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Coconut Cream Pie Bars

Coconut Cream Pie Bars conjure up State Fair memories

August has officially arrived here in Iowa which for our family means a lively experience at the Iowa State Fair, 3-on-3 basketball and back-to-school.

We've enjoyed watching the show pigs we've sold to local 4-H and FFA youth at their county fairs and I am so proud of the dedication of those families. Less than 2% of the current population farms, but children from all kinds of backgrounds have the opportunity to gain a wealth of knowledge about agriculture through programs with 4-H and FFA. I'm a proud 4-H alum with somewhat of a "different" introduction to my 4-H journey than some may assume.

I did grow up on a farm, but we didn't show livestock. My 4-H experience began when I attended a local 4-H meeting with my cousins. At the meeting, they gave a presentation on how to best care for their family dog, and they brought theirs along to use as an example. I was nervous for them at the time because I was certain Babe, their perfectly behaved yellow Labrador retriever, would create some kind of mischief. Well, Babe was on her best behavior that evening and I became inspired to go home and teach my insanely energetic black Labrador retriever, Bailey, how to behave so we could enter the 4-H show at the Jasper County Fair.

We attended weekly dog training sessions and let's just say I gained a lifetime's worth of patience as a 10-year-old, training my easily distracted 2-year-old pup. The county fair came that year, and the hard work paid off with a few blue ribbons and a dog that wouldn't run the postman over accidentally in her excitement. 4-H and FFA projects are great experiences that are not only fun, but provide skills that last a lifetime.

In my late 20's, I began entering food competitions at the Iowa State Fair. I entered with success for about five years and then hung up my apron so I could spend the last few days of summer with my children before they went back to school, rather than spending them furiously drafting new recipes and running back and forth from the fair with freshly baked entries in tow. Once I decided to call it quits, the superintendent of the food department at the Iowa State Fair asked me to judge some competitions, to which I excitedly agreed.

My first day on the job was the most interesting to-date. I was one of six judges selected to tackle the 20-some odd classes in the Iowa Machine Shed Pies competition. I walked into the Elwell Family Food Building at the Iowa State Fair that warm August morning with a pep in my step and an extra empty stomach, in preparation of all the pie I'd be enjoying. The competition started off in slam-dunk fashion, as I was given coconut cream as my first pie class to judge. There were about 15 entries. Coconut cream pie is near and dear to me, as it was my Grandpa Gerald's favorite pie and we shared many slices together when I was a little tyke, before he passed. It is also apparently in my DNA to eat entirely too much coconut cream pie, so instead of taking bites of each entry, I was indulging in half-slices! To make it through the rest of the judging ahead that day, I had to apply the standard "1-Bite Rule" in judging further classes.

The exceptional items get tasted multiple times, but all items get tasted at least once. Starting off the day with an empty, growling stomach and gorgeous coconut cream pies was a task, and one I learned a lot from. I navigated through triple cherry, blueberry, pear, custard and came upon the last class of the day that needed judging: mincemeat. Luckily for me, a mincemeat pie expert had just rounded out her final class of the day and was eager to take on the remaining judging opportunity.

I waited for the final judging, where all of the top entries are taken behind the curtain and judged by all of the judges to crown the overall champion pie of the entire day. The best coconut cream pie I had judged earlier that day happened to win top honors. This isn't the prize winning recipe, but anytime I bring Coconut Cream Pie Bars to a potluck, everyone seems happy and they disappear fast!

Coconut Cream Pie Bars

By: Cristen    www.foodandswine.com

Makes: 1 9x13 dessert

Ingredients

For the custard:

1 1/3 cup sugar

7 TBSP cornstarch

4 cups whole milk

6 egg yolks beaten

2 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

2 TBSP butter

1 pinch of salt

1 1/2 cups toasted coconut*

For the crust:

2 cups of vanilla wafer crumbs

1/4 cup toasted coconut*

1 stick salted butter melted

1/4 cup sugar

For the cream cheese layer:

2 eight ounce blocks of regular cream cheese at room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

3 TBSP AE Dairy Whole Milk

For the whipped cream topping:

1 1/2 cups AE Dairy Heavy Whipping Cream

1/2 cup powdered sugar sifted

1 TBSP sour cream

1 tsp vanilla extract

For garnish:

3/4 cup toasted coconut*

Instructions

To prepare the toasted coconut:

Bake regular sweetened flaked coconut at 350 F on a sheet tray until golden brown (7-10 mins). Do not leave unattended, coconut can burn quickly.

To prepare the custard:

In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and cornstarch. Add milk gradually, stir until smooth. Cook over medium heat until thick. Temper egg yolks (bring them up to a warmer temperature) by adding some of the hot mixture to the egg yolks and mixing at the same time. Blend well and add egg yolks to hot mixture slowly, and off the heat. Cook until thickened (10 min-12 min simmering) and remove from heat.

TIP: Dip the back of a spoon in the mixture, draw a horizontal line in mixture over coated spoon. Mixture should not run together where you drew your finger across. Add vanilla, butter and salt. Add toasted coconut. Stir well. Let cool completely, 30 minutes. Chill until ready to assemble.

To prepare the crust:

Combine wafer crumbs, toasted coconut, melted butter and sugar until evenly mixed. Press into 9x13 pan. Chill while assembling remaining components of dessert.

To prepare the cream cheese layer:

Beat cream cheese, sugar and milk together until smooth. Set aside.

To prepare the whipped cream topping:

--Wait to do this step until immediately prior to assembling the dessert, otherwise whipped cream may deflate.

In a medium mixing bowl whip the cream, powdered sugar, sour cream and vanilla together until stiff peaks hold. Keep chilled.

Coconut Cream Pie Bars ASSEMBLY:

On top of crumb crust, spread cream cheese mixture evenly. Spoon chilled coconut custard onto cream cheese layer. Chill for 30 minutes. Whip the cream mixture and spoon on top of dessert, spreading evenly. Chill for at least 1-2 hours to 'set' the dessert so you can cut into squares nicely. Top with additional toasted coconut for garnish.

Notes

If you can chill the dessert for 4 hours or even overnight, that's better! Make this dessert ahead for great results and less to do on the big day! Easy Way Out: Swap the custard for 2 packages of prepared vanilla pudding, swap the real whipped cream for 2 containers of cool whip. It won't be as amazing, but it will certainly be delicious. No Coconut or Dislike Coconut? Try omitting the coconut from the recipe all together. Swap in 3 sliced bananas into the vanilla custard base instead. Garnish with vanilla wafer cookie crumbs.

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