Tag Archives: Iowa

A Corn Maze and the Making of Fall Traditions

When Dave and I first started dating I was surprised to learn that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving also; though their holiday is a month earlier (on the second Monday in October).  I’d always thought of Thanksgiving as a uniquely American holiday, but in fact it is not.  The importance of the Thanksgiving meal, however, does vary greatly between the two nations.  In Canada, or at least on Vancouver Island, there no displays in stores, no Thanksgiving-themed commercials, no chatter about getting together with family, or trying to figure out long distance travel to get home for this one evening.  Instead, all the focus seems to be on Halloween, complete with fireworks.  Our cats will not be amused…

With this difference in Autumn celebrations, I feel out of sync with the season.  Halloween seems on time, but the fact that Thanksgiving is already over leaves me feeling like I’ve missed out on something important.  We had a great Canadian Thanksgiving, and we will be celebrating American Thanksgiving come the end of November, but in the meantime we’re trying to carve out some new Fall traditions and get into sync with our new community.  In Nanaimo that means a trip to McNab’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch.

A perfectly foggy day for the corn maze and pumpkin patch.

A perfectly foggy day for the corn maze and pumpkin patch.

The day we went was a little late in the season, since it was after Thanksgiving (Canadian) and most of the really big pumpkins were gone.  However, they had tons of small to medium pumpkins, a local school fundraiser with all the homemade baked goods my heart could ask for, and the corn maze was still in full swing.  I was already feeling nostalgic for Iowa since a much-missed friend was throwing a fall celebration party with all of our friends, and we had just passed the dates for two of our favorite things to do in Iowa; the Farm Crawl and the Brews and Muse Festival at Peacetree Brewery.  Oh, friends, we were sure missing you on those weekends (especially those friends who shall remain nameless but kept sending emails and Facebook comments about the delicious new brews from Peacetree that we were missing out on… trisky hobbits that you are).

So with homesick hearts we went looking for new traditions at the pumpkin patch.  I assure you I never thought in my life that I’d say I was homesick for Iowa, but I’m getting sincerely tired of leaving places behind that have become home.  In our quest for new traditions to make this place home, McNabb’s did not disappoint.

Even after living in the American Midwest for five years, I had never been to a corn maze.  At Farm Crawl there was a corn maze, but I was always more interested in Pierce’s Pumpkin Patch, the borscht served at Coyote Run Farm, and the amazing preserves, people and brew (Peacetree again…) at Blue Gate Farm.  So McNab’s was my first time to be in and amongst the corn.

Dave and Little Man heading towards the corn maze.

Dave and Little Man heading towards the corn maze.

Surrounded by corn... like being back in Iowa.

Surrounded by corn… like being back in Iowa.

The day was perfectly foggy for an Autumn trip to the pumpkin patch, and we headed off to the maze first.  We had a great time trying to get lost, and searching (often fruitlessly) for the little markers hidden in the paths.  Apparently the markers haven’t been moved in years so the locals all know where they are, but since we’re new the hunt was still fun.  Once the chill of the maze started to get to us, and the enclosed space of the corn from Little Man’s viewpoint started to wear on him, we took the Hay Ride tractor to the pumpkin patch.  Here we selected a couple of pumpkins, had them measured and then heaved them back to the tractor, wishing we had brought the stroller to carry our pumpkin booty.

Hmmm... Which one can I carry all the way to the front?

Hmmm… Which one can I carry all the way to the front?

As we got off the tractor at the front of the farm, we ran into some friends from town, and hung around the fire pits chatting.  That is the sort of thing you miss when you move often; the regular meeting of friends in public places.  Little Man ran around with their kids, visiting the piglets and goats, and climbing massive downed stumps.


When Little Man finally started showing signs of wearing down and needing lunch, we headed off for lunch.  We could have stayed there for hot dogs, but the morning was cold and we all wanted some warm, inside rest.  So we headed for Coco Café in Cedar.  The café’s name is an acronym for the Cedar Opportunities Co-Operative, whose mission is to provide developmentally disabled adults with employment opportunities within their community.  This year the maze was dedicated to Coco’s, and I had heard of it before as well.  It has the reputation of being a nice little café with cozy atmosphere and good, local food, for good prices.  Perfect.

