By Ann Thelen
Growing up on a farm in Humboldt County, Louise Piper fell in love with cooking at an early age.
As an only child, she fondly recalls spending her days in the kitchen, working side-by-side with her mom. Together, they cooked meals for the family, baked pies and dinner rolls, and canned jams and jellies. Being part of a farming family meant that when her dad and his brothers came in from picking corn or baling hay, they were ready for a hearty meal.
“Mom loved trying new recipes, and she took pride in providing plentiful and good meals on the farm,” Louise says. “Not only did she want her food to taste delicious, but she wanted it to look as good as it tasted. She instilled in me a love for fresh food and encouraged me to try new things as I learned to cook, bake and can.”
Today, it’s nearly impossible to find a day when Louise isn’t in her kitchen canning her award-winning jams or baking pies and quick breads. Ninety-five percent of the food she makes goes out the door to events, church activities, friends and family.
County and State Fair season are her favorite times of the year, and she enters foods by the dozens. She’s been competing in fair competitions since 1982, and it’s not unusual for her to enter 60-80 items every year. She has won so many ribbons that she has lost track of the exact number, but knows it’s somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000.
You won’t find all of the recipes she uses in a cookbook, as her passion is to be creative with her beautiful and mouth-watering recipes.
“We eat with our eyes, first,” Louise says. “It’s just as important to make food visually appealing as it is to make it taste good.”
For Louise, a retired mother of three who spent her career as a nurse, her recipes combine perfection and a little bit of science. She keeps detailed records in a lined notebook of the recipes she’s made. If something isn’t good enough to be entered into a competition, it’s usually due to eye appeal, she says. While it may be delicious, it’s also judged by how it looks.
Louise graciously spent some time with the Iowa Food & Family Project, sharing some of her secrets to success at fair competitions. Before our conversation, the 77-year-old competitor had just finished jams for this year’s Iowa State Fair and baking a batch of one of her famous quick breads.
What do you love most about cooking?
There is absolutely nothing better than cooking with homegrown food. When I’m canning one of my red raspberry jams or making pickles, I only use local, fresh ingredients – ones that are picked the day or day before I want to use them. There’s an old saying – 24 hours from vine to brine – and it’s true!
Tell us some of your canning and baking favorites.
I have some favorites from decades ago, but am always trying new recipes. I love making Red Raspberry Plum and Red Raspberry Mango jams. I’m also having fun working with the stringent Aronia Berries. Quick breads, including my award-winning Wheat Zucchini Bread, which is featured below, consistently top my baking list and rank right up there with pies. Many of my favorite pies are the ones my late husband, Bruce Piper, loved the most – apple, pumpkin, coconut cream and banana cream. For more than a decade, I sponsored pie competitions at the Clay County Fair and Iowa State Fair in memory of Bruce. What a treat it was to select the flavor of the pie for each year’s competition!
Where do your best recipes come from?
Oh, I read so many cookbooks, and then I often add my own touch to the recipe! Some of my favorite cookbooks are the Blue Ribbon Country Cookbook by Diane Roupe, Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, Blue Ribbon Canning: Award-Winning Recipes by Linda Amendt, the Farm Journal cookbooks and Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie by Ken Haedrich. I also enjoy following Ina Garten, Ree Drummond and Giada De Laurentiis. Of course, Iowa has some of the world’s best cooks, flavors and ingredients, so I rarely miss an episode of Iowa Ingredient on Iowa Public Television.
Take a few moments this summer to enjoy a special treat by mixing up one of Louise’s favorite (and award-winning) recipes!
Blue Ribbon-Winning Wheat Zucchini Bread
Yield: Three loaves
Recipe from Louise Piper, Garner
1 cup soybean oil
2 cups sugar
3 cups unpeeled, shredded zucchini (seeds out)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 ⅓ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon cloves
¾ cup raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts (toasted)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease the corners of three 7-inch by 3-inch metal loaf pans and line with wax paper. Let the wax paper hang over the edges of each pan for easy removal of the baked loaf. Set aside.
Place the walnuts on a cookie sheet and toast at 350 degrees for 4 minutes. Watch carefully, and do not overbake. Let cool.
Mix soybean oil and sugar well with a mixer in a large bowl. Add zucchini, eggs and vanilla.
In a separate bowl, mix together the wheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking soda, salt, baking powder, cinnamon and cloves. Gradually add to the wet mixture. Stir in raisins and walnuts.
Pour mixture evenly into the three pans. Bake loaves at 350 degrees for 45 minutes on middle oven rack. Remove from oven, and let cool for 10 minutes on a cooling rack. Gently lift wax paper and loaf out of pan.