A trip to Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, oh boy oh boy oh boy!
By Sheryl Popp
After all these years, you can probably imagine I've duplicated types of events and businesses in articles any number of times. I'm then challenged to find a new angle, and give both subject and readers their due. But send me out to a cheese factory, and I'll go every other week. I have a great friend named Dave, who says he would never have to diet if he could give up cheese. Alas, silly man, c'est impossible. Really, is there any other food as versatile as cheese? Sauces, sandwich component, snack, dessert tray with fruit, grated and melted, cheese simply makes everything better.
We are so lucky in this state, to have as many family owned cheese factories still in business as we do. I visited with Joe Widmer, owner of Widmer's Cheese in Theresa, for this week's story. His family history is intertwined with Wisconsin cheese making, and he has many facts at hand. "At one time, there were a lot more cheese makers in the state," he said. "There were 140 in Dodge County alone and over 2,000 in the state. Now, there are about 130 in the state and five or six in Dodge County." Widmer Cheese was founded by Joe's grandfather. "The Germans came to Wisconsin first, and the climate here was similar to Germany's, and good for dairy production," Joe began. "Other immigrant cheese makers followed them here, which is why you have so many third and fourth generations making cheese." Joe's grandfather was Swiss, and he left home in 1905 when he was very young, only 17 or 18. "In those days," said Joe, "you had to have not only a visa, but a job lined up, and also three job references from your home country. My grandfather's job was only 10 miles away from here." Joe's grandfather John had a girlfriend back home, who wanted to visit him and the United States. In 1911, John traveled to New York to pick her up, only to find that she had no visa, and the authorities intended to send her back to Switzerland. "My grandfather asked if there was anything he could do to keep her here, and they told him he could marry her then and there," said Joe. "So he did. They honeymooned in New York, then returned to Wisconsin. This factory became available in 1922. They bought it and raised four children here." Joe explained that in those days, most cheese factory owners lived above their business. He was raised there, one of six children. "My wife and I lived here with our children too, until we built a home 10 years ago," he said.
Joe's the youngest in his family, and when he got out of high school, his father asked him if he wanted to continue his education or go into the family business. "I told him neither," said Joe. "I was sick of cheese and sick of school." Joe went to work on the railroad for several years. Whenever he came home, his dad talked up the idea that a food sciences degree in dairy was available at Fond du Lac Technical College. Joe decided to go, and graduated in 1978. He's gone to the Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison twice, to obtain master cheese maker status for cheddar, brick and Colby cheese. Joe's father retired in 1980, and he ran the business with two uncles until 1997, when he was able to purchase their shares. Things have gone well, and Joe is happy with his career, but says it was a bit daunting to make the decision to enlarge the factory in 2004, when he added new offices, warehouse space and mail order capability.
Here is the greatest thing about Widmer's. What Joe decided not to do is automate. His cheeses are hand made, and they use the vats his grandfather John purchased in 1922, and the very same bricks to press the whey out of the cheese. More of an explanation is needed here, and it really fits in with my idea of valuing significant flavor in cheese. (My feelings were hurt a bit when I read in Widmer's info that one of the reasons for this is that aging baby boomers have aging taste buds and therefore seek more full flavors!) Widmer makes the same three cheeses that Joe obtained master status in. Within those three types, a number of variations are made possible by either adding flavorings (ie. caraway brick) or by varying the amount of time the cheese ages. Widmer's is perhaps most well known for their mild brick, but as most foodies know, that's not how brick began. It was invented in Wisconsin in 1877 by another Swiss born cheese maker, John Jossi. It's a derivative of Limburger, and uses lower levels of the bacterium rubbed on the outer rind of the cheese. Rubbing the rind is what develops the aroma, outer coloring and flavor. Jossi also had the idea of pressing the cheese with bricks, ergo its name. Although not as strong as Limburger, brick is still a heady cheese. Brick aficionados love the original version. But many people have more conservative tastes. Widmer developed its mild brick by rubbing the rind less, and wrapping it air tight, which stops the aroma from developing. "The primary reason we make cheese the same way as my grandfather is taste," said Joe. "It's like the difference between eating your grandmother's doughnuts and buying pre-packaged doughnuts at the grocery store. But there is secondary bonus. Using the same vats, the same bricks and the same rubbing methods makes for a great tour." Widmer offers guided tours Monday through Friday, at 9:30am, by reservation.
