Just Add Coffee

Written by Lisa Holderness Brown
Photos by Duane Tinkey

Who could possibly have predicted the rise of our coffee-centric culture?
Starbucks lists 19,763 shops in 59 countries—the traditionally tea-sipping Chinese now wait in orderly queues for mocha lattes and muffins at any of 621 locations. Whether part of a chain or independently owned, coffeehouses have given people comfortable, appealing (if somewhat caffeinated) communal meeting places.

And, really, coffeehouses sprang up just in the nick of time. Gone are the days when my grandmother, Louise Holderness, of Cherokee, Iowa, kept something freshly baked and a hot pot of Folgers ready for her faithful drop-ins. They’d solve the world’s problems over her steaming cups. Today, Iowans can’t often depend on friendly kitchens like my grandmother’s, and armchair-strewn Starbucks shops don’t settle on small-town courthouse squares.

The good news is, independent coffeehouses are deliciously, fragrantly filling that void. Espressos and flavored brews banish the “Midwest-weak” coffee of previous decades, and many of the cinnamon rolls, scones and other treats these establishments serve are skillfully homemade.

Iowa’s coffeehouses tend to sustain circles of chatty, welcoming types. Whether you’re taking an Okoboji lake break or biking the Heritage Trail outside Dubuque, you’ll feel way more connected to your destination if you sit down with its residents for a cup of joe and a pastry. Here’s a look at six top coffeehouses you’ll find throughout the state. Bonus: Each has proudly supplied a signature recipe for a customer-pleasing treat.


Prairie Chick
Spirit Lake/Okoboji
Before opening Prairie Chick, owner Chris Murphy honed her baking abilities by selling her goods at the farmers market. Now, both year-round residents and summer vacationers come by for coffee at her percolating spot off U.S. Highway 71. Here, they’re snared by Murphy’s warm sticky rolls, Danish from her grandmother’s recipe, fruit tarts and spinach muffins (recipe below).

While you wait in line—and you will—you’ll find plenty of visual stimulation. Not only does Prairie Chick teem with locally made furniture and art, it also shares its space with Sleepy Eye Antiques. If you’re expecting a breakfast slice of quiche from Murphy’s secret recipe, you’ll probably need to relax until the next batch is ready: It’s spoken for as quickly as she can bake it. Or you might hit the water in the morning and opt for a savory flatbread or sandwich later in the day.
(2605 41st St. at U.S. Highway 71; 712.332.2040; prairiechick.com)

Spinach Muffins
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup milk
1 cup cottage cheese
3/4 cup shredded cheddar or mozzarella cheese
3 large eggs
2/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup pesto
1/2 cup marinated artichokes, drained and chopped
3 tablespoons dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained and chopped
1 10-ounce bag fresh spinach, stemmed and finely chopped
Shredded cheddar or mozzarella cheese
Cherry tomatoes, halved
Herb blend seasoning such as Tony Chachere’s Seasoning
Extra pesto for drizzling over muffins, if desired

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 12 2-1/2-inch muffin cups or line with paper bake cups. In a medium bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

In a large bowl whisk together milk, cottage cheese, 3/4 cup shredded cheddar or mozzarella, eggs, olive oil, 1/2 cup pesto, artichokes and dried tomatoes. Stir in spinach. Stir in dry ingredients just until combined. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, filling about half full. Top each muffin with about 1 tablespoon cheddar or mozzarella, a little pesto, a cherry tomato half, and a sprinkle of Cajun seasoning.

Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.


Jitterz coffeehouse, as owner Tanya Evans affectionately defines it, is a “community inside of a community.” It’s located downtown in a renovated 19th-century building with original hardwood floors. The fast-beating heart of Jitterz is its La Marzocco espresso machine, constantly kicking out espresso drinks, including the hugely popular butter pecan mocha and white toasted marshmallow latte. Even with all the mighty flavors in this drink, Evans insists you can taste every note of the espresso. (And if you want to see where Evans’ true passion lies, get her going on the subject of espresso.)

