Port Washington Inn tops state B&B contest

Atop Sweet Cake Hill, four blocks from Lake Michigan, sits a bed and breakfast with five guest rooms near downtown Port Washington, an unassuming community of 11,000 that does little to brag up its attractive lakeshore.

Book the Port Washington Inn’s third-floor Top of the World Suite, and accommodations include a sitting area with a Great Lake view – especially clear during this barren time of year. Between the inn and lakefront is a segment of the 30-mile Ozaukee Interurban Trail, groomed for biking or cross-country skiing, depending upon the weather and locale.

“The people who find Port Washington know that it’s not overrun with tourists,” says innkeeper Rita Nelson. “You don’t have to fight the masses” for a restaurant table or quiet lakeside stroll.

She and husband David are Iowa natives who moved to south central Wisconsin in 1996 because the B&B was for sale. He was a counselor and, before that, Methodist minister ready for a change of scenery and career.

“I blame it on my midlife crisis,” Rita says, of their move to Wisconsin. She is a natural nurturer, known for baking cookies during lunch hours while at work at a Sioux City college. She also recently won the annual Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast Association recipe contest.

Her inn’s décor mixes antiques, homespun accents and David’s woodworking. Some of his furniture – bookshelves to bed backboards – began as walnut trees that farmers toppled, to create more tillable acreage.

Rita’s breakfasts, served buffet style, contain sweet and savory items – from-scratch granola to yogurt that the Nelsons culture on their own. Offerings always include whole wheat bread, made in small loaves with grain that the couple grinds.

“We’re big bread people,” Rita says. “We started making it in 1975 and have never been without it.”

It seems fitting that the work occurs on Sweet Cake Hill, which got its name decades ago because of a cake maker who routinely used leftover batter to make cupcakes for children in the neighborhood.

For the Nelsons, bread pudding – made with their wheat bread – won over judges for the Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast Association’s third annual contest. Innkeepers were encouraged to enter culinary creations that used Door County cherries as a key ingredient.

The winning recipe “has evolved over time,” Rita says. Here’s how to make it.

(Serves 12)

For the bread pudding:

1/4 cup butter
Bread, cut into cubes (enough, when toasted, to fill a 9×13 pan, slightly heaped)
6 large eggs
3 1/2 cups milk (make part of it half-and-half, if you desire)
1/2 cup Wisconsin maple syrup
1 cup dried Door County cherries
Raw sugar

In a moderate oven, melt butter in a jellyroll pan. Add the cubed bread and toast in a 450-degree oven until nicely browned (watch carefully). While bread cubes are toasting, use a blender to combine eggs, milk and maple syrup.

Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Place toasted bread cubes into a large bowl, and pour the liquid from the blender over them, mixing well. Add this mixture to a well-buttered 9×13 baking pan. Add more milk (or half-and-half) so the level of liquid in the pan is about equal to the level of the bread.

Sprinkle the dried Door County cherries over the top, then mix them throughout. Sprinkle lightly with raw sugar and bake until the middle is firm and the top is nicely browned (about 1 hour).

Note: The Nelsons use 2 percent milk and two small loaves of their wheat bread in this recipe. Their bread pudding bakes in a nonstick cast-iron pan.

For sauce:

Frozen tart cherries
Frozen sweet cherries
Raw sugar

Puree equal amounts of tart and sweet cherries, then sweeten to taste with raw sugar. Or, this combination of cherries can be left whole and lightly sweetened to create a sauce as the cherries thaw.

Note: The Nelsons typically offer small ramekins of the bread pudding at their breakfast buffet, with the cherry sauce offered as an optional topping. “Serving the sauce in a silver compote set in the center of a platter of fresh kiwi slices makes for a stunning presentation and a delicious pairing of flavors,” Rita advises, and she often serves beef bacon as an accompaniment.

For more about the Port Washington Inn, 308 W. Washington St., Port Washington: www.port-washington-inn.com, 262-284-5583. For more about the free Ozaukee Interurban Trail, which connects Mequon, Thiensville, Cedarburg, Port Washington and Belgium: www.interurbantrail.us.

Cooking contest runners-up are Jodi Rotter of the Washington House Inn, W62 N573 Washington Ave., Cedarburg (www.washingtonhouseinn.com, 888-554-9545), for her cherry pecan scones with maple butter, and Dee Nierwicki of Pedal’rs Inn Bed and Breakfast, 101 James St., Wales (www.pedalrsinn.com, 262-968-4700), for her cherry cordial panna cotta.

Recipes are online at www.WisconsinBandB.com, and that’s also the place to order the association’s newest cookbook, which costs $21.95.

Almost 200 inns are members of the state’s B&B association, and they’re popular destinations for Valentine couples. Many also are wedding destinations. For example:

An innkeeper at Bowman’s Oak Hill B&B, Wisconsin Dells, is an ordained minister. www.bowmansoakhillbedandbreakfast.com, 888-253-5631

Another ordained minister operates the Oscar H. Hanson House, Cambridge. www.ohhanson.com, 888-706-7227

On staff at the Rittenhouse Inn is a wedding officiate and wedding coordinator. www.rittenhouseinn.com, 888-611-4667

A wedding coordinator also is on staff at White Rose Inns, Wisconsin Dells. www.thewhiterose.com, 800-482-4724

The owner of Fountain Chateau, Hustler, truly has an ear for music, as she used to sing with Amy Grant and Anne Murray. www.fountainchateau.com, 877-427-3719

The onsite bakery at Green Fountain Inn, Waupaca, makes wedding cakes. Also on the property is a restaurant. www.greenfountaininn.com, 800-603-4600

The Honeybee Inn, Horicon, offers a Honey Bee Mine wedding package. www.honeybeeinn.com, 920-485-4855

Also: The five-acre Eagle Harbor Inn, Ephraim, offers a two-night recommitment getaway for $499. That includes a personalized and private ceremony, roses, Champagne and red velvet cake. For more: www.eagleharbor.com, 800-324-5427.

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