Walking into Coco Café I caught a glimpse of our little family in the glass door; all looking cold, dazed, hungry, and distinctively muddy.  Inside I ordered a hot cocoa, and Dave got coffee.  Little Man was very pleased with my drink choice, and did his best to polish off my whipped cream before I could get to it myself.  Dave had a Thai Curried Chicken Panini with a green side salad.  Little Man had the grilled cheese on an awesome whole wheat bread; and I had a massive bowl of Beef and Barley soup complete with a good-sized hunk of warm Pumpernickel, rich with molasses.  Dave’s Panini was great, and we were both impressed with the salad.  After our time in the Midwest we had come to loath side salads since inevitably they were tasteless piles of wilted, ice berg lettuce buried under a mound of not-cheese.  At Coco Cafe even the side salads were great.  Not a hint of iceberg lettuce to be seen, but only dark, lovely salad greens with a homemade vinaigrette.  Little Man liked his sandwich, but preferred my cocoa; and my soup was divine.  It was full of great vegetables, barley and beef, the broth was rich and stew-like with a good amount of black pepper.  This soup was a perfect example of why homemade soup is so much better than the stuff from a can.  All in all we had a great, home style lunch that did not break the bank, and which warmed us up from our stomachs to our fingers and toes.

On the way back home, Dave struggled to keep Little Man awake so that he could take a nice long nap at home.  Little Man, for his part, did his best to hide behind his Pooh Bear and fall asleep.  In the end we all had great naps, and ever since I’ve been fixated on hot beverages.  I want drinks that I can hold in a real mug, not paper or factory made, but something made by real hands, something that fits nicely between my palms, and warms me from the fingers on out.  And that brings me to my family’s Wassle; a hot mulled cider that fills the home and the heart with the aroma of the holidays.

This recipe for wassle comes from my dad’s side of the family, and just a whiff of this simmering away in the slow cooker makes me think of “family.”  I don’t mean “family” in the sense of just the three of us, but of gatherings of loved ones, whether or not you are biologically related, where you can just relax and be at home.  In fact, it’s worth making this wassle just for the aroma.

When Dave and I first made this wassle for our friends-who-became-family in upstate New York, their first comment was “mmmm… this is good…” followed quickly by asking if we’d ever tried this with rum.  We hadn’t.  We did.  It was delicious.  But I have to say, this wassle is amazing on its own and doesn’t need any accoutrement.  What sets it apart from other mulled ciders I’ve tried is the mixture of apple cider with pineapple, orange and apricot nectars.  Cardamom and cinnamon round out the spiciness of the hot, hot drink, and are key to its aroma.  There is no added sugar, the juices are sweet enough as it is.  So if you’re having friends/family over and want that scent of the holidays that will stop them in their tracks the minute they set foot in your home, this is the wassle for you.  The only problem will be getting them to leave later, since it’s so nice to just sit with loved ones while cradling a mug of this wassle in your hands.

Wassle (A Hot Mulled Cider)


4 cups apple cider

4 cups unsweetened pineapple juice

1 ½ cup apricot nectar

1 cup orange juice

6 cinnamon sticks

1 tsp. whole green cardamom


  1. Pour all juices into your slow cooker and turn it on to high.
  2. Place the cardamom pods on your cutting board and crush them with the back of a spoon or flat of a knife.  Alternatively, crush the pods in a mortar and pestle (I just can’t find mine since the move…)
  3. Add the cinnamon and crushed cardamom to the slow cooker.
  4. Cover and heat until pipping hot, then turn the slow cooker down to low and simmer the wassle for 25 minutes.  Enjoy!
  5. Optional: float a new cinnamon stick in each mug.

