Soul-soothing dishes that will get you through winter and a pandemic
Photography by Kacie Mischler Bass
Potato Pancakes | WeatherVane Restaurant, Menasha
It’s always a good idea to start with a hearty breakfast. Melanie DuFrane, general manager of popular brunch spot WeatherVane, thinks that potato pancakes are the perfect comfort meal to start the day. Tradition and nostalgia play an important role in comfort food for DuFrane, who defines this category of food as something that “warms your soul,” is “traditional,” or that “brings you back to your childhood.”
The potato pancake recipe at WeatherVane encompasses all of that for DuFrane, whose mother made it for her as a child with only a few minor differences to the current recipe in use at the restaurant. Besides the russet potatoes, eggs, flour, butter and yellow onion in the made-from-scratch batter, DuFrane says that no potato pancake should be served without a traditional side of applesauce. Applewood smoked bacon and more butter for serving round out the dish.
DuFrane thinks of potato pancakes as a “unifying” meal, saying that they are known throughout the world in many variations. “I love when food brings people together and everyone has a story of how their grandparents used to make them, a secret family recipe, or how when there [are] leftover potatoes, everyone has many creative ways to make them at home,” she says.
You can try DuFrane’s mother’s recipe at WeatherVane by dining in or getting take-out. If not eaten right away, DuFrane recommends reheating with a little oil in a saute pan or griddle to crisp them back up. Follow the restaurant on Facebook for business updates.
Cozzy Gumbo | Cozzy Corner, Appleton
Many people think of fried chicken or hearty soups when they think of comfort food, but Cozzy Corner does one better: they combine them both (and more) into their ultimate comfort food dish. Owner Heidi Bennett calls it “The Big Ass Gumbo” and for good reason.
“It’s huge. It’s gonna fill you up,” she says. “I don’t know if you’d feel comfortable after, because it’s a lot of food.”
With the Southern soup acting as the meal’s star, the supporting roles go to smoked ribs, catfish and that beloved fried chicken, all on one platter. Thankfully Bennett says that the leftovers travel and reheat very well if you can’t find someone to share it with you (or if you want it all to yourself).
Bennett thinks the cooler months are the perfect time to indulge in comfort food. That hot gumbo and all the different types of meats are perfect, she says. “It’s just feel-good food.” She recalls that this gumbo recipe is a favorite of one of the restaurant’s previous owners, who came up with the idea of elevating gumbo from a side dish to the main attraction. “She wanted to make it so you got the big bowl,” Bennett says. The “sides” then come from the restaurant’s Cozzy Platter, so it’s really like getting two meals in one with no need to choose. Perfect for a staying-in kind of winter.
The Cozzy Corner dining room is currently open with extra cleaning practices, but if you don’t feel comfortable dining in just yet, Bennett assures that the to-go containers are the same size as the dine-in bowls, so you won’t lose out on a single bite.
Pizza | Stuc’s Pizza, Neenah & Appleton
Pizza is one of the best comfort foods. “Scientifically, there’s chemicals in there that make you feel happy – in the crust, in the carbohydrates – that really kinda warms you up,” says Stuc’s Pizza Owner Erik Anderson.
This winter, it is undeniable that we could all use some more feel-good chemicals from our meals. But besides the science, Anderson explains a more emotional reason, which is more important now than ever. “Pizza is a family-type food,” he says. “Everyone sits down and eats from the same plate.”
That is, if the family can agree on toppings and crust style. Stuc’s has a lot of options. They make Chicago-style deep dish, New York-style thin crust, hand-tossed and calzones. For toppings, their menu includes 10 meat options, four cheese options, and nearly 20 other vegetables and toppings. As for the house-made sauce, Anderson says it is a sweet sauce, and they “put it on nice and thick. We load it up. Our sauce is the boss!”
