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Baking with aronia

By Staff | Apr 20, 2012

Mike and Mary Mathiasen stand beside one of the 1,000 aronia bushes they are growing on their acreage in rural Warren County. They expect to harvest about 25 pounds per bush in late August.


Farm News staff writer

ST. CHARLES-When Mike Mathiasen joined his wife, Mary, in retirement, he figured he’d enjoy himself with the typical retiree activities like golf, fishing and visiting family.

But when those activities started to lose their appeal after just a few weeks, he longed to do something productive again.

“I needed to do something,” Mathiasen said. “It’s nice to have a vacation for awhile and then you need to get busy again.”

Mary Mathiasen has learned to bake with aronia berries after she and her husband, Mike, started growing the bushes. She is shown with aronia banana bread, one of her favorites.

That’s when the Mathiasens joined the ranks of Iowa growers producing one of the true “super” foods of the world – aronia berries.

The aronia bush is a native Iowa plant that produces tart berries that lack the sweet appeal of raspberries or strawberries, but pack a wallop when it comes to nutrition by offering more antioxidants per serving than any other fruit.

The aronia bush grows a round, pea-sized deep purple berry that hangs in clusters of up to 12 berries, according to a release from Iowa State University Extension. The berries are harvested after they ripen in late August or early September.

The Mathiasens learned about aronia from Sawmill Valley, located in western Iowa’s Loess Hills, as well as from friends, and decided to grow the bushes on their acreage in rural Warren County. In May 2010, they planted about 1,000 aronia sprigs of about 8 to 10 inches tall. By the summer of last year, the plants grew to 30 inches high.

Because the bushes do not typically bear fruit until the third growing season, the Mathiasens aren’t expecting their first full crop until August or September. This year, they expect to harvest 25 to 35 pounds per bush and anticipate selling the berries through a new food cooperative in West Des Moines, which opened around Labor Day of 2011.

While the couple is pleased with the decision and enjoy having a project they work on together, the summers of 2010 and 2011 were much more work than they anticipated.

“We golfed more when we both worked than we do now,” said Mathiasen said, who retired from Wells Fargo.

“We both worked hard last year,” said Mary Mathiasen, a retired nurse. “Growing aronia – it’s a lot of physical labor.” Much of the work involved weeding, because, like most aronia growers, the Mathiasens are following an organic production model, so no herbicides or pesticides can be used.

Eventually, the work will lessen.

“As the plants get bigger, they shade out the weeds so it’s not quite as much work,” Mary Mathiasen said.

In fact, the weeding got easier in the second year, because Mike mowed the weeds between the rows. Because aronia are a native plant, it has few pest problems, the Matthiasens said.

Well, they’ve had few pest problems from insects; but some of the mammals are a different story. They erected an electrified fence to keep the plentiful deer away from the two acres of aronia bushes and the vegetable gardens. Natural predators like owls and hawks have kept the rabbit population in check.

The aronia bushes have produced relatively few berries so far, from a commercial viewpoint. But there’s plenty of berries for Mary Mathiasen to cook with.

“We have them every morning and I bake with them all the time,” she said. “They’re real tart. I guess it’s an acquired taste. I like them. They’re kind of like cranberries.”

Mathiasen cooks and bakes with aronia berries as often as she can.

“I love to cook, but I don’t do as much since the kids have grown.” she said.

Baking aronia banana bread is a favorite, both personally and from those she shares her goodies with. “I get rave reviews. It’s just kind of a different texture, it’s more of a juicy texture and it adds a little bit of flavor to it.”

Mathiasen said she enjoys spoiling her two dogs with aronia dog cookies made especially for a their diets, which means avoiding chocolate, which dogs cannot tolerate. She started the dog treats after receiving a recipe from a friend. “The dog’s just love them.”

So, how often do her English spaniel and cavashon get to indulge?

“Twice a day if they’re good. They’re spoiled rotten,” she said.

Applesauce-aronia bread

Cook time: 2 hours in bundt pan.

Prep Time: 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

1 cup butter, room temperature

2 cups sugar or 3/4 cup Stevia

3 cups applesauce, unsweetened

4 teaspoons baking soda

3 1/2 cups all purpose flour

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1 egg, well beaten

1 cup aronia berries, thawed

1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Spray bundt pan with cooking spray for baking.

Cream butter and sugar.

Sift dry ingredients together three times.

Add egg to butter mixture.

Add applesauce and blend well.

Fold in nuts and aronia berries.

Pour mixture into bundt pan (it will be thick).

Bake for 1 1/2 hours. Check doneness with toothpick. May need to add more time in increments of 15 minutes until toothpick comes out clean.

Chocolate chip aronia cookies

Cook time: 9 to 12 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Prep time: 25 minutes.

3 1/2 cups all purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3 sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature

2 cups packed light brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

4 large eggs

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup aronia berries, thawed

Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.

Beat butter and sugars until light and fluffy.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Beat in vanilla, then flour mixture.

Fold in chocolate chips and aronia berries.

Refrigerate dough for 1 hour. Roll dough into 1 3/4-inch balls and arrange on cookie sheet, spacing about 3 inches apart.

Bake until edges are golden, 9 to 12 minutes. Let cool on cookie sheets and then transfer to wax paper on counter.

Organic aronia berry dog treats

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2 cups organic whole wheat flour

2 cups organic unbleached white flour

1/2 cup organic chipped aronia berries

1/4 cup organic fresh chopped mint leaves

4 tablespoons organic dried parsley leaves

2 farm fresh eggs

2/3 cup organic sunflower seed oil

Whole milk, if needed for more moistness

Mix together in a mixer the flours, aronia berries, herbs, eggs and oil.

Add milk if it is too dry and does not stick together. Do not add too much.

Make two soft balls by hand and roll out on a floured pastry cloth. Roll out with rolling pin to desired thickness.

Cut with cookie cutters into shapes dogs can eat.

Bake 10-15 minutes. If they are still moist and soft, turn off heat and leave in the oven until hard.

Remove from oven and let cool before storing in an airtight container.

Contact Dave DeValois at dwdevalois@yahoo.com.

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