Central Iowa farm girl Cristen Clark grew up watching her mom in the kitchen, fixing every meal for the family. She enjoyed cooking with her grandmothers, too.

But it wasn’t until Clark received a stand mixer for Valentine’s Day from her husband four years ago that she decided to try cooking from scratch — an effort that has landed her in a national cooking contest.

“I put my nose to the grindstone and set a goal of baking a nice batch of homemade cinnamon rolls. The first batch was terrible. That made me really mad, so I tried even harder. Even though my mom literally cooked every single meal since I can remember and I have great memories of cooking with my grandmas, I’m self taught. My mom would show me whatever I wanted to learn, but I was busy with sports and school growing up,” said Clark, who not only is mom to Halle, 5, and Barrett, 2, but also is a pitching coach and offers baking classes in her home.

Breads are Clark’s favorite food to make, primarily because they’re a challenge. Another challenge she set for herself — to enter a national cooking contest this year. So she did.

“I belong to an online cooking contest community, and after I’d won a fairly big contest at the Iowa State Fair this past year for Kenmore’s 100th anniversary, I thought I’d give a national contest a shot. When the Sutter Home Winery national contest popped up, I decided to enter it. It was the biggest, so by nature, I went for that one,” she said.

While traveling home from Wis­consin with a friend, Clark whipped up the recipe she wanted to experiment with for the contest: sour apple pork burgers. She describes the burgers as sweet and salty, with crunch and heightened flavor from the pork combined with the spicy apple butter.

“If you get the perfect bite, everything happens all at once. It’s definitely one of the more complex pork burgers I’ve ever eaten in my life. Most of the recipes in the contest are very culinary with unfamiliar ingredients and things like goat cheese, but when I create a recipe, I come up with things that my dad the farmer would eat. That’s how I cook. It can’t be too crazy, but every component has a little meaning,” Clark said.

When she learned she had been selected as a semi-finalist, Clark was shocked.

“The email came over my cell phone and my jaw dropped. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t believe it,” she said.  

Clark will travel to Sutter Home Winery in California in May to compete in the Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest for a $15,000 prize in the alternative category with her sour apple pork burgers with cheddar cheese, cayenne-apple-candied bacon and potato chip-onion haystacks. Her experience will provide fodder for her cooking classes she offers at her home-based cooking school, Blue Ribbon Bakers.

“I have a blog, FoodandSwine.com, where I offer up recipes, kitchen tips and about life on the farm. We live on 60 acres and custom farm. We finish hogs, and my husband, Mike, sells feed for Standard Nutrition. My folks still farm, too. But I wanted to offer cooking classes for kids and adults to show them that you don’t have to be a great cook to fix great food,” Clark said.

She began offering classes November 2013 and has taught children and adults how to bake homemade pies and homemade breads, make pasta and create holiday candy and cupcakes.

“I had strangers, friends and family in my kitchen. It was so much fun. Everyone was so fun, and they really seemed to enjoy themselves,” Clark said. “I push that on my blog — that this isn’t hard. Just take it step by step. There’s a movement to get people back in the kitchen, of people wanting to make their own treats and sweets, and I want to be a part of that fun. Being in the kitchen is good for kids, too.”

Halle, Clark’s daughter, can crimp her own pie crust and make homemade dinner rolls. Her son prefers to play with flour on the counter, dusting himself and everything around him.

“Halle is really doing a great job in the kitchen. It makes me proud. She’s even better with the pigs than I am. She’s just fearless. Barrett is a toddler and gets antsy oftentimes, so I’ll give him a big bowl of flour that he measures and sifts. It usually creates a huge bomb of flour, but it’s okay. They’re always sitting on my counter, watching to see what I’m making,” Clark said.