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In the Kitchen with... JoAnn Latta
By Carol McGarvey | Photography by Ben Lochard
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JoAnn Latta
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Check out these recipes from JoAnn Latta:

Apple Pear Praline Pie

Cutout Sugar Cookies

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She is known as a “pie lady,” but this baker does so much more.

Westminster Presbyterian Church in Des Moines is blessed to have its own “pie lady” in JoAnn Latta.

When the church hosts its occasional Anchor Coffee House musical evenings, where it hosts performances in an informal setting, she is hired to create a variety of desserts for guests to purchase while they enjoy the music. “Always something chocolate is requested,” she says. She also helps with fund-raisers and bakes banana bread to be given to visitors at church.

At a recent Anchor event, she brought in a variety of pie flavors, cutout sugar cookies, and chocolate mousse with Bavarian cream filling. A collective “yum” rose from the audience.

JoAnn has had a lifetime of practice. She grew up in Albia in southern Iowa, the oldest of seven children. “While my mother was not the best baker, she always had desserts. As the oldest, I always helped. She sat me on the counter at age 2 and taught me to help measuring ingredients.”

Longtime hobby

Baking was always a hobby for JoAnn, who moved to Des Moines and worked for various incarnations of Wells Fargo for 34 years. She raised a family of three children. In 2008, however, she was downsized and felt it was time to try something new. That’s when she developed a home baking business, Sweets by JoAnn, and became licensed.

Her first big job was for West Des Moines United Methodist Church and its longtime dining spot at the Iowa State Fair, located near the barns. “For 10 years, I made pies daily for them, and it grew to be about 300 pies each year, with fresh ones for each day,” JoAnn explains. She also formerly sold her goodies at the Valley Junction farmers market.

These days she bakes pies for two restaurants, the Flying Mango in Beaverdale and Paula’s Cafe in Valley Junction.

Huge variety

The rest of her sweet job involves custom orders. While she may be known for her pies, her offerings include bars, rolls, cookies, layer cakes, quick breads, and muffins at the holidays.

Her repertoire includes 29 pies, from standard fruit pies like apple, blueberry, and peach to specialty ones such as French silk, Key lime, sour cream raisin, cranberry eggnog, strawberry rhubarb, mixed berry, and a new favorite, apple pear praline.

The cookie lineup includes several favorites like chocolate chip oatmeal (with or without walnuts), cranberry jumbles, almond logs, jam thumbprints in various flavors, Mexican wedding cakes, and snickerdoodles.

When it comes to bars, take your pick from pecan pie bars, chocolate caramel turtle bars, seven-layer bars, lemon bars, scotcheroos, raspberry swirl cheesecake bars, and others.

Layer cakes? JoAnn has the topic covered, from red velvet, white vanilla bean with 7-minute icing, chocolate sour cream, chocolate amaretto, pumpkin spice, peppermint marble angel cake, tiramisu toffee torte, orange cream, Irish cream, hummingbird, and turtle. And she does cupcakes, too.

In a special baking room in her lower level, JoAnn works her magic. She buys flour and sugar in 50-pound bags (“that’s my workout”). She is stocked with a variety of pans and bakery boxes and has a freezer, counter, table, and extra oven to help her out.

Her secret

And, for the record, she doesn’t stock any canned fruit for her recipes. She only uses fresh fruit. “On an apple or pear pie, for example, I mix up the varieties I use. I’ll usually use one apple for its tartness, one for its flavor, and add a Granny Smith for texture. With pears, I use a variety, too, and often add a red pear for the subtle pink color it adds.”

She generally bakes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday so that she can help baby sit for grandchildren on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Her six grandchildren range from 9 months to 11 years old.

Needless to say, she provides a sweet service. “People love homemade pies, but few people like to make them these days,” she says. “Also, at holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Christmas, they want the cutout sugar cookies but don’t like to take time to decorate them.” That actually is the part JoAnn loves.

She’s always on the lookout for new recipes and says a good baker knows how to spot them. “I tweak recipes and add my own touches as I go along,” JoAnn says.

She calls a halt at making wedding cakes. But she has made the desserts for a “pie wedding,” where a variety of pies was served at the reception. “I love that brides are trying new things.”

Just as with JoAnn, it’s all a labor of love.

To contact Sweets by JoAnn, call 515-974-6966.

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