the kitchen staff), I stopped by Centro. By the time I got there and started whipping up a couple test runs for the crew, the servers were starting to arrive and naturally their curiosity was piqued. I was greeted with many “what’s that” and “what ya making” greetings. My response was the popular “well, you’ll have to wait and see!”

I started with a little chocolate sauce, then a piece of brownie, a scoop of gelato and some marshmallow cream. I repeated the process, topped it with an overflowing dollop of the marshmallow cream and whipped out the torch to finish.

It was love at first site, greeted by the iPhone paparazzi and a swarm of spoons. In fact, the mass attack reminded me of a scene from Day of the Dead. In a few seconds, both sundaes were completely devoured – there was no way the chefs could tell the clambering staff that they were not going to put this on the menu. Once the public caught wind, a star was born!


“Back to school” time in Des Moines always gets me thinking of one thing – school lunch. Memories of  school lunches tend to trigger an array of emotions in most people. Oddly enough, chefs and other foodies can get really fired up on the subject of school lunches. If you’re like me you probably have fond memories of the lunch ladies at your school. Anyone old enough to remember the early 1980s might even recall when the federal government made a move to classify ketchup as a vegetable in 1981.

Some people speak of their love for the neon yellow gravy. Some, the rectangular pizza. Others the Salisbury steak. (Here’s a little known side note: Salisbury steak was invented by a doctor in the late 1800s as part of a low-carb diet.) And who didn’t love sticking Lil’ Smokies in mashed potatoes? (I’m sure Dr. Freud would have enjoyed psychoanalyzing that behavior!) As for me, I was particularly fond of any day when freshly baked rolls were available. I am not sure if any schools still make their own rolls… perhaps in some of Iowa’s more rural areas?

Once upon a time this is how school lunch rolls used to look.

My ideas of school lunch are strongly rooted in my own childhood era. My father brought his own lunch to school in the late 30’s and 40’s and would tell us that other children would poke fun at the Italian kids for their sack lunch. Standard fare in Italian lunches included fried peppers – the juices would leak through the lunch sack and leave a trail from home to school and back again. If the other kids knew better, they should have followed that trail to “the good stuff!”

My love of food history has resulted in my collection of cookbooks, both current and vintage. What I love most about cookbooks is that they serve as a snapshot into what food is or was like at any given point in history. I have several old cookbooks about school lunches – nearly all have very simple menus with basic ingredients. Around 1940, creamed chipped beef, meatloaf, smoked pork, and ham and gravy made from “real” drippings look to be most popular. Scrapple, liver, bean loaf, baked meat with cereal, pecans and rice seem far less popular. Canned vegetables from that era often needed further processing… and their potatoes actually had skin! Desserts of puddings, crisps and cobblers ruled the day – but I’ve got feel for the kids who looked forward to “prune whip” for dessert!

Curiously, one collection of 1943 school lunch recipes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture features a strong focus on soya. Was that due to World War II-related rationing? Or was the USDA really trying to encourage soy consumption for some other reasons? Regardless, these soy recipes were not vegetarian by any means – the soy was clearly used as an “extender” or filler. Recipes included soya meatloaf, soya meatballs, and soya scrapple – all very bland, akin to something that might get served in a penitentiary!

By 1947 more international options became prevalent. Dishes such as chicken a la king, Hungarian goulash, Italian spaghetti and chop suey might have made their way onto menus alongside chili, meatloaf and creamed chipped beef. Of course, if you were to look at these recipes you would probably associate these dishes more with hospital food of today (if today’s hospital food were still made from scratch, that is). Also, the international-themed dishes were not real Hungarian goulash or Italian spaghetti; they were very Americanized versions of those dishes.

By the 1960’s standardized recipes looked to be more sophisticated and recipes were a bit more seasoned. A wider range of spices were more widely known and made their way into the school cafeteria. If you are like me and looking for some additional reading, you might want to check out The School Lunch by Marion Cronan. You are not going to find any ground breaking recipes here, but you might find that long-lost taste of your childhood!

Michigan School Lunch Recipes is another interesting read. Sometime during the early 70’s, a new dish popped up called a “Perowski,” no doubt a regional specialty. Basically, they’re meat and cheese-filled milk rolls. To this day these rolls are one of my favorite dishes. Sometime in the late 1970s and early 1980’s, pre-made breaded meat products, such as beef patties became popular, as did prepared burritos.

