Winter's Table with Amy Thielen | Midwest Living

Winter's Table with Amy Thielen

Reflecting on a winter's day of cooking in far-north Minnesota, "Heartland Table" star Amy Thielen shares dishes that show why the Midwest will always be home.
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    Amy in her sunny kitchen.
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    When Amy Thielen and her husband, Aaron Spangler, moved back to northern Minnesota with their son, Hank, in 2008, they settled in a tiny, rustic cabin Aaron had built in the woods when he was 25. They’ve since built an addition (and indulged in modern plumbing).
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    Amy writes, "The cold casts the world outside in glitter."
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    A petite stove at the heart of the cabin burns through the winter, heating the main room and providing a glowing spot to thaw fingers and toes.
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    Amy works in her kitchen.
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    Pillowy Morning Buns, inspired by the original Brittany Buns from Madison, Wisconsin, need no caramel or pecans. They’re perfect in their buttery, sugar-crusted simplicity. For recipe, see link at end of story.
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    Amy is a passionate advocate for Minnesota wild rice, which grows in the creek bed behind their home. When the grains pop and curl in the pot, she knows it’s done. For a hearty breakfast, serve steaming wild rice topped with toasted pecans, maple syrup, milk or half-and-half, and a pat of melty butter. For recipes, see link at end of story.
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    Birch and pine frame Amy and Aaron’s summer vegetable plot. Wild rice plants lay dormant under the snow in the wetland beyond.
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    Chickadees and downy woodpeckers find a winter buffet on the compost heap.
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    Rosemary and slow-cooked onion yield a savory-sweet base for Chicken Paprikash. For recipe, see link at end of story.
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    Dinner with a cookbook author looks comfortingly like mealtime in any family’s home; Hank takes his noodles plain before racing back to his room to play.
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    The cabin, filled with friends’ artwork and treasured knickknacks, seems to breathe stories from every floor crack and knothole.
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    Amy's nutmeggy Old-Fashioned Potato Doughnuts follow her grandmother's farmhouse recipe, but instead of powdered sugar, she tops them with vanilla-coffee icing. For recipe, see link at end of story.
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    A sign Aaron created in his studio greets visitors with the cabin’s name.
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    Hank tests the flavor of fresh February snow.
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    Pan-Roasted Cauliflower with Salt Pork and Capers, one of Amy's lunch favorites. For recipe, see link at end of story.
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    Aaron harvests wood for the stove (and, sometimes, for his artwork) on the 150-acre property
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    Rich cream sauce stands in for canned soup in Amy’s spin on Classic Chicken and Wild Rice Hotdish. For recipe, see link at end of story.
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    Amy’s crowded cookbook library and Aaron’s guitar enjoy pride of place in the dining room.
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    Winner of a 2014 James Beard Award, The New Midwestern Table (Clarkson Potter, $35) is a heartfelt celebration of our region’s food and laced with photos and thoughtful essays.

Sometime around the first of the year, winter comes to stay in northern Minnesota. It stops prancing around the pillow and finally fluffs its duff down on top of us, like a dog taking its sweet time to settle in for the night. The cold casts the world outside in glitter and freezes the spears of wild rice stiff out on the creek behind my house. It immobilizes everything but the compost heap, which becomes a lifeline between my kitchen and the outside world. (The heap’s shrill guardians, the red squirrels, patrol from above as the animal kingdom feasts on my prime leftovers.)

This stillness is winter’s gift to the cook, and one of the reasons I moved back home from New York City:  In our house out in the Two Inlets State Forest, the snowdrifts may shape-shift a bit, but few big changes register outside. The kitchen, and the people in it, marks the center of the world, and I find myself with time to plumb the depths of comfort cooking. Every day brings the question: What do I want to make?

At this moment, the bus has left, taking our son, Hank, to school; and my husband, Aaron, has walked across the yard to work in his sculpture studio. The first fire of the morning is dying down in the wood stove in the center of the room, the logs ticking and sinking into their bed of coals. The pop of an exploding ember is the signal I seem to be waiting for. I flip the oven dial to start the oven, not so much caring at which temperature it lands. That roulette swing of the oven knob is a habit left over from many years cooking professionally in Minneapolis and New York; get the thing hot, worry about exact temperature later.

My childhood memories of eating warm baked goods on arctic mornings have stuck with me for years, so I’m baking something to insulate us from the wind, when we do venture out. For this, any brown crust will do. The important thing is to bake it to a strong, deep amber color, the shade of brown that tells me that the butter and flour have mated and that the sweetest parts of both have found each other and caramelized.

For today’s baking project, I settle on morning buns. They’re a new crush for me, a recipe I picked up on a visit to Madison, Wisconsin. I knead the yellow dough until the bonds of gluten begin to engage and hold onto each other, padding the dough with a few extra gobs of butter to ensure a flaky, moist heart. When the soft dough no longer sticks to my hands, I cover it with a towel and set it to rise in the warmest place in the house—the foot of the wood stove.

Morning buns are as rich as a good French brioche, with crusty edges from baking in a muffin cup and a crunchy coating of cinnamon-sugar. Sort of a mash-up of a caramel roll and a sugar-coated doughnut, the morning bun has ruined my previous love for regular old glossy caramel rolls, which I now feel compelled to roll in sparkly sugar, too. When the buns come out, Aaron comes in, hanging his coat for a coffee break.

I decide to take advantage of the already-humming oven and slide in a hotdish for dinner later. We Minnesotans may say a few things wrong (soda instead of pop, OK, fine), but hotdish we get right. Call it a stodgy “casserole” somewhere else. In the upper Midwest, we embrace the heat. A good hotdish is lava-like, more molten than solid, with a brazen, bubbling core that warms you through and through.

No matter which hotdish you make (as with pop music, familiarity means a lot), everyone knows that the love is textural. In my favorite chicken and wild rice hotdish, the meat is juicy, its sauce bound up with taupe pearls of wood-parched wild rice—the real kind, smoky and light, harvested from local lakes. As for the topping, after some misguided fancy pants experimentation, I landed right back in the place my mother stood 30 years ago: the cracker aisle in the grocery store in Park Rapids. Fight any all-natural urges you might have; Ritz, in their familiar red box, make a peerless crust that rides like a crest on every bite and never fails to bring me home, no matter how far I’ve ranged. 

See Amy's recipes.

Get more information on The New Midwestern Table.

See more of our photo shoot at Amy's house and hear her take on the Midwest's food heritage.


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