Click here for a printable version of the Wassle recipe.

pumpkin 2


Frost Morning

The locals are starting to look at the sky in a suspicious way.  As we’ve hit the end of October and November is upon us, people native to the island are starting to look at the bright, cold, dry sunshine with mistrust, and keep muttering that it simply won’t last.

Evening is falling faster, and once we have dinner Little Man is constantly asking if it’s dark yet since he wants to go outside and say hello to the moon and the stars.  The moon, however, has been fickle of late.  Dancing through the bright blue morning skies, and then disappearing at night, leaving the riot of stars to sparkle on their own.

To further underscore our movement towards winter we have woken to a couple of mornings sparkling with frost.  It’s time to bring in our potted herbs and find some open space (some how…) in the basement where they can get light to wait it out until it’s warm enough outside again.  Until then, I’m trying to find more indoor things to do around town, and on those sunny, dry days we greedily head to our favorite playgrounds to soak up the cold Autumn sun for as long as we have it.

I’m feeling the need to track down some good, local, apple cider.  That would go nicely with the massive bag of cinnamon sticks that I just unpacked.  It must have been lost at the back of our pantry in Iowa, but will make a great fall and winter addition to hot drinks.  Along those lines, I think it’s time to introduce Little Man to warm cider with cinnamon.  Maybe after our next frosty morning tromp to say “good morning” to the chickens.

Cold morning light from behind the cedars on the way to the hen house.

Cold morning light from behind the cedars on the way to the hen house.

When in Rome… Or Nanaimo…

One of the fun things about moving around a lot (three states and two countries in the last six years) has been discovering local food favorites.  For those that know me this should not be much of a surprise.  Food places make up most of my landmark references and anyone asking me how to get anywhere will likely be led by directions to make turns just past certain restaurants or food markets.  In fact, when travelling (abroad or domestically) I often try to find time to go to one of the local grocery stores.  I love to see what foods are unique to a place, and I can often find gifts for friends and family that travel well and are light weight.

 I have also found that when attempting to become a part of a community, one of the best ways of winning over the locals is to try (and try to recreate) one of the foods that is special or unique to that place.  When one of our best friends was doing fieldwork research in Illinois she stumbled upon the Horseshoe Sandwich.  The Horseshoe seems to be any sort of meat protein (ranging from shrimp to ground beef and anything in between) served open-faced on Texas toast (why this was in Illinois I have no idea), covered with a liberal coating of French Fries and a cheese sauce.

 When living in Indiana, the closest thing to a local dish we could find was the Tenderloin Sandwich.  This was sadly not as unique as the Horseshoe.  The Tenderloin consists of a thin slice of pork tenderloin that has been pounded, breaded and fried to within an inch of its life.  The finished product is more like cardboard than food.  The tenderloin is then served with a little mayonnaise on indifferent bread.  If you want iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomato on your sandwich then you order the “works.”

 Unfortunately I did not fare much better in Iowa.  I had some amazing food at the homes of friends and in some great restaurants, but what Iowans seem to be most proud of is “food” that can be fried on a stick.  This is found at just about any local community fair, but is produced in spades at the Iowa State Fair.  Famous for its mammoth butter sculpture of a cow, this year the fair’s website boasted 60 stick-bound food-ish items with new options appearing each year.  While living in Iowa they were proud to introduce fried butter on a stick, deep fried bacon, as well as fried pink lemonade.  Don’t ask.

 With the move to Vancouver Island I was initially focused on eating anything that swam in the ocean.  After five years of living in land-locked Midwestern states, I was all about celebrating fish especially salmon.  However, great salmon and seafood are not unique to Vancouver Island, but are hallmarks of the entire Northwest Coast of both Canada and the States (Please don’t call that nation “America” as that tends to get me in big trouble with my Canadian neighbors.  We do all live on the North American continent after all…).  My quest to find a special food that is unique to our new city led me to the Nanaimo Bar.

Little Man trying to score a nanaimo Bar

Little Man hoping to score a nanaimo Bar.