Fast forward to today. Some ready-made products are still staples of the lunch room. But state-of-the-art equipment is being utilized in the pristine, lab-like conditions of the Des Moines Public Schools at their central kitchen facilities located in the old Colonial Bakery building on Second Avenue. This is where they produce a huge amount of food from scratch for schools across the district. While that saves time, money and manpower, I can’t help but feel sad sometimes for today’s school kids. One of my favorite memories was walking through the hallways of my elementary school, surrounded by the smells of what was cooking in the kitchen!

Here’s a hands-on recipe for on of my favorite school lunch treats.

As I said before, school lunch rolls were a favorite of mine. I’ve adapted this from classic school lunch recipes from a simpler time – back in the day when students sang Christmas carols around a big Christmas tree, brought homemade snacks to school on their birthday and climbed on that insurance nightmare  – the jungle gym.


  • 1 quart warm water
  • 1 package yeast
  • 1/2 cup lard or shortening
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • 5 pounds of  flour
  • 1/2 cup powdered milk


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place warm water in a large mixing bowl. Add the lard or shortening to melt. Add yeast and then add the powdered milk and dissolve. Follow with salt and sugar. Mix well.

Slowly start adding flour until dough forms.

Place dough on floured table and knead until dough is soft and smooth.

The dough must be kneaded until it is soft.

Place dough back into the bowl rubbed with a small amount of oil. Let rise.

When dough has doubled in size, cut it into small pieces. I don’t worry too much about each one being exactly the same. Roll into little balls and place on a lightly buttered sheet pan.

This is how the dough will look before it goes in the oven.

When you poke the dough with your finger and the print stays, the dough is ready to bake.

Brush dough with milk, melted butter or egg wash.

Bake in preheated 375 degree oven, directly on center rack for about 25 minutes. Rolls should be golden brown.


As I mentioned last week, I’m teaming up with Kenmore at this year’s Iowa State Fair for their “Kenmore Honored Harvest Time Recipes” competition on Saturday, August 10. The competition revolves around a few key themes: fresh, local ingredients and a compelling food story.

When I signed on, I started thinking about these themes in my own recipes. As you know, I’m a sucker for a story – all of my favorite restaurants, foods and drinks have some sort of a story and history attached to them. The recipe I decided to share as part of the State Fair competition does, too – in fact, it’s basically the story of my own culinary heritage.

Growing up in a large Italian-American family, the kitchen was always the most important room in the house. My grandma was a very talented cook, who passed all her secrets along to my Mom. Cooking was a way of life – nearly all our meals were made from scratch, and Mom was especially gifted with pasta.

One of the first pastas that my mother showed me how to make was ricotta gnocchi – simple and elegant pasta that was a favorite at home. And, when available, we’d always prepare gnocchi with fresh, local sweet corn. According to my mom, the best way to enjoy fresh sweet corn in Italy was to cut it off the cob and eat it slightly warmed or even raw. She explained that when the corn is enjoyed in its simplest state, it retains its unique sweetness and freshness – to this day, it’s one of corn’s best-kept secrets, even here in Iowa!

Try this one at home – it’s easy to make and a great way to enjoy the flavors of summer.

Ricotta gnocchi with Iowa summer garnish – a great way to enjoy the tastes of the season.

George’s Ricotta Gnocchi with Iowa Summer Garnish

Serves 4


  • 1 lb. ricotta cheese
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 to 1 cup 00 flour

In a large bowl, mix the ricotta, egg, cheese, and 3/4 cup of the flour until all ingredients are fully incorporated. Mixture should have a smooth, doughy consistency. If the dough is too sticky, add additional flour one tablespoon until the dough is no longer tacky. Let the mixture rest for about 15 minutes.

After resting, refrigerate the dough for an additional 15 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to boil on the stove.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Sprinkle a baking sheet/cutting board, your work surface and hands with flour.

Divide the dough in half. Roll each half into a log about 3/4-inch thick.

Cut the log into 3/4-inch pieces using a sharp knife or a dough scraper. (If you want to shape them into the traditional grooved gnocchi you certainly can; simply roll the dough segments off the back of the tines of a fork using your thumb).

Transfer this batch to the baking sheet and toss them with flour to prevent sticking. Repeat rolling process with the remaining dough.

Add half the gnocchi to the boiling water. Gently stir, making sure the gnocchi don’t stick together. Once they rise to the surface, allow them to cook an additional 2 minutes.

Remove gnocchi with a slotted spoon and transfer to a colander set over a bowl for draining.

Repeat the process with the second batch of gnocchi.

Once drained, sear the cooked gnocchi in butter until lightly browned on one side. Remove from pan and sprinkle with salt. Hold warm.

