Food & Drink

Family recipes, memories compiled in Cedar Rapids woman's cookbook

Cooking with heart and soul

Joanne Karns 

Joanne Karns Author

CEDAR RAPIDS — It took Joanne Karns 18 years to put together her cookbook “Comfort Food and All that Jazz.”

Karns, 86, grew up in Mount Vernon and studied home economics at Iowa State University. After a short stint in New York City, she raised four kids in Cedar Rapids. In the 1970s, she started Joanne’s Fine Fabrics, which was open for 16 years. She later worked for Skogman Realty for 20 years. After retiring, she decided to finish the recipe collection she’d been working on for years.

Some were recipes she’d made for her own family over the years, others were recipes she inherited. Part of the reason it took her so long to compile the book was that some of the family recipes required translation and interpretation.

“They came from my mother, from my aunt, from my grandmothers,” she said. “Some were simply lists of ingredients and you had to supply your own method.”

She recalled challenges like figuring out just how many vanilla wafers were in her Aunt Florence’s wafer cake. The recipe she had called for “two 10-cent boxes.” The cookies cost a bit more today.

Karns gave the cookbook the subhead “Old-World Sensations with a Contemporary Twist,” and included many Czech recipes from her grandmother, Anna Wolrab, whom she called Bubbi. There also are many original recipes.

“Cooking is so creative, and besides that, to be a good cook, you have to lick and taste to make sure the seasonings are correct,” Karns said.


The end product that she created is 462 pages of recipes, sprinkled with anecdotes, helpful hints and illustrations by her friend Lucy Taylor. Karns’ son Meredith helped her put the book together and publish it through Amazon, where it is available for sale.

“I felt I could add to the heritage of Eastern Iowa, as well as my family heritage,” she said.

She said she aimed for clarity in the cookbook’s instructions, recalling her own confusion when she was first learning to cook as a girl. She’d set out to make a cake and stumbled at the instruction to “cream butter and sugar.”

“I thought, ‘What in thunderation does ‘cream’ mean?’” she said.

She said her ultimate goal with the project was not to just pass on cake recipes or cooking terminology. It was to make sure her children and grandchildren and their children would have a way to remember her and the other family cooks who came before her. To her, food is a way to share something more than sustenance.

“If you’re sitting around the table with the cook and family and friends, and you’re having a good time, and you have comfort food she has made, you know you are loved,” she said.


Ambrosia cake

Part of the charm of this cake is the title; ambrosia is from Greek mythology and means “food of the gods.”

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups cake flour, sifted

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

20 ounces cherry pie filling, regular or no sugar added

1 1/2 cups crushed pineapple, undrained

1/3 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1/2 cup flaked coconut

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix butter and sugar until well creamed. Continue mixing and add eggs one at a time. Stir in pineapple and vanilla.


Sift flour, salt and baking soda together. Using a large spoon, add dry ingredients to wet ingredient mixture, stirring until well-blended. Set aside.

Spread cherry pie filling evenly on bottom of a well-greased, 9-by-9-inch metal pan. Spread cake batter evenly over the pie filling. Combine brown sugar, coconut and pecans. Spread evenly over the batter.

Bake for 45 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool slightly, turn cake upside down and serve warm. Garnish with whipped cream.

Vanilla Wafer Cake

This recipe is from Joanne Karns’ Aunt Florence, who baked it using a 10-cent box of vanilla wafers. Using vanilla wafers instead of flour makes this a fun and easy dessert.

1 cup butter

2 cups sugar

6 eggs

2 11-ounce boxes of vanilla wafers, crushed, or 2 cups crushed wafers

2 cups coconut

1 cup chopped English walnuts or pecans

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine butter and sugar until well creamed. Add eggs one at a time, mixing after each one. Stir in wafers, coconut, nuts, salt and mix well.

Bake in a greased and floured tube or Bundt pan for 1 hour. Cool for 10 minutes before removing it from the pan. Serve plain or with whipped cream.

Beef Stroganoff

This is a family favorite recipe, named for the Russian Count Pavel Aleksandrovich Stroganoff.

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

2 pounds 1/2-inch-thick sirloin steak, sliced into thin strips

2 medium onions, chopped

3 cups sliced mushrooms

8 ounces tomato sauce

1 tablespoon mustard

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 garlic clove, minced

8 ounces sour cream

In a heavy skillet, heat oil on high heat and saute the beef until rare, working in batches if necessary. Remove beef from the pan. Add butter, onions and mushrooms to skillet and saute until just tender. Add meat and collected juices back to skillet.

Stir in tomato sauce, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt and garlic. Heat to boiling, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in sour cream, being careful not to boil. Serve over noodles or rice.

T-bone steak with Mushrooms and Bourbon


Rib-eye steak, New York strip or top sirloin are all good choices. Grilling or broiling also are options, but frying produces a much richer sauce. Burgundy wine, beef broth or water may be used in place of bourbon for deglazing the skillet.

2 T-bone steaks, 1 inch-thick

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper, coarsely ground

2 teaspoons olive oil

1/2 to 3/4 cup sliced fresh mushrooms

1 large onion, sliced into 1/4 inch pieces

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons bourbon

Score the fat of the steaks, cutting to the flesh so the steak doesn’t curl. Do not trim off the fat. Salt and pepper each side of the steak and bring to room temperature.

Heat oil in a heavy cast iron skillet over high heat and add the steak. When it begins to brown, turn the heat to medium high, turn steaks over and continue cooking for 5 to 6 minutes. Check for desired doneness.

Remove the steak and let rest on a platter, covered with foil.

Add butter and mushrooms to hot pan and saute 1 to 2 minutes. Add onions and cook 1 to 2 minutes longer. Remove to a plate and set aside.

Deglaze the skillet; add bourbon and scrape skillet, stirring until all good bits are dislodged and liquid is reduced by half.

Return onions, mushrooms and steak juice to pan, cooking on high for another minute.

Place the steak on individual serving plates, pour the mushroom sauce over the top and serve with a pat of butter.

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