Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ms. Frank Bars

(aka Buttery Caramel Crisps)

A number of my family's favorite recipes bear the name of the friend who first introduced us to the dish. We have Suzanne Salad, Clara-style Braised Carrots, and Kathy's Cookies. And now we have Ms. Frank Bars.

These caramel-coconut-almond bars were an instant hit with everyone in our family. There's a hint of cinnamon in the recipe that gives these bars exceptional flavor. They're a little crunchy and a little chewy at the same time. And they're SUPER easy to make.

Like almost every recipe, this recipe has a story. My friend Jen, who is also known as Ms. Frank because she was Dan and Monika's Kindergarten teacher, gave us this Land O'Lakes recipe booklet right before school started. The booklet, which was printed in 1979, had belonged to Jen's grandmother. Jen knows that we sell our milk to Land O'Lakes and are active in the cooperative, so she thought we should have it.

I flipped through the booklet and marveled at how recipe writing and food photography have changed in 30-some years. Recipe sharing has changed, too. Land O'Lakes doesn't publish booklets like this anymore; almost all recipes are shared on their website and blog.

Even the back cover of the booklet made me pause and reflect. Look at how the butter packages have changed since then! And I love that Land O'Lakes used a picture of a farm for a backdrop to the butter. From its very beginning here in Minnesota, Land O'Lakes has a been a farmer-owned cooperative, created to turn milk from family farms like ours into butter and cheese. Land O'Lakes was also the first creamery to make butter from sweet cream (instead of sour cream). Today, Land O'Lakes is still a cooperative owned by family farms and we're still committed to making the best butter.

I scanned the ingredients in the recipes and the recipe for Buttery Caramel Crisps caught my attention. The preparation method reminded me of the Crackle Bars that are so popular at Christmas, but I had never seen a recipe with this combination of flavors. I had all of the ingredients on hand, so I gave them a try.

Some recipes are like one-hit wonders on the radio. You make them once, enjoy them, but they never show up in your kitchen again. NOT this recipe. These thin, simple bars are one of those recipes you stick in your back pocket and pull out whenever you need a quick dessert to share with family or friends. I've already made them so many times that I have the recipe memorized.

My kids have them memorized, too. When I made the last pan of bars, I was sprinkling the marshmallows over the graham crackers as Dan walked into the kitchen. "Are you making Ms. Frank's bars, Mom?" he asked. He knew that the recipe came from the book Ms. Frank gave us, so he gave the bars her name. Honestly, Ms. Frank Bars is a better name for these bars, anyway, because nobody can remember Buttery Caramel Crisps. Glen calls them graham cracker bars.

Whatever you call them, they're delicious. They're so delicious that I haven't tweaked anything in the recipe. (That's saying something!) The only part of the recipe I changed was the number of graham crackers in the first layer. I don't know if graham crackers were smaller in 1979 or if 10x15" pans were bigger, but I couldn't fit 12 whole crackers in a pan, so I just used 9. I also used unsweetened coconut, because that's what I usually use. I'm guessing the original recipe used sweetened coconut.

The only hard parts of this recipe are waiting for the bars to cool after they're done and then keeping them around long enough to share with friends.

Here's the recipe. Enjoy!

Ms. Frank Bars
(aka Buttery Caramel Crisps)

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Bake Time: 12 minutes
Yield: One 10x15" pan of bars


9 - 12 whole graham crackers (one sleeve)*
2 cups miniature marshmallows
¾ cup LAND O LAKES butter (1½ sticks)
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar (light or dark)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flaked or shredded, unsweetened coconut (sweetened would work, too)
1 cup sliced almonds


Preheat oven to 350°F.

Arrange graham crackers in single layer in ungreased 10x15" jelly-roll pan, breaking crackers as needed to fit. Sprinkle marshmallows evenly over crackers.

Cut butter into chunks. Combine butter and brown sugar in a small (2 or 3 quart) saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Once butter starts to melt, add cinnamon and vanilla to saucepan. Continue stirring until butter is completely melted, sugar is dissolved, and mixture resembles caramel sauce. Don't boil.