Iowa Summer Garnish


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups SUNSTEAD FARMS leeks, cleaned and chopped
  • 2 cups sliced mushrooms
  • 2 cups cut raw GRIMES sweet corn
  • 3 cups loosely packed CLEVERLEY FARMS spinach, chopped
  • 1 cup diced GRADDY’S tomato
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons KALONA SUPERNATURAL butter
  • Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  • Parmesan cheese (optional)
  • Truffle oil (optional)

Using the same pan you used to sear the gnocchi, add olive oil on medium high heat.

Add leeks, mushrooms, garlic and salt. Cook mixture until all the liquid has evaporated and vegetables are softened and lightly browned.

Add spinach, tomato and corn. Cook just long enough until spinach wilts and the corn is heated. Avoid overcooking the sweet corn.

Toss in the seared gnocchi. Heat thoroughly. While gently stirring the mixture, add butter one tablespoon at a time.

Once butter has melted, transfer the mixture to a serving tray. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and a light drizzle of truffle oil.


It’s no secret that I love food history. And if you know me well, you also know that I love the Iowa State Fair. So when I heard of the “Kenmore Honored Harvest Time Recipes” competition at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday, August 10, I was jumping up and down with my hand in the air to get involved.

This competition is right up my alley – as part of Kenmore’s 100-year anniversary, they’re visiting state fairs across the country to look for the best heritage recipes. Each recipe must contain at least three fresh, local ingredients as well as an explanation of what makes it special and gives it that “heritage” appeal. Whether it’s a hundred-year-old recipe passed down through generations, something you found scribbled in the back of a cookbook you picked up at an estate sale, or a new recipe developed in collaboration with your best friend, this competition is all about the story behind the recipes.

Those historical elements and local focus are the same qualities that draw me to my own favorite foods and restaurants. If given the choice, I’ll always opt for simple, fresh dishes that are firmly rooted in tradition over the soulless, trendy, avant-garde stuff that seems to be in fashion in some culinary circles.

Heirloom comfort foods and dishes with some connection to history or a specific special person seem to retain that history in every bite. Maybe that’s why I enjoy them so much. It goes beyond just the flavor and touches one’s emotions.

On that note, I’m excited to announce that Kenmore has brought me on board to host and judge this year’s competition! The State Fair cooking contests are my favorite events to judge; they’re always full of everyday recipes with history attached to them – a priceless collection from some of the heartland’s best cooks.

I’m already imagining all the unique dishes I’ll be able to see and taste there at the fairgrounds – and all the great stories of what makes each unique. Kenmore has already selected the competitors and has identified some pretty incredible prizes:

  • A Kenmore kitchen appliance makeover worth $5,000
  • A three day/two night trip package for two people to the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival
  • The chance to have a recipe featured in the Kenmore 100th Anniversary cookbook.

Even if you’re not part of the competition, you can still be in on the fun. Visit by August 1 and share your own recipe; for each submission, Sears will make a $5 donation to Heroes at Home to support military families.

If you’ve never been to, it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s an online food site committed to quality recipes, built with community interaction and passed on through you. A few of my favorites currently posted are the “corned beef hash grown-up grilled cheese” and the “nacho mama’s chorizo casserole” – the ultimate in comfort food!

You can use the site to add your favorite recipes, create specialized cookbooks, browse the recipe library from celebrity and home chefs alike, and watch step-by-step recipe videos. There are some pretty cool tools, too, like a grocery list generator that will make sure you have everything you need to make your favorite dishes.

The thing I love most about the site is that each recipe is accompanied by a little story; maybe it’s how the recipe was created, where it came from, or some other little fact about the food. Often times, the recipes are long-time family favorites passed from one person to another.

So dust off those old family recipes, log on to and join me on August 10th at the Iowa State fair for Kenmore’s “Honored Harvest Time Recipe” competition. Hope to see you there!


Today’s guest post comes to us from my sister-in-law, Rachel Formaro – this one’s all about a Formaro family favorite… good ol’ American meatloaf.

Growing up British-Canadian, I can’t remember a time that my mum ever made meatloaf. To me, the whole idea of meatloaf epitomized a traditional American (or Canadian) family meal – something that was enjoyed in a kitchen with avocado appliances and a vinyl tablecloth. Very Brady Bunch.

Which brings into question (rather sharply) why did I even attempt to make meatloaf for my husband and my in-laws, especially when I hadn’t even tasted meatloaf before. Did I mention that the recipe is one that my brother-in-law George (yes, the James Beard nominated chef) has reverse-engineered out of the memories of his mother’s meatloaf? Perhaps it comes down to a sense of adventure and knowing that there were new memories to be had from the experience. And it didn’t hurt that my husband Tom’s watchful eye helped in the process – is that how crispy it should be, how dark it should be, etc.

