Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Feb 5, 2011
01:31 PMSmall Dishes
Smoke and Mirrors
Recently a friend who had just lunched at Bonfyre commented about how good the place smelled. Having been there myself, I knew what she meant: The tantalizing aroma of food grilling over a wood fire was my first impression when I walked through the door. I knew it would be a lasting one as well.
It’s like magic how just the smell of food can send me off on—like the old song says—“…a sentimental journey to renew old memories.” For example, the smell of hot dogs—the kind that spin around on a carousel in a glass case—and chopped onion and pickle relish always remind me of dime stores—S.S. Kresge and F.W. Woolworth. I picture myself sitting at the serpentine lunch counter with my chubby legs and shiny new Buster Brown shoes dangling in the great void between stool and floor, slurping a Green River phosphate up a straw. I can still hear the clackity-clack-clack of the ceiling fans, the tear of brown wrapping paper ripped from big bolts, the whoosh of the pneumatic tubes that miraculously took away your money—and even more miraculously—returned with your change.
I remember Bertie Louise, my long dead aunt who would give me ten dollars—a fortune then—that I’d squander at the five-and-ten-cent stores. But she would never dream of eating at a lunch counter. Instead, I dressed in my miniature suit and bow tie and she in her floral print dress and omnipresent white cotton gloves, would have lunch at a real restaurant. More often than not it would be a tea room, where I would order the likes of the Engineer’s Special—a ceramic train filled with creamed chicken, mashed potatoes and peas—and a Shirley Temple—ginger ale tinted pink with grenadine.
Where I liked going best were the cafeterias showcasing every desirable food known to an eight-year-old and mine for the asking. I anticipated the assortment of desserts crowned with frosting and meringue as much as I did Christmas. At the end of the line a tall man in a white coat would carry our trays over to our table. My aunt would open her purse and out would come a potpourri of gardenias and Juicy Fruit gum and then coins that she’d give to the man before hanging her purse on a little hook under the table. (I was always amazed by this ingenious amenity).
If I was lucky, I’d travel on trains called the Thoroughbred and the Humming Bird to go to Bowling Green, Kentucky where my aunt lived. Of course, my favorite part was the dining car. Sitting at a table covered in starched white linen with more shiny spoons and forks than I could imagine what to do with. Face pressed to the window I would watch cities and towns fly past that heretofore were only names on a map. I anticipated my dinner of roast beef, a specialty of the Monon that I always ordered. It was here I first tasted blue cheese—Roquefort Dressing à la Earl. It had a bite to it but I liked it.
My aunt was the school nurse at the then Western Kentucky State College and had an apartment on the ground floor of one of the dormitories. Arrival meant having dinner there with relatives, including my peculiarly named uncle Bailey and his wife Jean (pronounced “John”). We would dine in what was by day the infirmary and the menu was always the same: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, lima beans and lemon icebox pie made with Eagle Brand condensed milk. The only mystery was whether it would be lime Jell-O with a maraschino-stuffed pear half or Golden Glow Salad topped with a dollop of Miracle Whip. Very much out of character, she would occasionally take my sister and me to a barbecue joint and let us eat fried pies and drink Dr. Pepper.
But even noxious odors can sometime evoke fond memories. Seated at a smoky bar—an experience more and more, for better or worse, lost to the past—inevitably there’s a mirror and sometime I see my dad’s reflection starring back at me, twirling the olive in his vodka martini, a Lucky Strike glowing in the ashtray beside him.
My father’s favorite haunt was the Simon House that once graced Butler Street. It was about as upscale as it got in Madison and not the type of place you’d take a child, but my father took me there. Back then my family and my mother’s dated and unstylish cherry furniture lived in a modern, flat roof house in Maple Bluff. It was dad’s choice just like the Buick convertibles he always bought and my mother hated. They rarely saw eye to eye on anything, but both loved going to the Simon House and I loved going with them.
Back then, going out meant getting dressed up. Women wore hats and men cufflinks. Even as a child I recognized the restaurant was out of the ordinary with its House Beautiful furnishings and softly lit gilt-framed paintings. They had a real chef, white toque and all, and his name was Maurice. As I recall, there were two dining rooms, but we always ate in the oval one with its dark walls and plush banquettes. I had to have the lobster prepared by the tuxedoed waiter at the table in a chaffing dish. Likewise, I never tired of the schaum torte for dessert, a towering Baroque fantasy of meringue filled with ice cream and fresh strawberries.
