Not-so-secret recipes

Long before the Internet, various apocryphal stories floated around about some poor soul who unwittingly paid an exorbitant price for a restaurant’s recipe. What most of these tales have in common is the victim, who after admiring a special dish would ask the chef if they might have the recipe, swearing that they would “give anything for it.” This flattery not only succeeded in acquiring the coveted formula, but a very hefty bill as well. Inevitably, the teller of the tale personally knows the unnamed, duped person (proof positive of the veracity of the claim!)

The motive for now sharing for free what they were so outrageously charged for is revenge against the offending business. The allegation by someone that they paid $250 to learn the secret of Neiman Marcus’ chocolate chip cookies is one of the best-known examples. To dispel this falsehood, Neiman Marcus has published the actual recipe on its website.

I think it’s only human nature to want something that few others have. The continual quest by many cooks—myself included—to find the perfect recipe becomes a lifelong passion if not obsession. As with hunting for buried treasure, the likelihood that it doesn’t exist has never dissuaded anyone from looking for it. Curiosity is only further piqued when “secret” is paired with “recipe.”

I’m suspicious of those who won’t share recipes. In my opinion, it’s an admission that the person lacks confidence as a cook. Worse yet—down right malicious, in fact—is the person who gives you a recipe but omits a key ingredient or essential step. Truth be told, no two people making the exact same recipe will end up with the same results. Training, experience and—hopefully—imagination are all variables.

There was a time when restaurant chefs didn’t widely disseminate their tricks of the trade. Competitors were one reason. Back then, restaurant fare was pretty much all the same, and it was advantageous to have something that set one’s establishment apart. Some professional chefs also hoped to capitalize off their knowledge by selling it to a magazine or publishing it in a cookbook.

Hence, scoring a recipe from a popular eatery was a coveted trophy. I remember my mother’s exaltation when she bagged the one for Chicken Maurice. Served at Madison’s now-closed Simon House in the 50s and 60s, it was her favorite. Her best friend presented the recipe to her (she got it from her friend who personally knew Chef Maurice). She never tired of making this dish, but even at a tender age, I recognized her version little resembled that served at the restaurant—among other things, the Simon House version did not contain pearl onions or canned mushrooms.

Modern communications have changed how we seek out information, including recipes. The published written word has given way to multimedia. The name of chefs today are household names thanks to TV. Not only do they willingly dish their knowledge on the air but on the worldwide web as well. Many stars like Emeril Lagasse, Gordon Ramsey, and Bobby Flay are restaurateurs also. Restaurants and food purveyor websites have become a major source of recipes around the world and here at home. Surfing seldom unearths any secrets, but I do find a lot of interesting stuff.

Capitol Chophouse highlights different house specialties on its website, plus the ability to search for past posts.

The focus naturally (no pun intended) at Conscious Carnivore is on preparing meat, including making your own sausage.

I love the boudain at Double S BBQ (which is relocating to Monroe Street in Madison) and if you want to try it, here are two recipes for its preparation. What I’d really like to see is a recipe for Maw Maw’s Buttermilk Pie!

No recipes here, but Liliana’s does offer cooking classes where Chef Dave shares his culinary expertise.

The featured online recipe changes with the menu on Lombardino’s website and is always intriguing.

Madison Originals, a consortium of some of the city’s best restaurants shares members’ recipes here.

Norske Nook may not confide online how to make its fabulously famous pies, but they do sell a cookbook that does.

A stellar local product is Potter’s Crackers that offers some great advice for spreads, dips and pairings to set them off.

Another hometown purveyor, Quince and Apple, give hints on how to make best use of its line of delectable comestibles.

At State Street Brats, thanks to YouTube, you can learn how to make its popular Reuben burger at home.

For something a little more refined, Tory Miller also prepares his trout recipe on YouTube.

With its recent expansion, the Willy Street Co-op has also expanded its prepared food and bakery options and they disclose many of the most requested recipes on its website.

The tourism bureau dishes some of the favorites at Wisconsin Dells’ Restaurants.

When I first started cooking, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a cookbook my grandmother had, Out of Kentucky Kitchens by Marion Flexner. To this day, I continue to make many of the Kentucky favorites it contains, including this one for the Hundred-Dollar Chocolate Cake. Marion recounts a story similar to the tale of the Neiman-Marcus cookies, only in this instance, the recipe for a chocolate cake was purchased by a wealthy socialite from Louisville on a trip to New York. Here is an updated version of the recipe.

4 ounces (4 squares) unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
2 eggs, separated
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted stick butter
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups self-rising King Arthur flour*
1½ cups whole milk
Betty’s Chocolate Frosting

Preheat oven 350 degrees.
Butter and line with baking parchment 2 9-inch round cake pans

Melt the chocolate.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Add the melted chocolate and the vanilla and beat until smooth. On low speed, alternately add the flour and the milk, mixing until just combined. Set aside.

In a clean bowl, beat the egg white and a pinch of salt with a whisk until they form soft peaks that hold their shape. Stir a big spoonful of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate cake batter to lighten it. Gently but thoroughly fold the remaining egg whites into the batter. Divide the batter between the two prepared pans.

Bake the two layers in the preheated 350-degree oven for about 25 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Transfer to wire racks and cool for 10 minutes in the pans. Carefully unmold the cake layer and cool completely on wire racks.

Frost and fill with Betty’s Chocolate Frosting or your favorite.

Makes 1 9-inch layer cake

*You don’t have to use self-rising flour, but I like the texture it imparts to the cake. Substitute sifted cake flour plus two teaspoons of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt.

Not the Pink Peppermint Frosting suggested by Marion Flexner in her book, but one I like better.

1¼ cups (2½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup water
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa
20 ounces (1¼ pounds) semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large egg yolks

In the top of a double boiler set over simmering water, combine the butter, water and cocoa. Stir the mixture continually until well mixed. Add the chocolate, and cover. When the chocolate has melted, stir the mixture until smooth. Remove the top of double boiler from the simmering water.

To the chocolate mixture, stir in the egg yolks one at a time. Add the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla and stir with a wooden spoon until very smooth. Use the frosting immediately.

Makes about 2 cups (enough to frost and fill 2 9-inch layers)