What’s Cookin’: Chocolate Pudding

pudding - small

One of my favorite comfort foods is chocolate pudding.  Not the kind from a box, but the rich and creamy home-made goodness that can only be made by starting from scratch.  If I’m going to indulge in chocolate pudding, I want the good stuff!

While there are many great recipes for chocolate pudding, my favorite is a simple one that even my 8-year-old son can make without help!  Before I share the recipe, here’s the agricultural story behind it’s simple ingredients.

cocoa beansCocoa Powder is made from beans of the cacao tree grown in tropical climates. After harvesting the beans are fermented, dried, and roasted.  The beans are then ground into a paste to separate the cocoa solids from the fat, or cocoa butter. Once the butter is removed the cocoa solids are ground into a fine powder.  The bitter powder can be packaged and sold for as unsweetened coca powder for baking cooking, or mixed with cocoa butter, milk and sugar to create the chocolate bars and chips.

Sugar for home cooking and baking can come from two agricultural crops, sugar cane and sugar beets. Sugar beets are a root crop grown in the upper Midwest.  Sugar cane is a tall perennial grass grown in more tropical environments like Florida, Latin America, and South America.  Although the plants are very different, the process of turning juice from sugar beets and sugar cane into granulated sugar is very similar.  After the juice is extracted, it is purified, and the crystals form as the water is removed through several stages of evaporation.

cornCorn Starch is a fine white powder made from the starchy center, or endosperm, of corn kernels.  In the kitchen, corn starch is used as a thickening agent for sauce, gravy, pudding, and more. Corn starch is comprised of long chains of starch molecules that will unravel and swell when heated in a liquid. This swelling causes the liquid to thicken.

Milk: Long gone are the days that cows are milked by hand. Today’s dairy farms are high-tech and efficient, using mechanical milking parlors and even robots to improve the efficiency of the milking process. Once milk is collected from the cow it is quickly cooled and trucked to a processing plant where it is homogenized and pasteurized before bottling. Once bottled it is sent off to grocery stores or other consumer outlets. The whole process takes less than 48 hours and the milk is never touched by human hands.

vanilla beansVanilla extract is made from the seed pod, or bean, of the flat leaved vanilla orchid.  They are picked unripe, submerged into hot water and then laid out to dry.  Vanilla extract is made by macerating the vanilla beans and mixing them with water and alcohol.

Butter: Fresh whole milk from dairy farms is collected and brought to the creamery. The cream is separated from the milk and rapidly heated to a high temperature. Pasteurization removes any disease-causing bacteria and helps the butter stay fresh longer.  The cream is then churned by shaking or beating it vigorously until it thickens. The remaining liquid, appropriately called buttermilk, is removed. The clumps of butter are then washed and formed into sticks or blocks. Check out this video to see exactly how butter is made.

Chocolate Pudding
½ cups white sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ cup corn starch
2¾ cups milk
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoons vanilla

Mix the sugar, cocoa powder, corn starch and salt together in a saucepan.

Whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer. Continue to whisk and cook until it is thick. It will not take long after it comes to a boil.

Take it off the burner and mix in the vanilla and butter. Pour into a bowl or serving dishes to cool.



Play dough – Not Just for Playtime

One of my favorite things about the holidays is the extended opportunity to spend time with family. During this holiday break, I decided to do a few hands-on projects with little ones. One of their favorite things to do is to make and play with play dough. I have always let my granddaughters help me make a home-made version of play dough. It’s fun, safe for youngsters, and they can play for quite a long time with cookie cutters and childproof utensils.

This version of play dough came with a little “agriculture” lesson. My granddaughters are Tessa, age 5 and Izzie, age 4. They are very curious about all sorts of things, so I decided while we made the play dough, we could learn not only how it is made, but also where the ingredients come from. Farmers help to make almost all of the ingredients in home-made play dough.

wheat1Flour: Most flour is made from wheat that has been finely ground into a powder. The 1.jpgprocess of making flour from the grain has been around since prehistoric times using a stone club and a stone bowl to grind the grain into a fine powder. Wheat is now grown in just about every state in the United States. The United States in ranks 3rd in the production of wheat and is the #1 wheat exporting country. The top wheat-producing states are Kansas, North Dakota and Montana.

Cream of Tartar: Cream of tartar is a byproduct of wine making. It is made from sediment left in the barrel after grape juice is fermented. This acidic salt acts as a stabilizer. For example, cream of tartar helps meringue retain its shape and texture on top of a pie after it is browned in a hot oven.

soybeans1Vegetable Oil: Most vegetable oils are made from soybeans. Iowa ranks number one in the production of soybeans. Extraction of oil happens when seeds are pressed, then the liquid is sent through a filtration system to sift out remaining seed residue.