Jitterz staunchly maintains a buy-local policy, along with an effort to be as Earth-friendly and sustainable as possible. You can feel great about this place’s hormone-free milk, fair-trade coffee and recyclable cups—and maybe a tad less guilty about ordering the house-made Belgian waffle or a giant CinnaRoll (recipe follows).
(1073 Main St.; 563.557.3838)

Midwest Best Quick-rise CinnaRolls
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup butter, softened
3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1.25-ounce package (2 1/4 teaspoons) instant active dry yeast
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water
1 egg
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup chopped nuts such as walnuts or pecans and/or raisins (optional)
Powdered sugar or icing (optional)

In a small saucepan or microwave, heat the milk until it bubbles and is warm, about 120 degrees (not TOO warm!). Remove from heat and add 1/4 cup of the butter; stir until butter is melted. Let cool until lukewarm (about 5 minutes).

In a large mixing bowl, combine 2 1/4 cups of the flour, yeast, sugar and salt. Add water, egg and the lukewarm milk-butter mixture. Beat well. Add the remaining 1 cup of flour, a half cup at a time, stirring until dough has just pulled away from the sides of the bowl.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth (about 2 to 3 minutes). Cover dough with a damp cloth and let rest 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, for the filling, in a medium bowl, combine the brown sugar, cinnamon
and remaining 1/2 cup softened butter.

Roll out dough into a 12-by-9-inch rectangle. Spread brown sugar filling mixture over the dough rectangle. Sprinkle with the nuts or raisins, if desired.

Roll up the dough (starting at one of the 9-inch ends) and pinch the seams
together to seal in the filling. Slice carefully into 10 rolls, and place the rolls cut-side-up on a lightly greased baking sheet.*

Cover the rolls on the baking sheet and let them rise until doubled in size, about 30 minutes (or less if your kitchen is warm). Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Bake cinnamon rolls for 18 to 20 minutes, or until light golden brown. Serve warm, dusted with powdered sugar or drizzled with icing. Makes 10 large rolls.

*Tip: You can freeze the rolls at this point, and pull them out to thaw, rise and bake later on. You can bake or freeze as few or as many as you like at a time. Make sure you freeze them before you let them rise. After you thaw the rolls, allow them to rise for 30 minutes before continuing as directed.


Elly’s Tea and Coffee House
Elly Lloyd declares, “Life is too short for bad coffee.” Apparently she feels that way about her shop’s baked goods too—she’s known for her amazing scones, including raspberry white chocolate scones (recipe below). These taste best on Lloyd’s patio, overlooking the Mississippi River.

Elly’s Tea and Coffee House opened three years ago in this eastern Iowa town; it serves as a deli and ice cream shop, too. There’s always something exciting going on—not long ago, Lloyd packed her sunroom with a boisterous town meeting for visiting Republican candidates. Her best-selling drink? The Black Cat Frappacino, an energizing blend of sweetened condensed milk, coffee and espresso. (208 W. Second St.; 563.263.5043;

Raspberry White Chocolate Scones
4 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup cold heavy cream (whipping cream)
3/4 cup frozen raspberries
1/4 cup white chocolate pieces
1 egg, beaten (optional)
1 recipe raspberry icing

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt with an electric mixer on low. Beat in the cold butter on low speed until pea-size pieces form.

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and cream; quickly add to the flour-butter mixture. Fold the frozen raspberries and white chocolate pieces into the batter.

Dump the dough out onto a well-floured surface and be sure it is well combined. Flour hands and a rolling pin and roll the dough 3/4 inch thick. Cut into 12 to 16 pie-shaped wedges. Place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper. If desired, brush the tops with beaten egg. Makes 12 to 16 scones.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden on edges. Transfer to a wire rack; cool thoroughly. Drizzle with raspberry icing.

Raspberry Icing
1/4 cup frozen raspberries
2 tablespoons raspberry jam
1 cup powdered sugar

In a small glass bowl, combine raspberries and jam. Microwave on high for 30 seconds. Stir in powdered sugar until well combined.


Copper Cup
When the Copper Cup’s large roaster is blasting here, you can smell the addictive aroma of fresh coffee beans through the front door and on down historic Main Street. Believe me, it will lure you in. Once you’ve entered, powerless to resist, owner Mary Ann Miller and her daughter, Madison, will not only pour you their dark, magic potion; they’ll also feed you exceedingly well. Madison began baking alongside her grandmother and mother before she started first grade, and she capped off her years of training in culinary school. I ordered one of her cappuccino-chip muffins, which, though softball-sized, was gone by the time I’d finished my latté. Several varieties of quiche are rich, custardy and worth the splurge. If you say you want something lighter and look as if you mean it, Madison may recommend her dark chocolate espresso granola bars (recipe below).

