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Masters of the Kitchen

Posted October 17, 2012 in Winterset

Shirley Allen’s pies are extra-special because they are baked in an antique oven.

More than any other season, fall and its bountiful harvest can set the scene for marathons of cooking, baking and canning. We anticipate the hustle and bustle that comes with bushel baskets overflowing with everything from apples and peaches, to pumpkins and zucchini. The search begins for those treasured, old recipes; the old, tried and true pots and pans stand ready; Grandma’s rolling pin takes center stage … let the baking begin.

Pie, the exclamation point to a great meal
Yesterday there were five apple pies cooling on the counter; the day before, it was two cherry. Today it’s pumpkins, and maybe an apple or two. Shirley Allen is the caretaker of that grand, three-story, brick home at Rose Acres, and if you have ever been lucky enough to share in one of the meals she has helped cater there, then you probably witnessed the beauty of a well-baked pie.

Gary (Shirley’s husband) says when it comes to pie, “It’s all about the crust.” Shirley laughs and says Gary is her biggest critic but admits that she agrees with him. “The secret to a good pie is in the crust. And, the secret to a good pie crust is don’t overwork it,” she says.

Shirley’s first test drive in pie-making came on the farm years ago when she and her two sisters, Dixie and Marilyn, would run and play in the rain and make gloriously sloppy mud pies.

“We would stomp the mud with our feet until it was squishy,” she says. “We even gave our mud pies pretty little crinkled edges. But it wasn’t until years later in school when I really learned how to bake. I had a good HomeEc teacher, Mrs. VanWerden. She told us that if you can read and are willing to follow directions, you can cook anything. I guess I believed her.”

When asked which pie is her favorite to make, she says she likes to bake them all. As long as the crust is good, she knows Gary wouldn’t have a favorite either. “Every piece of pie I put in front of him, he polishes it off and says the same thing, ‘I’d have to say, Shirley, that this one is my favorite,’ ” she explains.

Gary isn’t her only fan. Shirley’s pies were first introduced in the 1970s to the public during the Covered Bridge Festival. For half a dozen festivals, Gary would transform his Sears’ storefront into “Grandma’s Kitchen,” and Shirley’s pies were the highlight.

“The proceeds from the pie sales each year would go to the missionary at Guatemala,” she explains. “The community was very supportive and would usually buy all the pies. It was a great fundraising event that enabled us to send a lot of money to help out with such a good cause.”

She says she also used to help with the Zion Church at the Historical Complex during their fundraisers to help with expenses for the church and the complex. “Those were a lot of fun; several of the board members would get together and bake all kinds of pies and cakes. I’ve always enjoyed baking pies,” says Shirley. “If you are going to bake one, you might as well bake 10. And I’d have to say it’s even more fun and rewarding when you are baking with someone, or for someone.”

Homemade tweaks
Vicki Jackson came by cooking and baking naturally.

“There were six of us kids,” she says. “And Mom always had a huge garden, so it seems like she was always cooking or canning, and every morning she would get up and bake bread. Mom was from a family of 12, so she was used to a pretty busy kitchen and would let us girls help her a lot. But it wasn’t until later when I was in 4-H that I started baking on my own. I guess it was a good thing I did learn, because my husband, Vince, sure loves it when he walks in and smells bread baking in the oven.

“But, the days must be shorter than they used to be, or there are just a lot more activities to do that keep me from baking and cooking like we used to.”

Vicki Jackson dishes up a quick and easy fall favorite: crock pot stew and a simple and delicious no crust Brown Betty.

So Vicki has learned to improvise, when she can.

“Crockpots and Fareway’s produce aisle. Even if you don’t have time to plant a garden, you can still buy fresh produce and feel good about serving it to your family, and still have time to keep appointments and schedules.”

Knowing she had to be at church for bell choir at 7 p.m., Vicki had browned some stew meat up earlier and quickly diced up carrots, celery, potatoes and onions and tossed everything into a Crockpot with a can of tomatoes and added her favorite seasonings — served hours later alongside two loaves of fresh baked French bread.

Vicki gets to bell choir, and Vince has a healthy, warm supper on the table when he comes in from the field. And leftovers are the cherry on top and become one less meal to cook tomorrow, a heads-up on any hungry surprise company that may pop in or a perfect meal to pack up for an elderly shut-in.

When Vicki gets home from choir, sitting in the oven, still warm, is that delicious Apple Betty she baked earlier with the bread, served with a scoop of her home-churned vanilla ice cream. Suddenly homemade makes sense, and the house smells divine. Written along the bottom of Vicki’s well-worn French bread recipe card are the words: “God has two dwellings — one in heaven and the other in a loving heart.”

Breaking bread
Norma Woodley has managed to foster a family tradition that has subsequently turned into that perfect gift — one she won’t have to worry about being the wrong size, color or out of fashion.

Norma Woodley enjoys sharing her love of baking with her children and grandchildren.

For several years now, beginning in November, Norma bakes her way strategically into the Christmas season and ends up weeks later with a freezer full of wrapped packages. Each package is perfectly accessorized and blinged out with sparkling raisins or glistening butter glazes.

Growing up, Norma fondly remembers coming home from school and the house would smell of fresh baked cinnamon rolls.

“Mom always had fresh bread made, but it was the cinnamon rolls that were really special,” says Norma. “She made her own yeast and used the fresh hops she found growing in the fence rows. She would mix up the dough at night in a big bowl and leave it in a warm spot beside the old cook stove.  By morning, the dough was huge and overflowing that bowl. She could work it into beautiful loaves of bread, but she always saved some of the dough to turn into cinnamon rolls for us kids.”

Years later, despite the old cook stoves being replaced by modern electric ranges, Norma has her own big enamel bowl and bakes for her own three grown daughters and eight grandchildren.  This means Norma bakes a lot, all year long.

“But Christmas has become the time for the white and wheat loaves of bread and batches of egg noodles,” she says. “I’ve got it down to a science as to how many eggs it will take to get enough batches made for each of the three families. It depends on how many kids are in each family — one of my daughters is a four egg,” she smiles.

The noodles take approximately three days to complete; the drying process alone taking a couple days.

“I’ll have noodles everywhere,” she laughs. “Every square inch of this kitchen will be covered, but I enjoy it — the whole process — and the kids appreciate it, so that makes it worth it.”

Does she have a favorite bread to make?

“Not really, but I think the zucchini bread must be a family favorite though, or at least I seem to get a lot of gifts of fresh picked zucchini,” she says. “And they seem to know I’ll bake them into a loaf of bread and give it right back to them. Now that I think about it, I get a lot of zucchini gifts.”

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