Savor this: pound cake, kringle, hootch, bitters

This month’s Midwest Foodservice Expo showed off what’s new and best in the world of Wisconsin food and drink. The annual event, for Wisconsin Restaurant Association members and others in hospitality or foodservice work, is chockful of professional development and exhibitors with something to sell.

Much is insider talk, but here’s a bit of what caught my attention as an average consumer.

Like pound cake? Buy it from a military veteran. Troop Café, a nonprofit where disabled and disadvantaged vets are trained and employed in culinary work, has added 42 flavors of made-to-order pound cake to its offerings.

Steven Nelson, an eight-year Army veteran, comes up with the choices and uses his mother’s recipe to make the cake. He counts a key lime and chocolate chip combo as one of the more unconventional offerings.

Derek Small, executive chef and director of training, retired from the Navy after 20 years of service. He says Troop Café seeks to sell pound cake to individuals as well as restaurants and retail outlets. The business also seeks catering gigs.

It’s $15 per loaf or $25 for a larger cake, plus shipping. Or stop at the actual cafe at 3430 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, for breakfast or lunch. On the menu: sandwiches, wraps, wings, more.

The Wisconsin Bakers Association organizes annual competitions to show off the good taste and creativity of student and professional bakers. Among the big winners announced during the Expo this year:

A pretzel-shaped, sea salt-caramel-pecan kringle from Uncle Mike’s Bake Shoppe, Green Bay, was both the “bakers best” and “people’s choice” out of 11 entries. Owner Mike Vande Walle began his work in his parents’ bakery in the 1970s.

Uncle Mike’s bourbon-infused chocolate cupcakes with caramel, fudge and pecans were tops in their class too. The bakery also had the top fritter (maple-bacon-pecan).

Sweeping the pie categories was Elsie Mae’s Bakery-Cannery, Kenosha, named after owner Kelly Deem’s grandmother. Deem and her staff also make unusual jams (example: ginger Asian pear) and drink mixes (basil lemonade to a mixer for Bloody Marys).

Deem’s 1-2-3 sweep for pies included a Belgian chocolate, strawberry-rhubarb and strawberry-mango-peach-pineapple. In the beginner division, the bakery’s Marina Modica won all too, starting with a strawberry-lemonade pie.

Neat-O’s Bake Shoppe, Baraboo, topped the long john (filled with pineapple curd) and cake doughnut (made with sour cream, rolled in cinnamon sugar) categories.

Monzu Bakery, Green Bay, produced the best classic cupcake (double-chocolate, caramel truffle) and royal icing.

For more winners, keep tabs on

Dozens are members of the Wisconsin Distillers Guild, which has grown steadily since its formation in 2014. Small-batch spirits are not hard to find, but one of the newer players – Ledgerock Distillery, Fond du Lac – goes one big step further.

Owner Jay Retzer is a farmer too and says he uses only homegrown corn and wheat to make vodka, gin, moonshine (unaged corn whiskey) and bourbon.

The farm and distillery are on the Niagara Escarpment, a nearly 1,000-mile-long rock ridge that includes Niagara Falls. “This fractured limestone rock formation, which lies directly below our fertile soils, provides a natural filtering process, which in turn provides us with close-to-perfect water,” drawn from 280 feet below ground, a press release explains.

It’s an eco-astute business too. One example: Grain mash that is left over after distilling is delivered to a methane digester to produce electricity. Visitors are welcome. Upcoming are summer music and other events.

Bittercube Bitters, a Milwaukee company mentioned in our recent articles about Bitters Boot Camp in Madison, soon will introduce a four-product line of Heirloom Liqueurs to its lineup.

That’s the word from Paul Fredrich, marketing manager, who says Lost Whale (a bar in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood) will host a kickoff party in April or May.

“They’re our recipes but made in Minnesota,” Fredrich says. In the quartet of heirloom liqueurs: Alchermes (scarlet in color, inspired by an 8th century potion); Crème de Flora (floral ingredients, a sub for orange liqueur); Genepy (a mix of Artemitis herbs and flowers); and Pineapple Amaro (the fruit plus Jamaican Quassia bark).

All are small-batch products. “People want liqueurs that are made well, more interesting and not mass-produced,” Fredrich believes.

In Milwaukee, Bittercube Bar and Bazaar offers 30-minute tours and operates a bar to introduce seasonal, traditional and experimental cocktails, some of which use products in research and development.

From SoulBoxer Cocktail Company in Pewaukee comes a ready-to-pour-and-drink Old Fashioned cocktail. The 750-milliliter and 1.5-liter bottles contains booze that is aged with cherries from Door County and oranges. The blend is combined with bitters and cane sugar.

There are two versions: One with brandy. One with bourbon. Add sweet or sour pop, or drink it on the rocks.