OD-BA499_SALTS_OZ_20140108171619Salt: Salt is not an agriculture product. It is a mineral collected by evaporating salt water or mining rock salt.

Food Coloring; artificial and natural food dyes are added to food and beverages to make them more desirable to consumers. Artificial colors are made from petroleum. Natural colors are extracted from fruits, vegetable, and even insects.


  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon cream of tartar
  • Food coloring
  • Saucepan
  • 1 cup flour


  1. Combine water, oil, salt, cream of tartar, and food coloring in a saucepan and heat until warm.
  2. Remove from heat and add flour.
  3. Stir, then knead until smooth. The cream of tartar makes this dough last 6 months or longer, so resist the temptation to omit this ingredient if you don’t have it on hand.
  4. Store this dough in an airtight container or a Ziploc freezer bag.

When it comes time to play, I get out the cookie cutters, plastic utensils, rolling pins,biscuit cutters and anything else they can use with their play dough. We have contests to see who can make the most different things with our “tools”. Eventually some of the green gets mixed with some of the red and the original pretty play dough looks a bit messy, but I can always be assured that we thoroughly enjoy make home-made play dough and playing with it! Take time this week and mix up a batch for the young ones in your home!

– Sheri

Sweet Treats

Iowa ranks #1 in the production of four major agricultural commodities: corn, soybeans, pork, and eggs. To celebrate this, state fair contestants are challenged to submit a recipe using one (or more) of these ingredients. Entries are judged by representatives from the Iowa Pork Producers Association, the Iowa Corn Growers Association, the Iowa Soybean Association and the Soyfoods Council, and the Iowa Egg Council. They are judged on taste, creativity, and presentation. Awards are presented in two divisions – sweet and savory.

Be sure to check out the winning savory recipes here. But for now let’s focus on the sweet stuff! These tasty recipes will be sure to delight event the harshest critics and will be sure to end the meal on high note.

The winning recipe – Iowa’s Big Four Sugar Cookies – was submitted by Julie Peterson of Knoxville, Iowa. Not only did she cut the cookies out into the shape of Iowa, but she also decorated them with candy pigs, eggs, soybeans, and corn!

Julie comes from a farm family that raise corn and beans and several hundred sheep. She and her husband have three sons all of whom have college degrees and farm with them. Their daughter is in her 3rd year at Iowa State University majoring in agricultural education. She loves agriculture and loves telling people about it and family farms. She loves to write and take photos, so she hopes to someday write a book on agriculture, along with becoming an agriculture teacher. She inspired the display of the cookies.

IMG_2793a.jpg1 cup soft butter
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 cup Crisco Oil
Pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla
5 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. cream of tartar

Cream butter and sugar. Add next ingredients. Mix well. Roll out and cut out with state of Iowa shaped cookie cutter. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees F for 8 to 10 minutes. When cool, frost.

1 stick soft butter
2 cups powdered sugar
¼ cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla

Combine all together and beat with mixer until desired spreading consistency. Garnish each of the Iowa shaped, frosted cookies with one of the following: corn candy, yellow jelly beans, pink gummie candy pigs, and egg gummie candy.

2nd and 3rd

The sugar cookies only barely edged out the runner-up and the second runner-up. Featuring corn syrup (made from field corn) and eggs, Old Fashioned Divinity is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. This recipe was submitted by Quinn Harbison from Ames, Iowa.

IMG_3776a.jpg3 cups sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1 cup boiling water
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
¼ tsp. almond extract
3 egg whites

Put sugar, corn syrup, and boiling water into saucepan. Boil until firm ball stage using a candy thermometer. Beat 3 egg whites until stiff peaks. Add sugar mixture and vanilla to eggs along the side of the bowl slowly, mix. Once mixture stands in place, put on buttered plate.

Or the chocolate lovers among us might enjoy the Flourless Dark Chocolate Espresso Cookies with Butterscotch Chips submitted by Aaron Barker from Des Moines, Iowa.

IMG_3775a.jpg2 ¼ cups powdered sugar
1 cup Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder
1 tsp. instant espresso powder
½ tsp. salt
2-3 egg whites
1 cup butterscotch chips

Whisk together the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder and salt. Add two egg whites and whisk into the dry ingredients until completely incorporated. If you want an extremely thick, brownie-like batter consistency here. If you need more moisture, add another egg white. Fold in the butterscotch chips. Chill the batter for 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper AND spray them with non-stick spray (this is important as it is difficult to get them off the paper). Scoop batter onto the cookie sheets using a spoon. Bake for 9-10 minutes until the edges are set. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before removing from the parchment. Yield: 30 cookies

Indulge with these tasty morsels!