Still, my favorite place to go out to eat was the original Hoffman House on Wilson Street (where the Essen Haus is today). The Paul Bunyan Room had the same fascination for me that Disney World does for kids now. The highlight of its fanciful faux North Woods décor was a real stream where I could net my own trout and then watch it carted off to the kitchen to be prepared for my dinner. Many years later, when the building was undergoing one of its many renovations, I made the mistake of wandering in. What had once been such a captivating stage set now seemed shabby and small.
Memory is magic and so much of mine not surprisingly is about food—where I ate, what I ate and with whom. I know it can be deceiving, but after all, isn’t that why we love magic?
Bertie Louise’s Lemon Icebox Pie
My aunt’s original recipe made a smaller, 8-inch pie and she used the leftover egg whites to make a meringue, topping the pie right before serving and browning it under the broiler. Personally, I prefer finishing it off with whipped cream.
Preheat oven 325 degrees.
1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
Combine all the ingredients and press into the bottom and sides of a deep-dish 9-inch pie pan (preferably metal). Refrigerate the crust while preparing the filling.
8 large egg yolks
2 14-ounce cans sweetened and condensed milk
Zest from 2 lemons
1 ¼ cups strained fresh lemon juice
In a large mixing bowl whisk together the egg yolks until well combined. Gradually whisk in the condensed milk, then the lemon zest and juice. Continue to whisk until well combined and smooth. Carefully pour the lemon filling into the prepared crust. Bake in the center of the preheated 325-degree oven until the custard is beginning to set and the center only jiggles slightly—about 25 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool completely—about 1 hour.
When cool, cover with plastic wrap and then a sheet of aluminum foil. Place the covered pie in the freezing compartment overnight. The pie can be made up to a week in advance if kept frozen.
A half-hour before serving, transfer the pie to the refrigerator.
2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
When you are ready to serve the pie, use an electric mixer to whip the cream, sugar and vanilla until it holds firm peaks. Cut the pie into wedges and top each with whipped cream.
Make 1 9-inch pie.
Mississippi Mud Cake
My Aunt Jean actually was from Mississippi and grew up in a family where the ladies didn’t cook, or at least that’s what she always said. She certainly didn’t, and when required to bring a dish, this was always it.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
4 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
7-ounce jar marshmallow cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Butter a 13- x 9- x 2-inch cake pan.
Stir the cocoa into the melted butter; set aside to cool.
In a large mixing bowl the eggs with a hand-held electric mixer until well combined. Add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is light colored and very creamy. Beat in the vanilla and the cooled chocolate mixture.
Sprinkle the flour over the surface and stir the batter until just mixed. Pour the batter in the prepared pan and bake in the preheated 350-degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes or until the sides of the cake just start to pull away from the pan. Transfer the cake to a rack and spoon the marshmallow cream over the hot cake. Carefully smooth the marshmallow cream with a rubber spatula. Let the cake cool completely and then frost.
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
4 tablespoons heavy cream
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
In a mixing bowl combine the melted butter, cocoa, cream and confectioners sugar. Beat by hand until it is of spreading consisting. Spread the frosting over the marshmallow cream topped cake.
Parakeet Café Brownies
In the 1950s, the Parakeet Café was a popular restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky situated on the city’s charming Fountain Square. After a long run, the restaurant closed the following decade. But in 1983, a new incarnation of the Parakeet Café opened about a block away in what was once a livery stable. In all honesty, I don’t remember these brownies, but found this recipe among my mother’s collection and they’re nonetheless worth making. I’ve made them with more expensive Scharffen Berger chocolate, but using Baker’s makes a brownie more like the ones I enjoyed as a kid.
Preheat over 325 degrees.
Lavishly butter a 9-inch square cake pan.
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted Butter
4 ounces unsweetened Baker’s chocolate
2 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped toasted pecans
Melt the butter and chocolate together in the top of a double boiler.
Beat the eggs until with an electric mixer until froth and then gradually beat in the sugar. Continue to beat until smooth and creamy. Beat in the vanilla extract. Beat in the chocolate mixture. Stir in the flour and salt until just combined. Fold in the chopped pecans.
Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes. Cut the brownies into square while still slightly warm. Tip: Not part of the original recipe, but use a serrated plastic knife and they will be no torn edges!
Makes 16 brownies.