This special sweet sauce recipe has been around for a while. The original owner, Ron Stuc, tried numerous versions when he started out around 30 years ago, Anderson says. When he finally got it, he knew he’d struck gold. They’ve kept it the same ever since. Anderson started working at Stuc’s when he was 14 and took over the business over 15 years ago. Both men have put a lot of love into Stuc’s.
In addition to pizza, Stuc’s is also known around town for their desserts – an unusual reputation for a pizza place. They also serve soups, salads, sandwiches and pasta. In addition to their well-known carry-out option, their dining room is currently open and their delivery options are expanding.
Mac and Cheese | ZaRonis, Oshkosh
Can a list of comfort foods in Wisconsin be complete without homemade mac and cheese? ZaRonis owner Jon Doemel, a.k.a. “Captain ZaRoni,” says no. In fact, the head of this superhero-themed macaroni and pizza pub proudly describes how he and his wife, Madame ZaRoni (a.k.a. Anne Doemel), are fiercely against the dehydrated cheese of the boxed versions, and instead use eight different kinds of fresh cheese in their made-from-scratch sauce. “Our mac and cheese is homemade deliciousness,” he says.
Their recipe is creamy and flavorful and can be loaded up with toppings as normal as onions or hot dogs or as surprising as meatballs, pickles or sauerkraut. With a menu that features more than 20 specialty mac creations, Doemel says they took the philosophy of pizza toppings and applied it to their macs (and then some). For those who want to stretch the boundaries of flavor-mixing, he says, “Boy, do we stretch it.”
Besides the extravaganza of topping choices and cheese varieties, Doemel thinks another special factor is the way they finish their macs. “We offer toppings like a crouton crumble or potato chip, kinda like how grandma used to do it. It’s that finishing touch of baking it through our pizza oven that I really think goes the extra mile.”
To Doemel, comfort food is “something that makes you forget about your troubles after the first bite. It’s soothing, it’s a mother’s hug, it’s a baby blanket, it’s a summer breeze.” He thinks ZaRonis’ mac fits into the category because “it’s one of those things that brings you back to your childhood; it definitely makes you remember what it was like before you had bills to pay and had to worry about the struggles of the real world.”
Due to the pandemic, ZaRonis’ dining room is currently closed, and they are offering only curbside pickup and delivery. Doemel says that their macs travel very well and can still be hot after the trip from Oshkosh to Green Bay, for instance. In the unlikely event of leftovers, he recommends popping them back in the oven to reheat, as the tins they come in are meant to be cooked. This mac tastes just as good the second day.
Doemel’s final words of advice: “Never trust a skinny cook!”
Baked Sweets | Happy Bellies Bake Shop, Appleton
What is more comforting during the winter than a sweet treat? Happy Bellies Bake Shop is ready to send you home with more kinds of bakery items than you could possibly eat in one sitting. Their treats include cookies, donuts, muffins, cupcakes, scones, bars, sandwich cookies and cakes.
The best part is that indulging in Happy Bellies’ all natural and organic treats can be done without guilt. Co-owner Rebecca Brown’s words have a clear underlying message that high-quality ingredients and methods are very important to them.
“Our recipes are all from scratch and tested many times for approval. We use a variety of flours for the best texture and always use natural ingredients,” Brown says. Everything from the in-house dry blends to the toppings are given special care; all the sprinkles are natural, and the frosting is made in-house and flavored with essential oils.
In addition to creating the best-tasting treats that they can, Happy Bellies also strives to be inclusive of as many dietary needs as possible. Everything made here is gluten-free, and the shop uses a color-code system to help customers avoid other major allergens, such as dairy.
This attention to special diets goes back over 30 years, when Agnes Reis, Happy Bellies’ other co-owner, began baking for her family. “She spent most of her time in the kitchen raising her three kids, wanting to make things healthier without compromising flavor and texture,” Brown says. Having a diabetic family member with a strong sweet tooth also encouraged Reis to try out natural sugar alternatives.
Today, that care and kindness is infused into each item in the bake shop, ensuring that no one has to forgo a sweet treat this winter.