Marsha Sparks remembers the first time she was given the honor of making a pumpkin pie for the family’s holiday dinner.
“I used a full can of pumpkin in it,” she says. “It was very pumpkiny, and it was still edible, but I can tell you I never made that mistake again.”
Sparks must have learned her lesson quite well. For the past 30 years, she has owned and operated Bakery Unlimited in Winterset. Baking and cooking have always been a part of her life, and it began with her mom.
“She was my inspiration. She was always baking and cooking,” says Sparks. “She was especially known for her crescent rolls. It wasn’t a holiday dinner without my mom’s crescent rolls. She would also bake them for church and community functions.”
But it was during the holiday when her mom was at her best, Sparks says. She would make things like Swedish tea rings, cookies, jams and jellies and sweet breads, which would then be given to friends and neighbors as Christmas presents.
And Sparks says almost all the ingredients for those tasty goodies came directly from the family farm.
“We only bought what we needed and couldn’t raise at home at the store,” says Sparks. “Things like flour and sugar. We had chickens, so we had the eggs. We milked our own cows, and we made our own cream and butter. We also had a huge garden and canned a lot of goods. Everything tasted so fresh.”
Sparks says she still remembers when, as a child, her mom would make and cut out cookies, and the whole family would help decorate them. Her mother would pull buckets up to a big table for them to sit on, and they would then spend the morning decorating.
Sparks says she didn’t get a lot of opportunity to bake and cook with her grandmother, who knew her way around the kitchen — and the classroom.
“My grandmother was sort of a pioneer in her day — she was at the forefront,” says Sparks. “She was the first home economics graduate in her class in Illinois — extension agents they used to call them. So I know grandmother knew a lot about baking and cooking.”
Sparks’ mother also became a home economics instructor, and Sparks graduated from Iowa State University with a food nutritionist degree.
“I used what I learned from my mother on how to bake and cook things, and then used what I learned at Iowa State to make things more nutritious,” she says.
It was at Iowa State where she also met her husband.
Sparks says she learned to bake some of her husband’s mother’s favorite holiday items, such as sour cream sugar cookies.
“He always looked forward to his mother baking them,” Sparks says.
Sparks says she tries to carry on the holiday traditions of her childhood with her own children and grandchildren.
“My grandchildren are at that age when they are too young to actually bake, but old enough that they want to help,” says Sparks. “So I put them up to the table and have them help me roll out the cookie dough.”
She also makes Swedish tea rings for her husband’s co-workers for their holiday treat, and she says breads are her favorite thing to make. Her family likes her raisin bread, Sparks says, but she actually likes the rye breads better.
Unfortunately, there is little time for Sparks to enjoy doing a lot of personal holiday cooking and baking for her family. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one her busiest at the bakery.
“The business comes first,” says Sparks. “I love to bake and make things for people, but it is awfully busy. For example, people want a dozen sugar cookies, but they may want them decorated different ways. Baking the cookies isn’t the hard part. Decorating them takes up most of the time.”
When asked if there was one holiday dish that was always on the table when she was growing up, Sparks simply smiles.
“Yes. Scalloped oysters,” she says. “That was always on the table only at Christmas time. It was a real treat.”
Piece of that pie
It’s not scalloped oysters that are on the table at JoAnna Gustafson’s family holiday dinners; it’s a certain type of pie.
“In my family, it is not a holiday meal without an onion pie,” says Gustafson. “My family is of German descent, so that is a traditional holiday treat.”
Gustafson, who is the culinary arts instructor for Winterset Community Schools, says she learned to make the onion pie at an early age.
“It is more like a quiche,” she says.
But when it came to making pies, Gustafson says her grandparents were the best.
“They would make at least five or six pies for the holiday dinners,” says Gustafson. “Pies like apple, sour cream raisin, coconut cream, pumpkin and cherry. Cherry is my favorite.”
Gustafson says her family ran a catering business in Winterset for many years.
“I grew up cooking and baking, and it became a huge part of my life,” she says.
But the honor of making the onion pie for the family holiday dinner falls on the one who does the hosting.
“There are about 20 or so family and extended family members who get together at the holidays each year,” she says. “It is always a fun time.”
Recipe from Bakery Unlimited
1 ½ cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ cup sugar
¾ tsp salt
2 ½ tsp pumpkin pie spice
7 ½ ounces pumpkin
2 large eggs
¼ cup orange juice
¼ cup vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put cupcake liners into 15 cups. Combine dry ingredients. Combine wet ingredients in mixing bowl and beat till blended. Add dry ingredients and stir just till moistened. Fill cups ¾ full. Bake 25-30 minutes.
Just like grandma’s
By Alan Cross
At every Christmas family dinner, my grandma would bake her famous rolls. Those rolls would be huge and so good. My grandma passed away at age 96. For years, our family has tried to locate her roll or bread recipe. Finally, my mother found it. Here is that recipe.
But the one thing I noticed about experienced cooks is that they don’t have an exact recipe. Sure, they will tell you what the ingredients are and the basic steps, but they don’t tell you everything. My grandma, for example, could tell when she had added enough flour or knew the dough was ready just by the feel of the dough.
So, go ahead and try this recipe. So what if it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it the first time? Keep trying. I know Grandma is honored just to have her recipe shared.
Grandma’s rolls or bread
5 cups flour
1 package yeast
2 cups warm water
1/3 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup shortening
Combine yeast, warm water, sugar and salt. Stir in the five cups of flour and mix. Turn out on a floured board and add at least one more cup of flour little as needed. Let dough rise to double in size. Knead down. Let it rise again and make into loaves or rolls.
Vidalia onion pie
This isn’t the onion pie recipe JoAnna Gustafson’s family uses. However, if you like to try an onion pie for your Christmas tradition this year, this is a good one to start with.
3 cups thinly sliced Vidalia onions
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 (9-inch) prebaked deep-dish pie shell
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 slices bacon, crisply cooked and crumbled
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until lightly browned. Put the pie pan on a sheet pan. Line the bottom of pie crust with the onions.
In a small bowl, beat the eggs and the flour together to combine. Add the milk, sour cream and salt. Mix well and pour over the onions. Garnish with the bacon and bake until firm in the center, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter and serve.