HERON LAKE -- For Joleen Plotz Koopman, baking isn't just an enjoyable pastime or a means of keeping her family and friends in delectable treats.
"It helps keep the stress away," she said. "I'm in my own world then. My world is baking and cooking."
For years, Joleen has been plagued by double vision, a disability that resulted from brain traumas earlier in her life. As a child growing up in Clements, near Redwood Falls, she had hydrocephalus, often referred to as "water in the brain."
At age 16, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
"I had 34 treatments of radiation, and they sent me home to die," she recalled. "My mom and dad, Leo and Janet Plotz, heard about these places in Europe where miracles supposedly happen, so they flew me to Lourdes, France, and Fatima, Portugal."
Lourdes and Fatima both have shrines to religious apparitions that the Plotz family visited. When they returned home, a CT scan showed no sign of the tumor. Joleen says it may have just taken that long for the radiation treatments to take effect, but she looks at the tumor's disappearance as a miracle, even if she suffers lasting effects.
"I have memory problems as a result," Joleen said. "My long-term memory is good; my short-term and intermediate memory are bad."
After earning a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling from Mankato State University, Joleen worked in job placement in the Twin Cities and with at-risk students in Mankato.
"I decided to move back this way, got sick of the Twin Cities rigmarole," she explained, recalling how she met husband Dan Koopman, married in 1999 and settled in Heron Lake. "He's the operations manager at New Vision Co-Op."
Joleen has a daughter, Cassandra, who is employed as a registered nurse in St. Cloud, and three stepchildren who live in Michigan; she and Dan haven't any children together.
The double vision and memory problems eventually got to the point where it became difficult for Joleen to work.
"I used my education for quite some time, did all that with my degree," she said. "But it just progressed, got to where I couldn't do it anymore. I try to do the best that I can. I could never do it without my husband."
Joleen began to spend more and more time in the kitchen.
"My mom is a real good baker and cook. My grandmother did a lot of baking. I just picked it up."
Using tried-and-true family recipes and others gleaned from church cookbooks, Joleen slowly developed a repertoire of cookies, pies, cakes and muffins. When she'd go to do her banking at Heron Lake State Bank, she'd take a few samples along.
"One day, I was in the bank, and I said, 'You've got this extra space here. You know what it would be good for? Serving coffee and cookies,'" she remembered.
After considering Joleen's spur-of-the-moment suggestion, bank officials decided it was a good idea and recruited her to make the cookies.
"I do cookies once a week for them -- 12 dozen," she said. "I do it when they call. It's something I can do with my special needs. It's good for me to work alone and at my own pace."
She also does occasional, specialized baking for various other friends and acquaintances, such as a diabetic gentleman who needs sugar-free baked goods.
"I bake pies, make cookies, pack lunch everyday for my husband," she said. "I try to pack a nutritious lunch, because he works hard. He doesn't always get cookies, sometimes he gets short-changed, because I need enough for other people. He's very understanding. I couldn't ask for anybody better. ... I could never do it without my husband."
For the most part, Joleen sticks to the recipes she's made time and time again.
"I'll try something new, but I always go back to my old recipes," she said. "I've had so many calls from people who want those recipes."
Recently, Joleen had surgery in Rochester in the hopes of correcting her double-vision problem. Although she hasn't yet noted any improvement, she's hopeful that there will once again be a delayed effect.
"It takes time to heal," she said. "They told me that eventually I should just see one, so I'm giving it time and praying. You have to laugh about it. If I close one eye, I see one. Look at it this way: If you see a good-looking guy, I see two of them."
Joleen has come up with methods of coping with her disabilities, including humor. She wears an eye patch to drive, and she writes important things down so she won't forget them. And she spends a lot of time in her kitchen, where she feels most comfortable.
"I found my niche in life right now, to cook and bake," she said.
Here are a few of Joleen's most-requested cookie recipes:
Joleen's Chocolate Chip Cookies
Cream together 1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup white sugar, 1 cup cooking oil, 2 sticks margarine or butter and 1 egg.
Mix 1 tablespoon milk with 1 teaspoon soda; add 1 teaspoon vanilla and blend into creamed ingredients.
Measure 1 cup crushed corn flakes or Special K cereal (Joleen prefers Special K). Mix crushed cereal, 3 1/2 cups flour, 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1 cup oatmeal into creamed mixture. Blend in one 12-ounce package mini chocolate chips (Joleen emphasizes MINI chips).
Refrigerate dough for several hours.
Roll dough into walnut-sized balls. Place 2 inches apart on cookie sheet and flatten dough balls with fork or palm of your hand.
Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.
English Toffee Cookies
Cream 2 cups brown sugar, 2 cups white sugar and 2 cups shortening. Add 4 eggs and beat well. Add 5 cups flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 bag toffee chips.
Drop by teaspoonfuls onto parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 7 to 8 minutes.
Cream 1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup white sugar and 1 cup softened butter. Add 3 beaten eggs, 1 cup raisins and 1 teaspoon vanilla.
In separate bowl, combine 2 1/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 teaspoons soda; add to creamed mixture. Stir in 2 cups rolled oats and 3/4 cup chopped walnuts.
Cover and chill for one hour. Dough will be stiff. Roll into balls and flatten with fork on cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees 10 to 12 minutes.