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Cooking the Books — Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

 Welcome to Cooking the Books, where we try recipes found in, well, books! This month, Technical Services Supervisor Anne tried out a recipe from one of her recent favs:

I first read J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota this spring and I couldn’t put it down. When it was announced that Stradal was stopping by Galesburg’s Wordsmith Bookshoppe literally days after I finished the novel, I hustled on over. Stradal was polite, unassuming and kindly posed for a photo with me. (I’ll not share the photo as my Saturday-doing-chores look was not my best.) Soon after, I found myself purchasing an autographed copy of his 2015 novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest. The storyline follows the coming of age of Eva, a chef with a select palate, who’s life is woven through a cast of characters, all tied together by food. The book begins with memories of lutefisk, meanders through some very weird sweet pepper jelly territory, and near the end lands on my favorite chapter:  Bars. This chapter introduces Pat Prager, the Deer Lake (MN) county fair bar bake-off queen. As Pat says straight away in the chapter’s first sentence:  “Who doesn’t like bars?”

The novel contains select midwestern recipes such as Mom’s Chicken Wild Rice Casserole,  Succotash Salad with Bacon, and Barb Ramstad’s Kraft Caramel Bars, the latter I decided to test. The recipe couldn’t be easier, though most time consuming was unwrapping each individual caramel candy(!) I brought the Kraft Caramel Bars to work to face possibly harsher critics than even the judges of the Deer Lake Bake Off – the library staff.


Reactions from library staff were thoughtful: “delicious”…“perfect balance of flavors”…“sticky”. Also constructive:  “Very sweet. I think it could be improved with a darker chocolate” and “dark chocolate chips and/or sea salt” could offset the sweetness.

Would I make these bars again? Possibly, but only to try the excellent suggestions from my colleagues. Would I recommend the novel? Absolutely, if only to bite into a slice of midwestern life and enjoy the magic of cooking and food.

Bars: 3/5 stars

Book: 4/5 stars

The Recipe:

Barb Ramstad’s Kraft Caramel Bars

1 bag caramels
5 T cream
¾ c butter, melted
1 c brown sugar
1 c oatmeal
½ t baking soda
¼ t salt
1 c chocolate chips
½ c nuts

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Melt the caramels and cream in a double boiler. Cool slightly.
3. Combine the butter, sugar, oatmeal, flour, baking soda, and salt. Mix until crumbly.
4. Press half of this mixture into 1 9×13 inch pan and bake for 5 minutes.
5. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the top with the chips, nuts, and melted caramel mixture.
6. Sprinkle with the remaining crumble and bake for 15-20 minutes. Don’t overbake! Cut while warm.