Mary Ann was cautious about opening the Copper Cup because she was unsure that Cherokee could support an ambitious coffeehouse. After nine years, however, the place is going strong. It has hosted presidential candidates, musicians, artists, bridal and baby showers, and coffee-making classes. Set aside a few minutes here to browse the kitchen gadgets and gifts. (425 W. Main St.; 712.225.5287;

Dark Chocolate Espresso Granola Bars
1 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 scoops vanilla whey protein (about 1/3 cup)
1 tablespoon honey (preferably raw)
2 ounces dark chocolate-covered espresso beans (about 1/4 cup)
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan.
In a large bowl, stir all the ingredients together using a wooden spoon.
Spread evenly in prepared pan.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until set and a rich golden-brown color. Cool on a wire rack. Cut into 8 bars. Makes 8 servings.


Habitué Coffeehouse & Creperie
Le Mars
Founding a coffeehouse is one of the ways Cheryl Wells supports her town. When she and her husband, Mike (he’s president and CEO of Wells Enterprises Inc., which makes the famous Blue Bunny ice cream), concluded that Le Mars needed a handy spot where people of all ages could mingle, they started from the ground up. Their resulting 2-year-old building seems as if it’s been part of the streetscape for generations. Habitué has indeed become a favorite meeting place for locals, as well as for frequent visitors from Omaha, Minneapolis and Sioux Falls. If you ask these travelers, they’ll swear it’s worth their drive.

No surprise: You’ll find Blue Bunny ice cream here. However, that’s just the start of an extensive menu of homemade baked goods, savory dishes, box lunches and crepes, which are the house specialty. For a sure-fire winner, place your bet on the apple cinnamon crumb crepes (recipe below).
(108 Central Ave. N.E.; 712.546.4424;

Apple Cinnamon Crumb Crepes
At Habitué, the crepes are homemade and so is the caramel sauce. To simplify, we used purchased crepes and sauce.

1/4 cup butter
4 Fuji apples, cored, peeled and thinly sliced
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 of a recipe cinnamon-cream cheese filling (recipe right)
4 to 6 purchased crepes
1/4 to 1/2 of a recipe crumb topping (recipe right)
Whipped cream or whipped topping
Purchased caramel sauce or ice cream topping

For apple topping, in a large skillet melt the butter. Add the apples, brown sugar, lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon and allspice. Saute over medium heat for 10 minutes or until crisp-tender. Remove from heat; set aside.

To assemble each crepe, place 1 crepe on a plate. Spread with 2 tablespoons of the cinnamon-cream cheese filling. Starting at the bottom, fold sides over the center fan style (or in a flat cone shape). Top with about 1/3 cup of the apple topping. Sprinkle with about 2 tablespoons crumb topping. Garnish with whipped topping and drizzle with caramel sauce. Repeat with remaining crepes. Makes 4 to 6 dessert crepes.


Cinnamon-Cream Cheese Filling
In a large mixing bowl, beat 1/2 of an 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened. Beat in 1/4 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon with an electric mixer on medium speed until well combined. Fold in 1/2 of an 8-ounce tub whipped topping, thawed. Mix well; set aside. (Transfer any remaining filling to a covered container and refrigerate for up to 5 days. This makes a tasty dollop atop pound cake or fruit.)

Crumb Topping
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a food processor, combine 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup light brown sugar, 1/3 cup old-fashioned rolled oats, 6 tablespoons cold butter (cut up), 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Cover and process until mixture is crumbly with small chunks remaining. Line a baking sheet with a silicone liner or parchment paper. Spread mixture on prepared baking sheet and bake until crisp and golden. Cool completely; break into pieces. (Transfer any remaining topping to a covered container and store for up to 5 days. Sprinkle atop fruit or yogurt, or use as a topper for homemade muffins or fruit crisp.)

When Lisa Holderness Brown was in second grade, her home-economist mother gave her cooking lessons. She went on to win a hefty stack of fair ribbons for homemade fortune cookies and other food entries—all long before she ever deboned a rabbit or stuffed a squid at La Varenne Cooking School in France. Thousands of culinary adventures later, she still loves working as a food writer, editor and producer. Before starting her own business, Ginger Jam Communications Inc., Lisa served as food editor at Country Home magazine, Meredith Books and Better Homes and Gardens.

Savannah Montgomery prepared the recipes for this story’s photography. In 2010, she graduated from Des Moines Area Community College’s Iowa Culinary Institute with degrees in culinary arts and hotel/restaurant management. Three years ago she started a business, The Sweet Toothe, in Lenox, Iowa, focusing on desserts and pastries made from scratch. Says Montgomery, “My best seller would have to be my Brown Sugar Cheesecake with a Bourbon Peach Sauce.”