 For my State-side readers, “Nanaimo Bar” refers to a wonderfully rich dessert, not to the “bars in Nanaimo.”  While there is some debate about where the Nanaimo Bar originated (some try to claim them for the States.  Check out wikipedia for more details.), the bars are largely considered to be a local delicacy and are jealously celebrated as a part of local culture.  At its most basic rendition a Nanaimo Bar is a layered cookie with a chocolate and coconut graham cracker crust, a vanilla cream middle, and a top layer of chocolate.  There are numerous variations on this theme with people attempting to put their own spin on the bars with flavors that pair well with chocolate, like peanut butter, raspberry jam or espresso.  Nanaimo Bars have become so tied to local culture that there is a permanent exhibit in the Nanaimo Museum dedicated to this dessert.  The exhibit is flanked by two Nanaimo Bar-shaped stools for people to sit on and contemplate the displayed recipe and local lore.  Stools and recipe tea towels are available in the museum gift store.  The Nanaimo Tourism Council has even published a Nanaimo Bar Trail Guide that includes all things Nanaimo Bar, marking not only the best places in town to try one of the bars, but also themed pedicures, soaps, cupcakes, cocktails and the list goes on.

Pooh Bear enjoying the Nanaimo Bar exhibit at the Nanaimo Museum.

Pooh Bear enjoying the Nanaimo Bar exhibit at the Nanaimo Museum.

 I had heard of these bars before moving to Nanaimo, since Dave had tried a couple on the mainland (aka Vancouver).  They were almost always a disappointment, tasting only of intense sweetness.  Then when we first moved to Iowa we had a little party at our place where we served a number of dishes that were regional specialties from the different places that we had lived (Yes, Utica Tomato Pie was there as well, but that is fodder for a different post).  Dave prepared Nanaimo Bars as the party dessert, but these were different from those that I had sampled before.  While still rich and sweet, you could also taste the vanilla, almonds, chocolate and coconut in Dave’s version.  I was hooked.  He has since made them a couple of times, including most recently at this summer’s Hopwood Family Reunion.  The pictures of Dave making the bars (and Little Man trying to score one) come from that event.

 When Dave made the first batch in Iowa, he had done some internet research and combined multiple recipes to create his perfect Nanaimo Bar.  Then as I was doing a bit of internet research for this post I discovered that what he had created was incredibly similar to what is largely thought to be the most authentic Nanaimo Bar recipe.  In 1986 the city of Nanaimo hosted a contest for the Ultimate Nanaimo Bar and the winner was Joyce Hardcastle.  It is her version of the Nanaimo Bar that is the closest to what Dave put together as well.  Unknowingly Dave had stripped out away of the “unique” add-ins and found his way back to the classic version.

 As I mentioned above, Dave’s most recent reason for making Nanaimo Bars was as a special dessert for the recent Hopwood Family Reunion.  These are worlds away from the first bite of a Vancouver bakery’s Nanaimo Bar that I had on the mainland, and they will continue to be a part of special celebrations with our family.  Just remember that a little goes a long way.  A small square with good coffee or tea is a great dessert.  However, since we just had them this summer it is going to be a good couple of months before I want to have one anywhere near my vicinity.  One of Dave’s young cousins found out the dangers of Nanaimo Bar proximity at the reunion.  One night we were all up late playing a get-to-know-you-better game on the deck of the cabin.  A number of desserts had been brought out to munch on while we played.  One of the teenage cousins had the luck (good or bad) of having the plate of Nanaimo Bars sitting directly in front of him the entire night.  We lost count of how many bars he ate, but it was a substantial number.  So be warned, these things are good.

Chef Dave getting his ingredients for Nanaimo Bars.

Chef Dave getting his ingredients for Nanaimo Bars.

Dave’s Nanaimo Bars

Nanaimo Bars are famously three-layered cookies, with a graham cracker base, a custardy center and a chocolate top.  Dave’s version is intensely chocolaty with the added richness of coconut and almonds.  For the reunion Dave doubled the batch and therefore used a larger baking dish as is seen in the accompanying pictures.  A small square with a cup of black tea or coffee is divine.