Very slowly, drizzle caramel sauce evenly over crackers and marshmallows. Sprinkle coconut, then almonds, over sauce.

Bake on center rack of oven at 350°F for 12 minutes, rotating pan after 8 minutes. Bars are done when marshmallows and coconut are lightly browned.

Cool completely before cutting into bars.

*UPDATE: I made a double batch of these bars in my big baking sheet (15x21") and it took closer to 24 graham crackers to cover the bottom of the pan. Which leads me to believe that my 10x15 pan might just be smaller than it should be. So, I updated the number of crackers to include a range. (Also, the double batch worked perfectly. The only change I made was increasing the baking time since it took longer for the entire pan to be nicely browned.)

Recipe from Land O Lakes Cookie Lover's Cookbook © 1979 Land O'Lakes, Inc.

I am a Land O'Lakes Cooperative member-owner. I did not receive compensation from Land O'Lakes for this post. All opinions are my own.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Life lessons

This piece about the lessons I've learned working with my life coach first appeared as one of my columns in the Dairy Star. I hesitated for a long time before writing this piece. But after it was published, I got thank you messages from so many fellow farm women that all my fears were forgotten. I hope it resonates with you just as much.

In middle school and high school, I was lucky enough to have excellent guidance counselors – people who helped me wade through all the muck that somehow builds up between middle school girls and later helped me wade through all the important life decisions a high school student needs to make. When I look back at those years, having trusted advisors like my guidance counselors made all the difference between sinking and soaring.

I’m also sure that in 10 or 20 years, when I look back at this time in my life, I will say the same thing: having a trusted advisor to turn to with life’s challenging situations has made all the difference between enduring life and enjoying life.

For almost a year now, I have been working with a life coach. We meet once a month to talk about strategies for better dairy farming, parenting, communication, relationships, stress management, and just about every other topic under the sun. My life coach isn’t a dairy farmer herself, but she’s a mom and a small business owner, so she understands most of my challenges.

One of the great quotes my life coach has shared with me.

I don’t adopt every strategy we talk about, but there are several which have had a big impact on my life.

One of the topics we talk about most is time management, because that’s my biggest weakness. My life coach has helped me understand that extroverts, like myself, tend to overschedule themselves. But if my values and my time expenditures don’t align, it results in a constant state of stress. So, now, when I’m invited to participate in an activity or event, instead of just asking myself if I have time, I also ask myself, “Is this really important to me?”

One of the discussions about time management with my life coach had a huge impact on the way I think. We were talking about being overextended – not the financial kind of overextended, but the time and energy kind of overextended. I explained that when life gets extra busy, I always think to myself that one of these jobs or activities has to go. But that’s really hard for me to think about because I love everything I do – being a mom, dairy farming, writing, volunteering – so how could I give one up? That’s easy, she said. “If you were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, what would go?” I’m sure you could substitute some other serious condition, but the word cancer hit me hard. Cancer killed both of my grandmothers, at relatively young ages. I thought long and hard after that meeting about my values and how I was spending my time.

Another strategy that has helped me immensely is one that I call “finding the middle ground”. I tend to think in terms of all or nothing – it’s a symptom of perfectionism. For instance, I used to think that if I didn’t have time to do a full workout, then I didn’t have time to exercise at all. Now, I look for something in the middle of all or nothing, like exercising for 10 or 15 minutes. I constantly remind myself, “Something is better than nothing.”

I’m also working on tackling one task at a time, instead of multi-tasking. A fair amount of research has shown that multi-tasking reduces productivity. I think we all have a story that goes something like: I went into the shed to get a pail of grain for the heifers, remember that I forgot to collect the eggs earlier, go to the house to get an egg carton so I wouldn’t forget again, see that there’s a new message on the answering machine, go find Glen to relay the message (so I won’t forget), along the way notice the float malfunctioning on the stock tank, go up to the shed to get a screwdriver to fix the float, see the empty pail and realize I haven’t fed the heifers their grain yet.