I asked Tom how did their mother (who was born and raised in Sicily and had moved here in her 30s) even come to make something as American-apple-pie as meatloaf? Did he, his brothers and sister pester her for it to the point of submission? The answer appears to be it was the influence of her Italian-American in-laws (her husband’s parents were Calabrese and had immigrated to the US in the early 1900s). Whether it was her mother-in-law’s recipe or another family member is still in question. How fitting then, that I should attempt to make it for my Italian-American in-laws.

Fortunately, there are no complicated ingredients. The key to the meatloaf seems to be in the baking time. I had underestimated how long it would take. This is not a get-home-from-work-30-min recipe. But it is certainly worth the wait. Perfect for a Sunday evening supper.

We had a simple side of corn on the cob and I had thrown in a few thinly sliced potatoes in with the baking pan – turned out nice and crispy. And apparently in the case of meatloaf, everyone is a fan of the “heel”!

With George’s permission, here is the recipe.


  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 2 cans vegetable soup (Campbell’s)
  • 2 cups bread crumbs
  • 2 or 3 eggs (I used 2)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 2 leaves fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 small onion grated
  • 2 cloves garlic chopped
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic granulated
  • 1/8 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • Additional ketchup for brushing on top

Place all the ingredients in the bowl and mix them up; the more you mix, the firmer the meatloaf will be.

Preheat your oven to 375. Oil your roasting pan or baking pan and put aside. You’ll need to have the kind of pan that has a cover, or I guess you could cover with foil.

Mix all ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl. The more you mix it the firmer it is.

Meatloaf ready for the oven.

Shape into 2 loaves and place into oiled covered aluminum baking pan and rub the top with oil.

Bake covered for about one hour, or until the internal temperature reaches 170.

Remove cover, brush the tops with a generous amount of ketchup and cook uncovered for 30 minutes or more, until a crust forms on the bottom to your liking.

Serve a slice or two along with your side dish.

The finished product – a great dish for Sunday dinners at home!


As you may know, I love food history. That love is manifested in my extensive collection of cookbooks. If I had to estimate, I’d say I have more than 3,000 cookbooks, spanning from 1854 (Miss Leslie’s New Cookbook) to present day. When people find this out, they usually ask about my favorites. We don’t have enough time here to go through my entire list (how could I even choose one?), but one certain book does hold a special place in my collection with more editions represented than any other series – The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.


From the early days. This is so old it doesn’t even have the word “new.”

This series of cookbooks dates back to 1930. They were simply My Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book until 1935, when the name officially changed to The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. If you were to ask me what would be the one cookbook that:

  1. Could get a cooking novice up to speed the fastest;
  2. Represents the best collection of the tastiest foods;
  3. Is the most tried-and-true, go-to recipe book and historical food record

… my answer would be the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.

Besides being extremely useful, these books (especially the early versions) can be fun. Really, in what other cookbook would you find a serious recipe called “Irish-Italian Spaghetti?”


The surprisingly tasty Irish-Italian Spaghetti. Go ahead, Google it. Better Homes and Gardens has it on its site.


Local readers can take pride in knowing this iconic series of cookbooks originated in Des Moines and is still produced here. In 1928, Better Homes and Gardens built a tricked-out test kitchen here for their culinary investigations; prior to that, recipes were tested in the home kitchen of Genevieve Callahan, the households editor for Better Homes and Gardens magazine, according to a timeline at When these cookbooks first came out they had some features that were considered revolutionary at the time. For example, they had ring bindings so that they would lie flat on a counter top. They also had tabs to make it easier to find recipe categories.

It is nice to know that I am not alone in my appreciation of this cookbook. The book conjures up plenty of memories for Des Moines’ Wini Moranville, author of The Bonne Femme Cookbook. More than that, she has actually worked on the book, which she tells me is commonly called  the “red plaid” cookbook around Meredith (the media corporation that owns the Better Homes and Gardens brand). Wini adds:

“I truly learned to cook from that book. It was my Mom’s ‘go to’ book in the ’60s and ’70s, and she taught me to cook from it when I was little. I especially remember making brownies for the first time and on rainy Saturdays, we’d make yeast donuts from the cookbook – glazed with an orange glaze. Gosh they were good. When I moved to NYC in my ’20s, I brought my own copy of the cookbook with me, and it got me through many a meal when I had to live cheaply, and bring something gratifying and quick to the table at the end of those crazy-busy NYC office days.”

