If you're a fan of the Food Network, no doubt you're familiar with Ina Garten, aka Barefoot Contessa, who hosts a cooking show by the same name. Garten, a lovely lady who always has a countertop filled with wonderful treats, is soft-spoken, smiles easily and is known for her recipes that entice many to get out a bowl, a wooden spoon and turn on their ovens.
If you didn't know better, you might think you're meeting Garten when you walk into Karen Happ's Mendota kitchen. Like her famous cooking counterpart, Happ — a lovely lady in her own right who smiles easily and speaks softly (and who ironically resembles the well-defined Garten) — turns the chore of baking into an experience that makes you want to dive into the nearest cookbook and create a culinary masterpiece of your own.
Happ's kitchen — well, actually her entire home — smells of something wonderful baking in her oven. The former elementary school teacher, who recently retired after 30 years in the Mendota School District, moves around her kitchen with ease. From the counter ... to the cupboard ... to the oven ... and back ... she clearly knows her way around the kitchen, and the sweet treats she produces is proof of her culinary calling.
Happ grew up in rural Dimmick, and she credits her mother, Arlene Schmidt, for helping her develop her love of baking.
"I was always raised on home cooking," Happ said, as she placed Hershey kisses in the center of her well-known recipe for Peanut Butter Blossoms. "Once she (Schmidt) trusted me to use the oven, she always let me do the chocolate chip cookies."
Those early chocolate chip cookies have since turned into a myriad of cookie varieties and other baked goods that has turned Happ's reputation into being well known for her baking. She jokes that some of the teachers in the Mendota District refer to her as "Betty," a shortened version of the famous Betty Crocker.
While Happ makes a mountain of sweet sensations, she's probably best known for those chocolate chip cookies and her holiday cut-out cookies. Her secret? She doesn't hesitate when she reveals a good cookie is always made with Parkay margarine, and she just shrugs when she says she uses a standard Toll House cookie recipe.
If you saw Happ's collection of cookbooks, you'd understand why her countertop is more often than not filled with cookies. She has many favorite cookbooks, which hold many favorite recipes, however, she's not above trying some new recipes to share with family and friends. While she likes the Taste of Home cookbooks, an old cookbook from the First United Methodist Church in Mendota is nearly in shreds from all the use its gotten throughout the years.
"I like trying new recipes, but I have my regulars that I always resort to," she said, adding her husband, Joe, is more of a traditionalist when it comes to what he likes her to prepare.
Happ said her husband's large family and their potluck get-togethers has helped with her culinary expertise — since it seems as if there's always a reason to get together and bring a dish to pass. A common question at these gatherings include the family wondering what new dish Happ has brought this time. She also credits her mother-in-law, Ethel Happ, for giving her quite a few good pointers along the way.
"I've learned a lot from her," Happ said of her mother-in-law.
While Happ prefers baking over cooking, she said she'll try her hand at a variety of dishes, however, her least favorite thing to cook is vegetables. She also admits she likes to bake because she gets to sample her sweet treats during the process.
"I've always said (my family) is more apt to get a plate of cookies on the table rather than a meal," she said with a chuckle.
Happ's legendary baking is well-known throughout the area, and many folks pay her to make some of her goodies, especially for the holidays. She also enjoys sharing her results with family, friends, teachers and other events.
For years, Happ has been baking for her husband and three children — Christopher (Janelle) of rural Mendota, Emily of Princeton, and Michael, a student at Mendota High School — however, when that infrequent moment comes around where Happ just doesn't feel like firing up the oven, she does resort to an old standby ...
"These are the only (cookies) we ever buy," she said, pulling open a drawer and revealing a package of plain, old Oreo cookies.
But with all the sugary treats swirling through Happ's head, Mendota's own Barefoot Contessa probably doesn't resort to Oreos very often ...