Al Doyle has written about budget restaurants and travel for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel travel sections as well as other publications in the U.S. and Canada. He has interviewed eight Hall of Famers as a baseball author.
Finding a first-rate dessert or pastry is no problem in Wisconsin. Choosing the best from a pack of worthy contenders is the real challenge, as the competition is fierce. Here are the top five options for sweet treats in America's dairyland.
5. Danish Delights: Bendtsen's Bakery, O&H Danish Bakery
Racine is home to one of America's few Danish enclaves, and a pair of local bakeries specialize in a butter-laden pastry that originated in Denmark. Kringle can contain fruit, cheese, nuts and other fillings such as butterscotch. Making these thin, multi-layered pastries is a three-day process. The word "rich" is barely adequate to describe a slice or two washed down with coffee or milk.
Bendtsen's Bakery has been around since 1934, while O&H Danish Bakery has been in the kringle business since 1949. These delicate pastries may not look filling, but they aren't for calorie counters. For some reason, resolutions to control portion sizes seems to vanish when visiting either bakery. Bendtsen's and O&H accept mail orders.
4. Amazing Cupcakes and More: Tamara's the Cake Guru
Tamara Mugerauer exemplifies the passion for her craft often found among small food producers. She lives up to the name of her Oshkosh shop by offering an incredible assortment of creative cupcakes, other sweet treats and custom wedding cakes.
Portion sizes are noteworthy even by Wisconsin's generous standards. One of Tamara's cupcakes ($2 to $2.50 depending on the quantity purchased) is large enough to provide dessert for a couple with normal appetites or lunch for noontime customers. Expect to find 20 or more different flavors. Key lime, vegan chocolate cherry, peanut butter cup, twisted malt, Milky Way, sweet raspberry and birthday cake were among the choices on a recent visit. Tamara's carrot cake is a four-star treat. For something different, try the cannoli, almond poppy seed or cherry Coke cupcakes.
"I have an art school background and fell in love with decorating and designing cakes," Mugerauer said. "We try to do something new every day. Customers can request whatever they want on Wacky Wednesdays. Coming up with new things keep me motivated." Her skills will be on display at a national cake decorating competition in Las Vegas later this year.
Will Tamara's flourless chocolate cake be banned by the feds in the future? This stuff is more addictive than crack. Closed Mondays.
3. Milwaukee Creaminess: Leon’s
Leon's has been around since 1942. The genuine neon-heavy retro look is very catchy, and the custard is smoother than Perry Como's greatest hits. Chocolate, vanilla and butter pecan are served along with a rotating flavor of the day. The vanilla is pure and clean, while the chocolate has the perfect amount of cocoa. As for the other flavors, butter pecan is memorable, while the mint is pure refreshment.
Talk to Leon's owner Ron Schneider, and you'll get an earful about his desire to serve a high-quality product.
"We have always specialized in frozen custard," Schneider said. "We don't get distracted by a large sandwich menu. All of our efforts are directed at making quality frozen custard. The custard is made fresh constantly." Double-dip cones can be had for less than $2.
2) Overdose on Pie: The Norske Nook Restaurant and Bakery
Osseo is a small (population 1701) western Wisconsin town located much closer to the Twin Cities than Milwaukee. The Norske Nook restaurant and bakery is famous for made from scratch pie, the trademark dessert of the rural Midwest. It can be crowded in the summer, as food-savvy travelers exit from I-94 to sample one or more of the prize-winning pies.
Picking the best pie in the place is an impossible task, although banana cream and raspberry sour cream are among the top vote-getters. Visitors usually say 20 to 30 pies are on the menu. Those estimates could be low, according to manager Jean Zingshiem.
"We make 73 different pies, and we could have them all," she said. "Our most unique pies are lingonberry sour cream and lingonberry apple. There aren't many local customers on weekends. It's all travelers." The menu is heavy on traditional fare. Wraps made with Norwegian-style lefse - a potato-based flatbread - are popular. The Osseo Norske Nook is the original location, with branches in Rice Lake, Hayward and Eau Claire.
1) A Triple Threat: VandeWalle's
Imagine a place that makes incredible chocolates and ice cream using milk from nearby dairies. Butter-rich caramel contains the same locally produced milk. Our winner also has a first-rate bakery where pastries, cakes and pies are made from scratch with high-quality ingredients. Sound too good to be true? Visit Appleton to enjoy this outpost of caloric bliss.
VandeWalle's is a block south of the popular Fox Valley Mall, but you can avoid the mall altogether to go to what could be the best attraction in the neighborhood. What makes VandeWalle's unique is how the store combines a huge selection of first-rate sweet treats with very reasonable prices.
It would be hard to find better chocolates at any price, let alone the $20.95/pound charged here. VandeWalle's is my go-to place for memorable, low-cost gifts. The same chocolate is made into bars of various flavors such as mint meltaway and caramel chocolate. There may not be a tastier way to spend $1.45. Top-notch baked goods start at 35 cents for cookies. A large cheesecake for $15 is another example of high quality and honest value. A dozen or more ice cream flavors are in the freezer for those who like classic Wisconsin products. Try hand-dipped lemon, raspberry revel or German chocolate cake.
"This is a challenge for sure, but making candy is fun," co-owner Steve VandeWalle told me. "Who doesn't like candy? We started out with a bakery in Shawano and added my grandmother's candy recipes. The ice cream came when we thought people wouldn't buy as much chocolate in the summer."
The VandeWalle family philosophy is simple and successful.
"Our goal is to make a quality product every day," VandeWalle said. "We don't start out with a price point. We start with quality and charge a fair Midwestern price." Mail orders are accepted on the company's web site or over the phone.