Ellen Clifford
November 07, 2015 6:00 am

This week’s cook book is actually a book book that happens to have some recipes to cook. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal is in fact a novel that, as the title would suggest, includes a lot of culinary material. In many ways it is a collection of short stories, but they all somehow connect to one character whose point of view we are rarely privy to. That central character happens to be a genius chef, and we follow her from birth until somewhere in her twenties.

Stradal leads you down a rabbit hole. I was sure the story was going to be about this one chef named Lars and then…the book took a turn. And another. And yet another. Just read it. You don’t have to be a food person. The collection of characters introduced are incredibly compelling. As each chapter ends, there is a whiff of frustration, as you feel that that character’s story has not quite reached a proper endpoint. That frustration is the beauty of this book. There is no neat and tidy ending to each character’s tale, just as there is no neat and tidy way to tie up our lives.

I cannot speak for the author, of course, but for me a good deal of this novel is about the beauty of human connection. Which, (surprise!) is well-expressed in food. The expression “food is love” didn’t come from nowhere. Wine, which has been my love language of late, ties into the story too.

You’ll read of goodies like tuna casserole and potatoes au gratin. These meals contrast greatly with the more haute cuisine Stradal details: fresh-caught walleye fish done up in duck fat and rosemary, for instance. And then there is the sometimes jarring mash-up of the high-brow with the low-brow. Such as a sommelier’s pairing of mac and cheese with Merlot. By the way, it is no longer unhip to drink merlot (thanks a lot for that Sideways). There are many respectable Mers on the lot. See what I did there? Sorry. I never can resist puns.

This book made me shiver in joy. It made me cry. It made me mad. And jealous. And then there is the food in it. The winningest of the recipes you’ll find in Stradal’s novel are in the chapter about bar cookies. Well, it is about the people making those cookies, but I have my priorities straight. And this column is about cookies, dang it. Chocolate and peanut butter is a combo I will never tire of, so I chose to share this easy recipe with y’all.

I’d recommend making these at least 4 hours before you need them, to let them set up. I brought them to a Halloween party last week and warned everyone of their addictive nature. They remind me of peanut butter cups but possibly even better than that. A friend said they reminded him a a Mexican candy he grew up with called mazapan, then gobbled down several. They are so quick and easy to make but the payoff far outweighs the effort. Make these cookies. You won’t regret it.

Pat Prager’s Bar Cookies adapted from Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

  • 2 1/2 cups crushed graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 cup melted Grade A butter (I wasn’t even aware butter had such a grading system!)
  • 1 cup peanut butter (I used Jif–I wouldn’t try this recipe with “natural” pb)
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 cup milk chocolate chips with 1 tsp. Grade A butter (I used Ghiridelli bittersweet chocolate chips because I’m a rule-breaker like that)

Mix the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, peanut butter and sugar. Pat into a greased 9×13-inch pan. Melt the chips and the butter and spread on top of the bars. Set in the refrigerator until firm. Cut into bars.

(Image via Ellen Clifford)

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