We run around for an hour working on parts of eight different jobs and feel like we get nothing done. When I’m working outside, I now use the mantra: “Focus where your feet are.” And if I think of something else that needs to be done, I write it down on my arm. I believe this idea of focusing and being present is also a big part of living fully. When I'm milking cows, I focus on milking cows; sure, my mind wanders while I'm milking, but I steer it away from thinking about what jobs I need to do next. When I'm helping the kids with their homework, I try to focus on my kids, not the pile of mail on the table or the dishes that need to be put away. When I'm writing, I resist the urge to check email in between paragraphs or check the tracking on the package that's on it's way.

When I’m working on the everyday, less-enjoyable jobs, like e-mail, laundry, processing the mail, etc., I set a timer for 15 minutes and focus on just that job until the timer goes off. Then I switch to the next job. I can get a lot more done when I focus. Plus, since I’m a deadline-oriented person, the timer gives me a deadline for jobs that otherwise don’t have set deadlines.

Some of the most important conversations I’ve had with my life coach have been on the topic of making time for family and making time for self.

When summer started, my coach asked, “What are you going to do for fun, each week, with your kids?” It was a much-needed question. When the 2014-15 school year started, I looked back at the summer and realized that we had taken the kids to the lake exactly two times. So this summer, we made it a priority to make time for family fun. We went swimming as often as we could, we took the kids fishing, we went to a collegiate league baseball game, we actually went out to eat for Father’s Day, and we went camping. There’s never a time when we feel like we have enough of our farm chores done to justify taking the afternoon off, but we had to get over feeling like that. A quote one of my friends shared recently sums it up: “In business, what you don't get done today can likely be done tomorrow, but with family, what doesn’t get done today is gone forever.” (from Procrastinate on Purpose by Rory Vaden)

Life is both challenging and joyful and I believe it’s meant to be that way. But sometimes a little coaching can help us minimize the challenges and maximize the joys.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Dollop & Scoop – No. 0915

Highlights from September...

Jersey attitude

I always love it when a cow is in the mood to pose for photos. I snapped a number of great photos of Lily one afternoon in early September, but this photo was my favorite. Jersey cows (and calves) have such unique attitudes and this photo epitomizes that attitude.

Curious cows

When our neighbors' grandchildren come to visit, they often bring them over to see the calves and chickens or take them out to the pasture to see the cows. This time, they got an up close visit from the cows. Cows are naturally curious, but their curiosity really piques when new people come into the barn or pasture. Most of the time, one cow will come up close to check visitors out; a grand reception like this one is pretty rare.

Barefoot in the barn

Daphne doesn't get dressed up very often. If she's wearing clothes at all they're usually barn clothes. So I couldn't resist taking this picture when she showed up in the barn in her town clothes to help me finish cleaning stalls. When I posted the photo, though, most of the comments were about Daphne being barefoot in the barn. Well, Daphne is almost always barefoot outside. And I think most farm kids can remember running around barefoot for at least part of their childhood.

Chopping corn

Harvesting corn silage was September's major event. Thankfully, we had lots of help from family and friends and everything went extremely well. I wrote about our incredible harvest in one of my recent Dairy Star columns. It was amazing to see what crops can do during a summer of near-perfect growing conditions. The highlight of chopping for me was riding along in the chopper for the first time.

Mama Duck and her duckling

You might remember Mama Duck as the white duck that lived on our pond for most of 2014 and then moved into our barn on the eve of Snowmageddon '14. She then went to live at Glen's home farm for the winter and returned here this summer. She spent all winter setting on a nest of eggs, but none of them hatched. She made a new nest when she moved back here, but no ducklings ever emerged – until two weeks ago. Finally, one duckling hatched and Mama Duck earned her name.

Learning first hand

I'm sure I've said this a million times and wrote it just as many: I love having friends from town out to our farm to learn more about dairy farming. I met Kim when I was in Washington, D.C. last month; Kim started working at Land O'Lakes in July and said she wanted to learn more about dairy farming. I'm a firm believer that the best way to learn about farming is to experience it first hand, and that's exactly what Kim did. During her visit she milked a cow and fed a calf and asked lots of really good questions.