Joe's grandfather chose to produce Colby because it was another Wisconsin original, and cheddar because it was a popular, flavorful cheese. Widmer's ages cheddar from one to 10 years, and I sampled the eight, which was to die for. I inquired about the other items sold in the factory store. "All cheese factories will sell a greater variety of cheese than they manufacture on sight," said Joe. "You want people to be able to purchase everything they need from you. But, although we have some imports, most of our products are made in Wisconsin." More recently, Widmer's created an aged brick spread, which is mixed with cheddar. This too, is a super tasty, must try item. There's a lot more to learn by going to www.widmerscheese.com, plus all their great cheese can be ordered off the website. The factory is located at 214 W. Henni St. in Theresa, just off Hwy. 175, which is the main street. The phone number is 920-488-2503. The store is open from 7am-5pm Mon.-Sat., and 10am-4pm on Sun., June through Oct.
If you like to cook with cheese, one of the super features on the Widmer website is a collection of recipes. Here's one I think would really impress your guests.
SKILLET GRATIN OF SMOKED TURKEY
1 lb. potatoes, cooked, skin on, cooled
6 Tbls. olive oil, divided
2 tsps. minced garlic
2 Tbls. basil leaves, shredded
2/3 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 lbs. smoked turkey, shredded
1-1/2 tsps. salt, divided
1-1/2 tsp. ground black pepper, divided
8 ozs. leeks trimmed, rinsed, sliced (4 cups)
12 ozs. Wisconsin Brick cheese, shredded (3 cups)
Peel potatoes, slice into thin round slices. Reserve. Heat 2 Tbls. olive oil in cast iron skillet; add garlic and saute' 1 minute. Add basil & stock and cook until reduced to form syrupy glaze. Remove from heat, add turkey, season with half the salt and pepper. Reserve mixture in skillet. In 10-inch nonstick skillet, heat remaining 5 Tbls. olive oil over med. heat, add leeks and saute' until limp, about 2 mins. Add reserved potato slices and press down into pan to form a cake. Season with remaining salt and pepper. Continue cooking undisturbed over med. to low heat several minutes or until well-browned on bottom.
To Serve: Sprinkle Brick cheese evenly over turkey mixture in skillet. Flip the potato cake over and place on top of cheese and turkey. Bake gratin in skillet in 350º oven 10 minutes or until heated through and cheese is melted. Cut into wedges and serve with crisp green salad and sliced tomatoes.
Makes 6 servings or wedges of gratin.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Go on in for Go Karts and more at Stocky's Fast Track
By Sheryl Popp
Photo: Jeff Stockhausen (seated in go-kart) is shown at Stocky’s Fast Track in West Bend. His son, Steven, stopped in just in time to share photo duty with his dad.
I looked forward to seeing the indoor race track at Stocky's Fast Track in West Bend. I'd only driven a go kart once, and as you'd expect, that was an outside track. (If the DMV had seen me, they'd revoke my driver's license.) Jeff Stockhausen showed me around, and explained how he and his wife, Sandy, came to open the track.
Those not raised in the area might not be that familiar with the Stockhausen family. They have, for a number of generations, been in the building and farming businesses. Jeff's dad, Vince Stockhausen, started the family's grading and excavating business in 1955. Jeff and Sandy are simultaneously juggling the track, family and other careers. Jeff was second assistant chief of the Newburg Fire Department, retiring from the department with over 20 years in. He is still a part of Vince Stockhausen Excavating and Grading. Sandy is still a member of the fire department, is lieutenant of the rescue squad, and is a diabetic nurse educator for Aurora. Additionally, Jeff retired from competitive jet-ski racing in the late nineties. "I was an amateur up until my last year, when I turned pro," said Jeff. "I learned you couldn't be a pro racer and work full time." During those racing years, Jeff traveled all over the U.S., Canada and Mexico. He saw an indoor go kart race track for the first time in Texas, and learned they were popular in Europe. "Sandy and I began talking about opening a family business," recalled Jeff. "We have six children, so we wanted something everybody could be involved in. Of course, none of them work here now," he laughed.
They hatched the idea after Jeff quit racing, and opened the first track in April, 2001. There weren't many indoor race tracks in the country, and this was the first in the state. Jeff and Sandy designed the track themselves, with advice from the vendors who manufacture the karts. The first track was next door to their current location. The original building had been constructed as a shop for the excavating business, but only part of it was used. Stocky's remained there until 2005, when the track moved next door. "We went from about 15,000 sq. ft, to 25,000 sq. ft.," said Jeff. "This building is more open, and we built onto the front of it." Why the need for more space? Naturally, to expand their offerings. The idea of an indoor race track went over very well, right from the beginning, but they were only able to offer limited food service. "We have bachelor and bachelorette parties, corporate events, and kids' birthday parties. Our customers range from about age nine (kids have to be 54" tall to reach the pedals), to age 70," said Jeff. "I tried to get my 94 year old aunt to take a ride, but just couldn't quite convince her to try." In the new building, Jeff and Sandy are able to offer expanded food service, and more separate event areas, including a banquet area. "We built a full kitchen, a full bar and a bigger arcade, so there is a lot more to do now," said Jeff. The bar is a sports bar, with lots of TVs, and has special promotions for Packer and Nascar events. "Robbie Riser (GM of Roush Fenway Racing and Allenton native) stops in with his kids whenever he's in town," said Jeff. The restaurant serves home made pizza, which is quite popular, a good size list of appetizers, sandwiches and burgers, and a Friday fish fry that is well attended. Prices are competitive. "If people don't want to choose from our menu for their event," added Jeff, "we'll help them arrange other catering." Corporate customers have included Miller Beer, Johnsonville Brats, Harley and Rockwell Engineering.