Savory Award Winning Recipes

If you are like me, you are looking for a great recipe to try for this holiday season. And depending on how many people you have at your table, you might end up with a lot of leftover Christmas ham. Well, now you can turn those leftovers into delicious hamballs! This recipe screams Iowa because it features two of the major commodities raised in Iowa – pork and corn.

Last summer, Iowans were challenged to present their best recipes at the Iowa State Fair and the Iowa’s Big Four Cooking Contest. Iowa is #1 in the U.S. for raising corn and soybeans. Iowa also ranks #1 in producing pork and eggs. So these recipes needed to include one (or more) of those major commodities.

The contest was broken into two classes – sweet and savory. For each, a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place recipe was awarded a cash prize. Judges representing each of the commodity organizations helped decide the winners. Judges from the Iowa Pork Producers Association, the Iowa Corn Growers Association, the Iowa Soybean Association and Soy Foods Council, and the Iowa Egg Council judged the entries on taste, creativity and presentation.

The winning recipe from the savory category was Sweet Corn Hamballs with Sweet Corn Glaze submitted by Sharon Gates of Des Moines, Iowa. Judges were overheard saying, “I just couldn’t stop eating them!”

IMG_3785.JPGInto a mixing bowl combine:
¼ C. finely chopped onions
1 ear of sweet corn grilled and cut from cob (about ½ C.)
½ C. crushed unsalted soda crackers
½ C. graham cracker crumbs
1 tsp. ground mustard
2 eggs well beaten plus enough milk to make 1 ¼ C.

Mix well and let sit a few minutes. Add to the above mixture:
¾ lb. ground ham
¾ lb. ground pork
¾ lb. ground beef

Once the meat and cracker mixtures are thoroughly combined, form into about 1/3 C. balls. Place the balls into a baking dish that has been sprayed with non-stick spray. Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes. Turn over and bake another 20 minutes.

While hamballs are baking, mix together:
1 8oz. can of creamed corn
1 C. unsweetened applesauce
1 C. brown sugar
¼ C. apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. dry mustard

When the meatballs are browned, cover with glaze. Then bake another 45 minutes turning over half way through the process and spooning glaze from the pan over the hamballs.

2nd and 3rd

The runner-up and second runner-up recipes were not to be missed either! For breakfast, the Pretzel and Soybean Crusted Egg Bake featured soybeans, eggs, and two different types of pork (bacon and ham)! It was submitted by Emerson Hilbert of Urbandale, Iowa.

IMG_3780a.jpg½ cup pretzels
½ cup soybeans
4 eggs
¼ cup milk
3 strips bacon
2 slices of ham
3 tablespoons of butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Crush and combine pretzels and soybeans. Melt butter. Press pretzel and soybean mix into the bottom of a baking dish and pour the butter over the top. Bake for 3-5 minutes. Combine eggs and milk. Chop bacon and ham. Layer eggs, cheese, and meats. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 25-25 minutes.

The Mexicali Corn Dip, as the name implies, featured corn. But you could also find soybeans in the vegetable oil that the mayonnaise was made from! This savory snack would be perfect for an appetizer or great for when all of those unexpected guests come knocking at your door this holiday season. The recipe was submitted by Gretta Acheson of West Des Moines, Iowa.

1 – 11oz. can of MexiCornIMG_3784a.jpg
1 cup of Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
1 cup of Pepper Jack cheese, shredded
1 cup of mayonnaise
1 – 4oz. can of mild, chopped green chilies, drained
1 small jar of chopped pimentos, drained
1 ½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Bake for 20-30 minutes. Serve with Frito Corn Chips.

Enjoy! And if you have a great recipe that features corn, soybeans, pork, eggs, or any of Iowa’s great commodities you can enter it at the Iowa State Fair in the Iowa’s Big Four Cooking Contest!


Why do they do that? – Liming Fields




In late fall and early winter, you might see farmers applying a fine white dust to their fields. So, what is it? And why do it?

That white dust is agricultural lime, sometimes called aglime. It is a soil conditioner made from crushed limestone. Once the lime dissolves, it releases a base that lowers the acidity of the soil. Farmers apply lime to increase yields. Homeowners and landscapers use it to improve the appearance of lawns that have acidic soils.

Making sure soil does not become too acidic is critical to good plant health. Soils that are too acidic can stunt root growth, limit nutrient availability, and reduce the effectiveness of fertilizer and herbicides. Most soils have a tendency to become more acidic over time for variety of reasons such as erosion, leaching, decomposition of organic matter, and fertilizer application.

