Some tastes of Christmas are best left to the experts to produce. (Photo by Mary Bergin)
Some tastes of Christmas are best left to the experts to produce. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

Mary Bergin takes us on another tour of the state, this one rooted in food and drink to enjoy this time of year.

‘Tis the season… even if we don’t linger under mistletoe, sit on Santa’s lap, or share a mug of holiday cheer this month. The Yuletide arrives with its own set of delicious traditions, and they don’t need to change because of a pandemic.

I can still press chocolate stars onto just-baked cookies, dig into nut-coated cheeseballs, scoop and slurp brandy slush. To me, this is a part of what Christmas tastes like. And when I don’t have the energy or skill to re-create what I love, Badger-based businesses know how to deliver. 

In honor of the traditional 12 days of Christmas, here are 12 examples of Wisconsin-based holiday flavors that will help satisfy a craving, stoke a fond memory, start a new tradition or pamper a friend.

Deppler’s Baby Swiss, made by Chalet Cheese Co-op in rural Green County, is a sentimental favorite because a longtime boss of mine always brought a block to the newsroom at holiday time. The cheese is a perennial award winner too, made with whole milk instead of the usual skim.

For someone on your “naughty” list—or the cultured cheese lover—add a little Limburger, wrapped in foil because it’s so pungent. Only Chalet Cheese produces it in the U.S.

Limburger: a pungent present for the true cheese lover, or a stinky way to address a “naughty” list. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

Back when we ate from buffets, a spread of smoked salmon was one sign of holiday splurging. Do it on your own with fish from six-generation Susie Q’s in Two Rivers, which processes whatever its fishermen bring in. In Algoma, Bearcat’s sells a wide array of seafood, including fish caught in the Great Lakes.

Bearcat’s Fish House, Algoma, smokes fish caught in the Great Lakes. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

We love brandy in Wisconsin—buying more than one-half of Korbel’s annual production—and a special holiday is reason enough for me to pour a little Kohler Dark Chocolate Brandy into a snifter. Tasty all on its own, minus the rest of the Old Fashioned.

(Photo from Destination Kohler)

The old-school Tom and Jerry cocktail earns its own chapter in the new “Wisconsin Cocktails” book by Jeanette Hurt of Milwaukee. Why? Cheeseheads simply refused to let the drink go out of style. Count O&H Bakery, the kingpin kringle maker in Racine, among bakeries that make and sell the batter seasonally.

A batch of Glühwein—red wine warmed with spices—reminds me of German roots and traditional Christkindlmarkts, where friends bundle up and linger outdoors to imbibe, eat sausage, dance to a polka, and buy handmade crafts. Many such markets never opened this year, but mulled wine is easy to replicate. Pour a bottle of fruity red into a stovetop pot and add sugar, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, stars of anise, slices of orange and lemon. Germans add juniper berries too. Simmer, sample, adjust.

Glühwein is red wine simmered with stars of anise, cinnamon sticks and other spices. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

Dresden Stollen—buttery yeast bread with rum, almonds, raisins, candied citrus—is a German treat that’s globally protected as a regionally distinctive product. (Think Champagne and France.) Wisconsin adaptations include Grandma Staada’s Christmas Stollen, from a veteran-owned and home-based bakery in Monroe. Chris Sachs uses his grandmother’s recipe. Nothing has been changed except for adding dried cranberries and soaking all raisins in rum, the baker says on Facebook. “I even use the same pot that my Grandma and Great-Grandma used, and wrap the pot/dough in a blanket overnight as they did.”

Gingerbread is another seasonal delight. Even if I make my own, I swing over to Clasen’s European Bakery in Middleton for a bag or two of cake like gingerbread that is shaped like stars, hearts and moons, then drenched in chocolate. German immigrants established this family business in 1959.  

Bites of cakelike gingerbread are drenched in chocolate after being cut into star, heart and moon shapes at Clasen European Bakery, Middleton. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

Baking in your own kitchen makes the house smell great, but some productions are better left to the experts. One example: the beautiful French yule log—Bûche de Noël—a flat sponge cake slathered with a creamy filling, then carefully rolled into a cylinder, frosted and textured to resemble wood with bark. Yule logs at Carl’s Cakes, a subset of Market Street Diner and Bakery in Sun Prairie, are chocolate cake with Bavarian cream filling. You have to order them 72 hours in advance.

The 2020 yule log from Carl’s Cakes, Sun Prairie. (Photo from Carl’s Cakes)

Jagged chunks of chocolate-covered angel food candy—a sugar-spun treat that melts in the mouth—give me flashbacks to childhood on the farm. It’s also known as sponge candy, made and sold at Seroogy’s in De Pere and Ashwaubenon, family operated since 1899. Another Seroogy’s holiday special is soft and creamy pecan divinity.

Hard holiday candy that is made in Wisconsin seems harder to find, probably because it’s cheaper to ship in mass-produced versions. An exception is Niemann’s in Wauwatosa, whose from-scratch candy making began in 1919. Multi-generation recipes are used to make oodles of hand-pulled and hooked candy canes, plus bite-sized pillows of hard candy.

When I indulge in too much of a good thing at this time of year, my go-to remedy is peppermint ice cream. One soothing version: Peppermint Stick from Madison-based Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, which opened in 1962 as a mom-and-pop ice cream and candy shop. Today, under second generation leadership, more than 100 flavors are distributed nationwide, to at least 400 locations.