The Main Event
What about go karts? Well, I learned a bit. The track is 420 ft. long. Drivers can make between 10-15 laps per race, depending on how disciplined they and how well they follow the rules. For safety purposes, all karts can be remotely slowed, or shut down. "We have the best driver safety system available." said Jeff. Any or all of the karts can be stopped at the same time. Customers can purchase a single ride, a four or a ten ride package. Prices are less for children, and there are even double karts available for a parent to accompany a child not tall enough to drive solo. There are three different speed options. Everyone actually races against the clock, not the other drivers on the track, the same as Nascar Formula 1 racing. The karts are electric, and each has a transponder installed that registers with a loop in the floor of the track. That tracks one's time, and projects it on an overhead score board. Five to six karts can race at once, and Stocky's owns 14, although they'll be switching them out soon. "It's a big investment," said Jeff, "even without counting new chargers for them, but the technology has really advanced and we need to upgrade." The electric karts must be charged about the same amount of time they run. However, if they run as long as a half hour, they'll need to charge an hour. And...they charge overnight. That's a big electric bill. "But it's better to be green and not use gasoline, right?" said Jeff. Jeff's son Steven had stopped in, and helped explain another benefit of electric karts. "They have higher performance than a gas go kart," he said, "because they have more acceleration, with no arc (just think of speed increasing in a straight line) and increased torque."
Just like practically everyone else, Stocky's is struggling against the economic downturn. Less people come in to drive a kart just for fun, although many groups or individuals still make Stocky's a destination from out of town or even out of state. "People will drive," said Jeff, "because there just aren't that many indoor tracks. So you can have your event rain or shine." I believe that more people should take a look at Stocky's birthday party packages. A party for five kids includes two races per child, two pizzas, two pitchers of soda, an ice cream birthday cake and two hours at a party table. (Additional children may be added for additional fees.) Pretty darn good deal huh? Stocky's Fast Track & Grill is located at 6389 Stockhausen Lane, just off Hwy. 33 in West Bend. The phone number is 262-306-0100. Anyone interested in league racing should give Jeff a call. To see some good photos of the track, go to www.stockys.us. The track is open Tues.-Thurs., 5pm-10pm, Fri., 2pm-midnight, Sat., Noon-Midnight & Sun., Noon-8pm.
Jeff provided the following recipe, a long time favorite from up north hunting trips and family events.
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
chopped mushrooms, onions, green peppers, etc., optional
2/3 cup whipping cream
1 lb. cooked ham, bacon or sausage
Spray 9x13 glass pan w/non-stick cooking spray. Sprinkle 1 cup cheese on bottom of pan. Crack the eggs into the pan, to cover the bottom. Break yolks with a fork, do not scramble them. Sprinkle in vegetables of choice, or leave plain. Top with the meat. Pour the whipping cream over the top, but don't mix in. Sprinkle the remaining cup of cheese over the top. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Put in unheated oven and bake at 350º for 35-45 minutes, or until top is browned. This recipe is very flexible. A few more eggs can be added to cover bottom of pan, or more cheese or meat can be added. Use as many vegetables as desired.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Local author's book about and for Moms, is released on Mother's Day
By Sheryl Popp
Bonnie Lowell has penned a book titled Maternally Speaking: I Gave Birth to Four Eggs. (One Scrambled, Fried, Over Easy and Sunny Side Up). It's a humorous book, as you can tell not only by the subtitles, but also from the cover's caricature. I was thrilled when Bonnie dropped off a copy of her book and press kit, as I don't often have a topic in hand that's timely. This has to be the most timely of all time! I invited Bonnie to share her background with me, and tell me in person what led her to write such a book.