Resized952017121895140443Limestone is a sedimentary rock composed mostly of calcium carbonate. It is mined and mechanically crushed into varying degrees of fineness depending on its intended use. Limestone’s versatility, durability, and affordability make it a useful for many construction, industrial, home-improvement, and agricultural applications. Coarsely crushed limestone can be used to rock driveways, support railroad tracks, and prevent erosion on slopes and shores. Lime used as a soil amendment is ground into a very fine power so it easily dissolves in the soil. Soil amendments are organic or inorganic materials added to change the physical or chemical properties of soil and improve plant health.


Lime is a good soil amendment for acidic soils because it contains a high amount of calcium, which works to neutralize the soil’s pH level. Soil pH indicates the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. It is measured on a 14 point scale. A pH of 7 is neutral. Values below 7.0 indicate acidic soil, and values above 7 indicate alkaline, or basic, soil.  A soil test is used to determine the pH of a soil. Farmers who practice precision agriculture often use grid sampling to determine where and how much lime to apply in specific parts of a field.


This field map displayed on a monitor in the tractor cab indicates where higher and lower amounts of lime should be applied.

Lime can be applied any time after the previous crop is harvested. Lime is not lost by leaching, so farmers can apply it whenever practical. Agronomists recommend putting down lime several months before planting, so the lime has enough time to neutralize acidity.

It is common for farmers to hire a contractor to apply lime using a large truck-mounted spreader. It can also be applied with a smaller spreader pulled with a tractor. Lime can be incorporated into the soil or spread on top and left to dissolve and leach into the soil by rain and snowfall.

Resized952017121895140456Iowa farmers do not lime fields every year. They only apply it when soil tests indicate the soil pH is too low. For corn and soybeans, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach recommends a soil pH of 6 or 6.5 to be sufficient, depending on the subsoil pH of the area. A higher pH is recommended for alfalfa and other acid-sensitive crops.

Now you may be asking, should I apply lime to my lawn or garden? You should only apply lime when recommended by a soil test. The optimal pH range for most turf grasses, flowers and vegetables grown in Iowa is 6.0 to 7.0, and most lawn and garden soils fall within that range. However, some plants like blueberries and azaleas prefer more acidic soils and others like lilac, peony, and salvia prefer more alkaline soils. If you are curious to know the soil PH of your soil, consider sending a soil sample to a soil testing lab on the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship list of certified labs.





Family Farming: A Legacy to the Next Generation

It’s the time of year that people reflect on what’s important, and what tops the list is family. It is also a time to be reflective and thankful for the abundance that we have. Did you know that family farms are the pillar of the agriculture industry? What is a family farm?

A “family farm” by definition is any farm where the majority of the business is owned Edit -- Farmsteadby the operator and individuals related to the operator, including through blood, marriage, or adoption.

Family farms produce food and fiber for people all over the world. There are five facts to know about U.S. family farms:

  1. Food equals family – 97% of the 2.1 million farms in the United States are family owned.
  2. Eighty-eight percent of all U.S. farms are small family farms.
  3. Fifty-eight percent of all direct farm sales to consumers come from small family farms.
  4. Sixty-four percent of all vegetable sales and 66% of all dairy sales come from the three percent of farms that are large or very large family farms.
  5. Eighteen percent of the principal operators on family farms in the U.S. started within the last 10 years.

I was surprised to learn that 97% of all U.S. farms are family farms. The size of the farm is not classified the physical size, but is classified by the annual sales. The reasoning behind this calculation is that not all acreage is fertile, well-watered land. In Iowa, we iowafarmare fortunate to have very fertile soil.

According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, the following states have the highest concentration of family farms are West Virginia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Alabama. Approximately 95% of the farms in Iowa are family farms.

There may be larger farms and fewer of them than 50 or 100 years ago, but this information tells us that most farms are still family owned. With so much change in technology, it becomes even more important to be educated in all aspects of farming. Machinery on the farm is changing and becoming better every year. Because farmers can do so much more with better machinery, their yields are higher too. This knowledge of the land also allows farmers to spraying corntake better care of the soil and water sources on their land. The average size of an Iowa farm is about 345 acres. Family farms need to be larger to generate income to support the number of families present at a farm. If there are four families in the business, there needs to profit enough to support four households. Farm work is really demanding work. There is no such thing as weekends off or sleeping in or taking time off to travel with friends. Farmers need to be present to take care of the animals and crops. Because the work on a farm is hard – there are a lot of young people deciding not to work on the farm. Those that do work on the farm have their heart in the business. With fewer people interested in farming – the work needs to be streamlined and efficient so that it can be completed by fewer hands. Lastly, farming is expensive. The farmland and machinery alone are costly, farmers must be totally invested physically and financially.