Of course, Wini branched out over time. She bought all kinds of cookbooks, she recalls. What she discovered is that some times recipes from celebrated cookbooks just did not work. “Such a thing won’t happen with the ‘Red Plaid’ – every recipe is tested again and again. They work,” Wini says, adding “They leave nothing to chance for the home cook.”

When she wrote her own cookbook a few years ago, Wini used cooking charts in the later editions’ meat chapters. “They were invaluable to me as I was developing recipes. As in “hm… how long should I test the pork roast for? Oh, ‘Red Plaid’ says ‘X minutes’ at ‘X temperature.” Those charts were never wrong.”

Editions change over the years, she points out, “But I swear the lasagna recipe from my mother’s edition (which she got in the early ’60s) was the best.” Wini even wrote about that lasagna in her own blog.


This is Número Uno: 1930, my American grandmother! People say I kinda look her.


My friend Sam Auen of Tacopocalypse can also wax nostalgic with the best of us about this book. He tells me that some of his earliest memories go back to his childhood fascination with his grandmother’s cookbook shelf. He says:

“Even before I could read I would take out The New Better Homes And Gardens Cookbook from its roost and flip through its pages. I remember spying the red tartan-ish cover, the silhouettes of pots and pans overlaying its tablecloth motif. I have been told by my mother that I spent hours as a child banging on pots and pans like they were part of a drum set while sitting on cookbooks as my throne.”

Later, when Sam joined the ranks of readers, he would sit at the table and memorize recipes for pancakes, roasts and gravy techniques while he waited for everyone in the house to fall asleep.

Then, he recalls, “I could turn on Little Rascals at 4am and try out some of these dishes (a.k.a. make huge messes). I cooked from it, and its peers, throughout my teen years, learning to use book recipes as a basis for creating my own. When I moved out and got married, that book came along with. I guess I have always had The New Cook Book in my life, and even years later as I have moved away from using books, this old friend sits proudly on in my cookbook library.”


This is a well-loved edition from 1944, stuffed with decades of additional newspaper clippings and hand written recipes. Someone’s life is captured in all these pages… you better believe they’re in good hands!


My 1945 edition is certainly one of my favorites; you gotta check out the gems in the “casserole and one dish meal” section. The recipes include “Rice with Almond Sauce,” “Rice Croquettes” (which some of you bon vivants might recognize as an American version of Arancini), “Chicken and Rice Casserole,” and the previously mentioned very-tasty-but-not-at-all-Italian “Italian Spaghetti.” Perhaps my favorite though is the not-really-Irish, not-really-Italian “Irish-Italian Spaghetti!”

The wheat bread recipe is one of the best I’ve seen; then, there’s the meat section. I am rather fond of the “Chicken Fried Round Steak,” the solid “Everyday Meatloaf” recipe, “Swedish Ham Balls,” “Ham Loaf” and a better-than-your-penitentiary “Savory Chipped Beef on Noodles.” There’s also a recipe for “Chili Balls.” You should make this recipe just because it’s fun to say!

There are 10 – yes, 10 – pages dedicated to all sorts of tasty pies. There’s also an impressive section on candy featuring butter toffee, black walnut taffy and a time-tested recipe for peanut brittle. The recipes go on and on; it’s easy to see why this book is one of the favorites in my collection!


The 1953 edition features my favorite cover of the whole batch!


The new books have some great features (I enjoy browsing their diagrams of mushrooms, chilies, beans and olive varieties as well as up-to-date takes on meat, fish and poultry dishes). But personally, I love the older versions full of culinary gems. Since there was no food TV networks or recipe websites back in the day, home cooks heavily relied on cookbooks, newspapers and magazines for new culinary inventions. A cook might make a recipe and move on, or perhaps the recipe would be given to someone else who would make minor variations before passing it along again. These books were truly the blueprint for American home cooking!

Combing through the the older editions of cookbooks can be like going through a happy time warp full of dishes that have fallen out of mainstream favor. Breads, wilted spinach salad, beef cubes in sour cream, savory chipped beef and even hamburgers are delightfully frozen in time.

Both my grandmothers were born in Italy, so I did not grow up with what I call good old-fashioned midwestern cooking. I’m not sure if it’s because I am getting older or if it’s just my love for food history, but I can’t resist the nostalgia of this book and the old midwest and regional American cuisine it contains. This book has become the American grandmother I never had. So this summer, I suggest going to a few garage sales and finding your own “American Grandmother” by picking up a vintage copy of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book!