Cammie’s Place
Just off the main square in Pella, Cammie’s Place occupies an old livery stable. It’s a cozy assemblage of mismatched tables and chairs, and it provides a short breakfast and lunch menu. If you’re dead set on an espresso, head to either of two other coffeehouses within a block, Smokey Row Coffee Co. or the recently opened Brew Coffee House. But, please, skip your espresso for once and order Cammie’s fortifying dark-roast Maui Joe coffee instead—because there’s only one Cammie Rodriguez Nelson, and you should see her in action.

As Pella’s enthusiastic, self-appointed greeter, Cammie goes from table to table, making sure that anyone new feels at home. (For example, she serves as an interpreter for other Latinos who’ve moved to Pella.) The day I went to Cammie’s Place, both her 25-year-old son, Alex, and 18-year-old daughter, Angie, stopped by, and I had a conversation with a regular who was clearly a fan. So was I, after sampling the from-scratch sour crème raisin pie topped with meringue, and the three-layer carrot cake (recipe right). For traditionalists who eat lunch before their desserts, I recommend the Boricua (bo-ree-qua), a flatbread stuffed with pesto, chicken and cheese, with a glass of house-brewed mango iced tea.
(804 E. First St.; 641.628.1222; cammiesplace.com)

Carrot Cake
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups finely grated carrots
1 8-ounce can crushed
pineapple (drained)
1 3-1/2-ounce can flaked
coconut (optional)
1 recipe cream cheese frosting
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour three 9-inch round cake pans.
Mix dry ingredients together. Add eggs, oil, carrots, pineapple and coconut, stirring to mix well. Pour batter into the prepared pans.
Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Transfer pans to wire racks; cool 10 minutes. Turn cake layers out onto the racks and cool thoroughly.
Let cool in pans 5 minutes. Turn out on racks and cool thoroughly. When cool, frost with cream cheese frosting. If desired, sprinkle the top with nuts.

Cream Cheese Frosting
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 pound powdered sugar, sifted

In a large mixing bowl, beat butter, cream cheese and vanilla with an electric mixer until combined. Beat in powdered sugar until well combined.

For additional caffeine fuel-ups across Iowa, check out these reliable spots:

Cafe Milo

4800 Mortensen Road, Suite 101
515.268.3166, cafemilo.com
Here, you’ve got to experience the
Throwback (espresso, vanilla, and cream in an espresso shot glass).

Mud on Main

112 1/2 Main St.
712.434.2640, mudonmain.com
Commit to the Monte Cristo sandwich—a feast fit for Elvis—or nibble genteelly on homemade biscotti.

Diggers Rest Coffeehouse and Roaster

314 Jefferson St.
Diggers’ healthy “breakfast in a glass” mixes fruit, yogurt, oats and protein powder.


Make a beeline for the homemade bread pudding and chocolate cake. Then return in the evening for dinner and live music at the lower-level Undergrounded bar.

Clear Lake
Cabin Coffee Co.

303 Main Ave.
As of this writing, this purposely rustic franchise had six other locations in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Magpie Coffeehouse

188 Winnebago St.
Roll in here for a classic farm-country breakfast. One big seller: Uncle Bill’s Favorite (biscuits and house-made gravy, with scrambled eggs and a choice
of meats).

Des Moines
Ritual Café

1301 Locust St.
Impress your friends with your flair
for the exotic: Ask for the horchata
latté (espresso and milk with almond, vanilla and cinnamon).

Café Paradiso

101 N. Main St.
641.472.0856, cafeparadiso.net
Remember to time your arrival for a Saturday or Sunday brunch.

Fort Madison
Ivy Bake Shoppe & Café

622 Seventh St.
Truthfully, the Ivy is a bakery that serves coffee. Still, it’s a must when in Fort Madison. (There’s also one in Burlington.)

Holy Grounds Coffee Shop

701 N. C St. (in Smith Chapel at Simpson College)
As a student-run business at Simpson College, it’s inevitably a morning cluster of deep yawns and bed-head.

Iowa City
Prairie Lights

15 S. Dubuque St.
319.337.2681, prairielights.com
The renowned bookstore brews Stumptown single-origin coffee to sip while you browse the intelligently stocked shelves.


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