Food & Drink

Bringing together family, friends, co-workers to learn more cooking skills

Caramel Macchiato Christmas Cake 

Photo courtesy Nina Swan-Kohler
Caramel Macchiato Christmas Cake Photo courtesy Nina Swan-Kohler

Nina Swan-Kohler has worn many hats during her 30-year career in the cooking and food marketing industry, but her enthusiasm for her business — Cooking in the Kitchen with Nina — can’t be missed.

“I began doing cooking classes in my home in January 2006,” she said.

Small groups of up to 20 people come together to choose and prepare a menu — start to finish — with her experienced help and instruction. She oversees and guides the process, but it is the attendees who do the work — and have great fun at the same time they are learning a few new kitchen skills.

Individuals, couples and groups of family and friends often sign up to take one of her classes. Business teams and corporate groups are also a sizable part of her clientele.

Nina Swan-Kohler is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and it was at one of their meetings that she learned about the concept of team-building cooking classes.

“I came home and started putting my program together,” she said, adding that it took a bit for it to catch on. “I think people couldn’t wrap theirs heads around how cooking together could be a team-building event.”

But Swan-Kohler showed that it could, and has done many team-building sessions in the past decade for corporations such as Collins Aerospace, Yellow Book, Transamerica and John Deere. One of her groups had 50 participants, and she had to rent a facility in Iowa City to hold that session.

Swan-Kohler’s own time management and organizational skills shine in the preparation and intent of these classes. She not only plans the menus her clients get to choose from, but she does all the grocery shopping, table/theme set-up and decorating, as well as cleanup when sessions are over.


“I take the program very seriously,” she said, “to make sure we are accomplishing some true team-building activities — not just cooking — but what are we learning by cooking together, doing something completely different than what they do in their real-life jobs.”

Before the work gets underway, she has the participants take part in an introductory time where they are asked to share a little bit about themselves, their family, and so forth.

“It’s amazing how much people learn about each other when we do this,” she said, “because I’m not sure that is always encouraged at work or there is no opportunity for it.”

She believes discovering some of the commonalities that people share can help build better relationships in the work world.

A company group is broken up into teams: one team will prepare the appetizer and dessert. Another team will do the soup/salad course, while the next team prepares the entree and side dishes. Names are drawn to mix up the hierarchy, as it were.

“It is luck of the draw,” she said, “because sometimes the person who might be the boss at work is the lowest person on the totem pole and vice versa. This can be a good learning opportunity for the managers to watch how some of their people handle themselves in a new situation.”

Each team chooses its “top chef,” who receives a chef’s hat, and they are handed their recipes to prepare. Swan-Kohler gives the group some introductory instructions to be sure they all know how to measure wet and dry ingredients properly — “A lot of people do not know this.”

If any special technique is needed, like how to cut a mango or chop an onion, she demonstrates it, and then the teams begin their assigned task.


“They have everything they need to make their recipes,” she said, “and I turn them loose and go from team to team throughout their 75-minutes allotted time to offer guidance, if needed.”

Time-management skills are figured into Swan-Kohler’s team-building culinary experience as well. Appetizers get 10 minutes to be enjoyed at the table with the whole group, before plates are cleared away, and then the soup/salad team needs to be ready to serve. The entree/side dish team might have to be up and away from the table to monitor their dishes, but overall, the whole group is expected to dine together.

“Maybe the dessert that night is chocolate molten cake,” she said, “so that team has to calculate the appropriate timing as to when to put it into the oven so that it’s ready after the entree is served and eaten.”

She shows each team how to properly serve their dish, just like in a restaurant, and then she asks the team to make a small presentation of their dish as they serve it.

“I encourage them to make a big deal out of this,” she said. “I want them to talk about what they made and what they learned while doing it.”

After coffee has been served and the meal is over, she has the group members fill out individual questionnaires.

“The questions are extremely simple, and some of them make you think about what did you learn from this whole experience that you can apply to your real job,” she said. “What kinds of things did you learn about each other that you didn’t know before?

“And then I lead them in a discussion, and that is the part of this job that makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something with these cooking classes,” she said. “I love, love, love doing them.”


Swan-Kohler also loves teaching kids how to cook, and holds cooking camps throughout the summer months, offering a wide variety of fun menus.