Cookie Base:

1 ¼ c. graham cracker crumbs

1 c. unsweetened flaked coconut

½ c. almonds, toasted and finely chopped

2/3 c. unsalted butter

1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder

¼ c. sugar

1 egg, lightly beaten

Custard Filling:

2 c. powdered sugar

2 tbsp. vanilla pudding mix

3 scant tbsp. cream

½ c. unsalted butter, softened

Chocolate Topping:

8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate (not chips)

4 tbsp. butter


Preheat the oven to 350º.

 Prepare an 8-inch square baking dish by buttering it and then lining it with parchment paper or aluminum foil.  Be sure to leave an inch or so of overlap on two sides to serve as a handle to help remove the bars once they are firm.

 Make the base:

In a large bowl stir together the graham cracker crumbs, coconut and almonds.  Set this aside.

No rolling pin at hand, so Dave used the next best thing to crush the graham crackers.

No rolling pin at hand, so Dave used the next best thing to crush the graham crackers.

The combined graham cracker crumbs, coconut and finely chopped almonds.

The combined graham cracker crumbs, coconut and finely chopped almonds.

In a saucepan melt the butter with the cocoa powder and sugar.  Remove the pan from the heat and temper the beaten egg by adding a few spoonfuls of the hot chocolate mixture to the beaten egg and whisk like mad.  Tempering heats the egg gently so that it hopefully will not scramble when you add it to the mix.  Once you have beaten in the few spoonfuls of chocolate mixture to the egg, then pour the egg mixture back into the pan with the chocolate and again whisk like mad.  Pour the chocolate and egg mixture into the crumbs and stir until combined.


The sweetened cocoa and butter mixture for the cookie base.

The sweetened cocoa and butter mixture for the cookie base.

Tempering the eggs so that they do not scramble in the cookie base.

Tempering the eggs so that they do not scramble in the cookie base.

Dave showing off his smoothly tempered cocoa and egg mixture pouring into the graham cracker crumbs below.

Dave showing off his smoothly tempered cocoa and egg mixture pouring into the graham cracker crumbs below.

The combined cookie base mixture.

The combined cookie base mixture.

Pour the crumb mixture into the prepared baking dish and press it down evenly in the pan.  Bake the base in the 350º oven for 10 minutes and then cool it on a rack.

The baked cookie base is cooled here on an impromptu cooling rack of an upside down muffin tin.

The baked cookie base is cooled here on an impromptu cooling rack of an upside down muffin tin.

 Make the filling:

In a medium bowl add the powdered sugar and pudding mix.  Then stir in the cream and softened butter.  Beat until smooth.  Spread this over the cooled cookie base.

 Make the topping:

Using a double-boiler, or a heat-proof bowl over a pot of simmering water, place the chocolate and butter over low heat and stir until both are melted and smooth.  Spread this evenly over the custard filling and refrigerate the baking dish until the chocolate topping is firm.

The completed but uncooled Nanaimo Bar pan.

The completed but uncooled Nanaimo Bar pan.

 Just before serving, take the dish out of the refrigerator and let it stand on the counter for 5-7 minutes so that the bars can be cut without shattering the chocolate.  Lift the bars from the baking dish by pulling up on the parchment or aluminum foil “handles.”  Peel the paper or foil from the bars and place them on a clean cutting board.  Cut the bars into 16 squares (4 cuts horizontally and 4 vertically) and place them on a serving plate.

For the reunion Dave made a double batch of the bars so the pan is larger than the one described in the recipe.

For the reunion Dave made a double batch of the bars so the pan is larger than the one described in the recipe.

Dave's Famous Nanaimo Bars... be careful if you sit too close to the serving plate.

Dave’s Famous Nanaimo Bars… be careful if you sit too close to the serving plate.

The bars can be stored in an air tight (and cousin-tight) container in the refrigerator for 2-3 days or frozen for up to 2 weeks.

Click on the following link to open a separate page with the recipe for easier printing.

Nanaimo Bars