Farmers pay close attention to their land and often see it as a legacy to the next FullSizeRendergeneration. The movie FARMLAND shared such insights and stated that family succession planning is vital to be able to transition farmland to the next generation. We are fortunate to have many Iowan farmers that see this legacy of farming and desire to share it with generations to come.

It’s amazing to think that Iowa ranks first in the United States in production of soybeans, corn, pork, and eggs. With the average 345 acre Iowa farm, this means that farmers care about the land and work hard to keep the land healthy and the legacy farming going. When you are out driving around, take time to see and enjoy the beautiful fields that Iowa has, as well as the family farms that care for farm animals across Iowa. In a time of Thanksgiving…it’s important for us to remember that Iowa is blessed and we are thankful!

– Sheri

Christmas Tree Farming

When we think of the word ‘agriculture’ what usually pops into mind are rows of corn and soybeans or maybe a barnyard of cattle and pigs. But by definition, agriculture is the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, fiber, and other products. This time of year the growing crop soon to be harvested to produce other products is Christmas trees!

2a.jpgYes, real Christmas trees (not the plastic, store-bought ones) are an agricultural crop! Christmas trees have been commercially sold in the United States since about 1850, when most were cut from forests. Midway through the last century, tree farms began to appear, and now most Christmas trees are grown on farms.

Nearly 2,700 operations sold 12.9 million Christmas trees valued at $249.8 million in 2009. That is a decrease from 2007 when the Census of Agriculture reported 13,374 farms growing cut Christmas trees and short-rotation woody crops with sales of $384 million.

Iowa Christmas tree farms devote over 1,500 acres to Christmas tree production in Iowa and as a result harvest approximately 39,500 Christmas trees each year. The result is a $1 million dollar industry contributing to Iowa’s economy.

3a.jpgIt takes 6 to 12 years to grow a Christmas tree before it is ready to be sold. Most tree farms in Iowa are 3 to 8 acres in size and sell trees by the choose-and-harvest method, where customers come to the farm and cut their own trees.

There isn’t just one type of Christmas tree grown. Tree species commonly available at tree farms and commercial lots in Iowa include Scotch pine, white pine, red pine, Fraser fir, balsam fir, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, white spruce and Colorado spruce.  Which tree is right for your home depends on a lot of factors. Be sure to consider look, shape, needle length, smell, number of branches for hanging ornaments, and stiffness of branches for hanging heavier ornaments. Here are a couple of the Christmas trees we found at Walnut Ridge Farm and the differences between them.

15a.jpgBlue spruce have needles that are 3/4 to 1 inch long. The needles are stiff and sharp tipped. Branches are dense and strong to hold ornaments well. The color ranges is from green to blue/green depending on the seed origin.

14a.jpgWhite pine have needles that are 2 to 3 inches long and very soft. The branches are not as strong as some other species. White pine is the only conifer species native to Iowa.

13a.jpgScotch pine have needles that are 1 to 3 inches long and semi-soft. Branches are strong and hold ornaments well. Because Scotch pine grow in many parts of the world there is a wide variance in appearance and needle length.

12a.jpgConcolor fir have needles that are 2 inches long and softer than other fir species. The color is light green to blue/green and has a unique citrus fragrance. Branches are strong and hold ornaments well.

11a.jpgFraser fir and Canaan fir have needles that are 1 inch long and a silver/blue on the underneath side. They have a pleasant fir fragrance. Branches are strong and hold ornaments well. They are native in the mountains from West Virginia to North Carolina.

23915910_10155686669991125_7350921809862992924_n.jpgMy favorite trees are the Douglas fir for their rich smell. But, we ended up selecting a Fraser fir (a close second) because it was the right size and shape that we were looking for. It has a lot of branches – and good sturdy branches – for all of our heavy ornaments. We cut the tree as close to the ground as possible and then shaved off a few of the bottom branches to ensure it would fit in the stand at home. We loaded it onto the wagon and hauled it up to the headhouse. The folks at Walnut Ridge shook the tree for us to get all of the dead needles off (and any spiders that may have been lurking) and then wrapped it in netting for easy transport. We set it up at home and then spent a couple of hours stringing lights and hanging ornaments…and voila!

If kept in water, trees will stay fresh and hold its needles well for 4 to 6 weeks. Visit the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association to find a Christmas tree farm near you and take advantage of this unique agricultural crop!