Bonnie is a native of the area. She was born in Cedarburg, and lived in Erin and Hubertus before settling in Slinger. One reason was that she was pleased with the Slinger school system. When her children were younger, she was a stay at home Mom. Bonnie was always the type to record her thoughts and jot down amusing anecdotes about mothering. When she decided she needed an outlet away from home, those stories were invaluable. "I saw an ad for the Ozaukee County Fair, inviting the public to perform in an entertainment tent," recalled Bonnie. "I was the only comedian to sign up! There I was, on stage for the first time and I just loved it - the immediate audience feedback." That was about 1990. Bonnie went on to book herself into local comedy venues, and took second place in a Menomonee Falls comedy contest. "Talent scouts saw me there and I got some Milwaukee gigs out of it," said Bonnie. "I would take just about any opportunity to get on stage." She and some fellow comedians even set themselves up a regular performance night at the Safe House in Milwaukee, before her stand up comedy career ended several years later. "After a family tragedy, and my own divorce," explained Bonnie, "it just became hard for me to be funny, and something had to give."
Bonnie needed to retool and rethink herself, and move on with her life. Over the next decade, she struggled to raise three children, and get back into the work force. And she didn't quit writing. Before her current book, Bonnie wrote several children's books, and a sad, cathartic book relating to the family tragedy. The new millennium brought a new marriage and a fourth child into Bonnie's life. She also pursued a new career. "I needed something that was flexible," she said. "I had customer service and sales experience and I thought being a realtor would be a good fit for me." Bonnie has now been a realtor for eight years, and she enjoys the work very much. But, given market conditions, she once again had extra time on her hands, and less money. "I wanted to feel more productive, so I went back to writing," said Bonnie. "I'd tried to have my serious book published and leaned then that it was easier to have a humorous book published. So I pulled out the material I'd compiled about parenting and motherhood for my comedy act. It was a lot more fun to write." That was around a year and a half ago. Six months or so ago, Bonnie began looking for a publisher. She had found one on line, and after attending a publishing conference in Minneapolis, she gained the last bit of confidence she needed to think she could really make this happen.
"It took a while, but the publisher I'd found did get back to me," said Bonnie. "They were a good fit for this type of book. Working with my editor, I learned my strength was storytelling. I actually had tried to write as if I was talking to you now. So there were rewrites that took several months." Bonnie also learned that her publisher expected her to handle a lot of her own promotional duties, but luckily, she wanted to be involved. She drew out a sketch for the cover of her book, and asked a local caricature artist to develop it. Bonnie was able to order advance copies of the book, and has had several smaller book signings. "All the books I ordered are gone," she said happily. "And it has been very well received so far." Her children are all supportive, and the youngest, Alex (age 10), loves the idea that his name is in the book, and that word is spreading at his school.
What's the premise?
"My book is really a tribute to all Moms, even though it's my story," said Bonnie. "I think women make awesome support groups. I was alone a lot of my kids' childhoods, and I needed humor to get through everything. I love Erma Bombeck, but I think there was a need for a more modern voice. Times have changed, and I wanted to bring issues like dealing with divorce(s) and Internet dating into my book." Bonnie divided the book into two major segments. The first, called "The Seven Wonders of Womanhood," deals with women's issues while growing up. A chapter about Bonnie's experience the first time she shaved her legs hooked me while I was leafing through the book. Totally hilarious! The second two thirds of the book are primarily about motherhood and her parenting experiences, and some of the differences between Scrambled, Fried, Over Easy and Sunny Side Up. "My stories are relatable," said Bonnie. "And I think that's why the book is going over well. I feel like I've found my audience again, sort of like I'm going home with my readers. I'm an optimistic realist. I don't gamble with money, but I gambled on this. I thought, other people are writing books. Why not me?"
There are several upcoming opportunities to see Bonnie in person. She will be at the West Bend Community Memorial Library on Sat., May 22, from 9:30-10:30am for a talk and a book signing. Then in June, she will be at Perc Place in Hartford for a reading, book signing and talk on Sat., June 5, from 3:00-5:00pm. Her book sells for $14.95. It is also available through www.maternallyspeaking.com. There is an email link through the site, or you may email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find her on Facebook. Bonnie is actively looking for speaking engagements, so please inquire if your group or organization would be a good fit.
Bonnie said of her recipe choice: It is rare to get four kids to agree on anything except maybe that they all love snow blizzards that cause snow days. But I can honestly say they all love my lasagna. Here's the recipe:
1 1/2 lb. ground beef
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 15 1/2 oz. can tomato sauce
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1/3 cup water
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 lb. (9) Lasagna noodles
3/4 lb. mozzarella cheese
3/4 lb. Velveeta cheese
1 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese
Brown ground beef and add onion. Cook until tender. Stir in tomato sauce, paste, water, garlic and seasonings. Cover and simmer 30 minutes. Cook noodles according to pkg instructions. In an 8 x 12 baking dish, layer 3 noodles, meat sauce, parmesan cheese, sliced mozzarella and sliced velveeta cheeses. Repeat layers 3 times. Bake at 350º for 30 minutes. Delicious! Usually I make a double batch and freeze one pan for an easy meal for a later date.