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Artist spaces: Baking up delicious cookies, stories

Bea Ojakangas pulls out a batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies from her oven. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 8
This cake, created by Bea Ojakangas, was inspired by a scalloped pan from Nordic Ware. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 8
Bea Ojakangas stands in the opening to the sunroom, a casual eating space off her kitchen where she can seat at least a dozen guests. Bob King / 3 / 8
"They accumulate," said Bea Ojakangas of the many baskets she has hanging from the ceiling in the living area near the kitchen of her home. She uses them for hauling food to various events. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 8
The library in Bea Ojakangas' study fills an entire wall and then some. Most of the tomes are cookbooks. To reach them, she uses a moveable ladder. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 8
This is the view from the central staircase in Bea Ojakangas' home leading to the upstairs bedrooms. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 8
A winding staircase leads to a loft in a kid's bedroom at the home of Bea and Dick Ojakangas. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com7 / 8
This vintage L. C. Smith typewriter was Bea Ojakangas' first. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com8 / 8

If you’re lucky, Beatrice Ojakangas will pull from her freezer a sheet filled with 77 frozen rounds of chocolate chip cookie dough, drop a dozen or so onto a cookie sheet and slide them into the top of her double-decker oven. No timer required.

It’s a classic chocolate chip cookie recipe, with the addition of pecans or walnuts.

“Do chocolate chip cookies need something special?” she asked rhetorically, wrapped in an apron decorated with colorful fish — the one she wears for First Lutheran Church’s annual lutefisk dinner. Rather than measuring and mixing on demand, she has learned to keep frozen dough in her freezer alongside frozen bread.

“The thing is ... quite often I don’t know when I’m going to need to have cookies,” she said during a recent visit to her home on 50 acres in Gnesen Township.

As for the recipe, it’s no secret. It appears in a section alongside cookie baking tips in the prolific cookbook writer’s memoir “Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients from My Life in Food.” The book, published by the University of Minnesota Press, is now available.

The memoir opens with the story of the man her paternal grandmother didn’t marry and the tale of the time her mother was left for dead during the 1918 Cloquet fire. It ends with television appearances with Julia Child and Martha Stewart. In between are dozens of recipes and bite-sized stories ranging from family lore, to the building of a career in food, to the development of what would become a famous pizza roll.

Ojakangas said she has been working on the memoir for years.

“I’ve always felt that it was important to write some of these things down,” she said.

Ojakangas and her husband, Dick, have lived in a home custom-designed by her sister, an architect, for the past 38 years. The half-mile long driveway leads to the house, which is a mix of open spaces, unique bedroom and large south-facing windows. Years ago, they added an adjacent apartment where Ojakangas’ mother lived for a decade.

But most of the Finnish food writer’s time is spent in a relatively small space between her kitchen sink and the large kitchen island — an area familiar to fans of “Bea Ojakangas: Welcome to My Kitchen,” the PBS television series that was filmed in her home.

“This triangle is my work space,” she said. “If I put my apron on, I’m ready for work. If I don’t have an apron on, I don’t feel right. I spend most of my life in this triangle.”

Off of the kitchen is a long, thin rustic table with six chairs. Dozens of baskets hang from the ceiling, as much utility as decoration: This is how she transports baked goods. Along the south deck, there is a sunroom with a sliding door and three skylights. Three tables, each with four chairs, are decorated with the same floral tablecloth in different colors. It’s like a small cafe. Kitchen appliances line the shelves on the opposite wall, including a vintage glass jar for churning butter that is referenced in her recent book.

Up a few steps off the main room is an office with two desks and a 14-foot-tall wall filled with cookbooks and entertaining guides. The shelves are divided into categories like casseroles, cookies and cakes, international recipes and celebrity chefs. Among them: “Moosewood Restaurant’s Book of Desserts,” “Baking with Julia,” “Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs.”

Most of the bedrooms have a loft and ladder, and some have a sliding mirrored pane that opens to overlook the central staircase. At the home’s highest point is a cozy nook overlooking the Ojakangas’ land — including the garage where her husband, a geologist, keeps his rocks.

There used to be horses out there.

“I just love the scenery,” she said, looking out the window. “It’s changed over the past 38 years.”

Ojakangas’ first typewriter, an L.C. Smith she received as a gift from her parents, sits on an end table. A basket of magazines includes the November 1983 issue of Cuisine, which features the back of James Beard’s head on the cover

Ojakangas’ first foray into cooking, at age 5, resulted in a disaster she pleasantly refers to in the book as “Salt Cake.” She writes about performing cooking demonstrations at the Minnesota State Fair, her cheese bread invention won second prize at the Pillsbury Bake-Off, and how it took a few rounds with scones, flaky biscuits and fruit muffins before she learned she had married a “toast in the morning man.” 

She also quietly made a major contribution to the frozen food industry. While working in research and development for Jeno Paulucci’s locally based Chun King, Ojakangas developed the pizza-flavored egg rolls later known as Jeno’s Pizza Rolls — but was still denied a 25-cent raise.

She also quietly made a major contribution to the frozen food industry. While working in research and development for Jeno Paulucci’s locally based Chun King, Ojakangas developed the pizza-flavored egg rolls later known as Jeno’s Pizza Rolls — but was still denied a 25-cent raise. 

There are no hard feelings.

“There has never been a U-Haul behind a hearse,” she said. “I’ve always had enough.”

Ojakangas has published 29 cookbooks, starting with “Finnish Cookbook,” her favorite and her most popular. She’s written for major food publications like Gourmet magazine and Bon Appetit. Her column “The Liberated Cook” featuring recipes that centered on microwaves and food processors ran in the News Tribune.

About 17 years ago, the University of Minnesota Press published nine of her cookbooks, which had gone out of print.

“They are not just cookbooks,” said Erik Anderson, who edited “Homemade.” “They’re like mini cultural histories of her own life. She really writes herself and the heritage and history of food. We like books that tell the story of food. Bea’s books have been exemplary versions of that.”

“Homemade” has a family focus. She was the oldest of 10 children and knew her grandparents, though not all of her siblings did. And during the 10 years her mother was living with her, she learned previously untold tales.

“They are stories the family has wanted to know about,” she said. “Everyone sees the event a different way. That’s what makes a story their own. This is the way I saw it.”

It’s the family feel that appealed to the University of Minnesota Press, Anderson said.

“Peaches, she’s such a great storyteller,” he said, using Ojakangas’ longtime nickname. “Her story is just beautifully laden and latticed with food and with northern Minnesota at that time. We wanted her to tell those stories. For her to think back and say, ‘If I’m going to give you my life in food, this is what it looks like.’ It’s about family, community, making a life for herself as a woman.”

Ojakangas recently hosted a party for about 30 family members. It was a birthday party, she joked, for anyone who had celebrated a birthday in the past year. She served brisket cooked on the Big Green Egg grill, lots of bread, a salad of fresh tomatoes and dessert she planned to demonstrate baking at Norsk Hostfest, the Minot, N.D.-based Scandinavian festival where she was inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier this week.

She’s still creating new recipes, she said, and inspiration comes from an interesting source.

“If I see an interesting pan, I think, ‘I’d like to use that pan,’ ”

she said. A current favorite is Nordic Ware’s Celebration Layer Cake Pans, with scalloped edges.