“The kids do it all,” she said, “they crack the eggs or they separate the eggs or they brown the ground beef, if that’s what we’re serving.”

In November and early December, she’ll host an open house, reservations requested, for the public to come shop the kitchen boutique in her basement, peruse and purchase from a wide variety of homemade cookies, soups and bread mixes she assembles in her kitchen — and enjoy free foods she’ll prepare for the event, demonstrating her own culinary style and skill.

Learn more online at or call (319) 393-7675.

Hearty Beef and Beans Casserole with Bacon Biscuits

1 1/2 lb. lean ground beef

1 cup chopped onions (1 medium onion)

1 package (1.16 oz.) brown gravy mix (Pioneer Brand)

1 1/4 cups brewed coffee (cooled to room temperature) or water

1 can (15 or 16 oz.) pork and beans (undrained)

1 can (15 or 16 oz.) red kidney beans (drained)

1 can (15 or 16 oz.) navy beans (drained)

1/2 cup ketchup

3 tablespoons packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Bacon Biscuits:

3 cups baking mix (Pioneer Brand)

1 cup sour cream

1/2 cup milk

1 tablespoon butter, melted

6 slices bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled

1 cup finely shredded Cheddar cheese (4 oz.)

In large 12-inch cast-iron skillet*, cook and stir beef and onions until beef is brown and onions are translucent. Dissolve gravy mix in coffee; add to beef mixture. Heat to boiling. Cook over medium heat for 2 minutes or until thickened. Stir in remaining ingredients except biscuits, heat through. Remove from heat. Preheat oven to 400º F. Measure baking mix into medium mixing bowl; set aside. Stir together sour cream and milk; add to baking mix. Stir until dough forms a ball. Turn out onto surface dusted with flour. Knead 7 to 10 times. Roll out to 12x8-inch rectangle. Spread top with butter. Sprinkle with bacon and cheese. Beginning at one long side, roll up dough (jellyroll style). Cut into 1-inch slices, place over beef and bean mixture. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until biscuits are golden brown. Make 8 to 10 servings.

*If you do not have a cast-iron skillet, cook beef mixture in 12-inch skillet, then transfer to 13x9x2-inch baking dish that has been coated with cooking spray. Top with biscuits and bake as directed.

Helpful Tip: When measuring baking mix, gently spoon mix into nested (dry) measuring cup/s. Using a metal spatula or straight-edged knife, level off the top.

Caramel Macchiato Christmas Cake

Caramel Sauce:

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup butter

3 tablespoons light corn syrup

1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla


2 cups cake flour

2 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup buttermilk

2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup boiling water*

1/4 cup (half stick) butter

3/4 cup unsweetened baking cocoa, sifted

1 teaspoon instant coffee or espresso powder (dry)*


1 cup heavy whipping cream

Spray two 9-inch round or two 8-inch square baking pans with non-stick cooking spray. Line pans with parchment paper (bottom only); spray parchment paper with cooking spray. Set pans aside. Caramel Sauce: Combine brown sugar, 1/3 cup butter and corn syrup in 2-quart microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 3 minutes, stirring every minute. Stir in cream; microwave on high for 1 minute. Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla. Reserve 1 cup caramel sauce; set aside. Divide remaining caramel sauce between prepared pans. Chill in refrigerator 5 to 10 minutes. Cake: Preheat oven to 350º. In mixer bowl, combine flour, granulated sugar, baking soda and salt. Add buttermilk, eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla; beat 2 minutes on medium speed. Meanwhile, combine water and 1/4 cup butter in microwave-safe bowl: microwave on high for 2 minutes or until boiling. Stir in cocoa and coffee until blended; add to batter and stir to combine (batter will be thin). Remove baking pans from refrigerator; pour batter into pans. Bake at 350º for 25 to 30 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool on wire rack for 4 to 5 minutes. Invert onto rack to cool completely. Frosting: In mixer bowl, beat cream until soft peaks form. With rubber spatula, fold in reserved 1 cup caramel sauce. To assemble: Place one cake layer on platter; spread with half of frosting. Place second layer on top of frosting; spread with remaining frosting. Garnish with chocolate-covered coffee beans, if desired. Makes 16 servings.

*You can substitute hot brewed coffee for the boiling water and the instant coffee.

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