Kristine M Kierzek
For more than three decades, Barb Pratzel has fed her community. It all goes back to Collins House, the Madison area bed-and-breakfast where many of her recipes have their roots.
When their 20-year lease with the city was up, she and her husband, Mike, closed the B&B and moved on to the next venture: Manna Cafe. They built the business based on from-scratch cooking, a neighborhood staple known for its breads and breakfasts. Then the pandemic hit in 2020.
Approaching retirement, the Pratzels chose to close their beloved Manna Cafe. That was the impetus Pratzel needed.
She got to work on her first cookbook, writing out her recipes and the stories behind them. From sticky buns and quiche to challah, matzo ball soup and their famous oatmeal pancakes, nearly 150 recipes are featured in “Manna Cafe and Bakery Cookbook: A Memoir of Two Businesses, a Community, and the Food That Connected Them” available Oct. 21 through Mineral Point based Little Creek Press Books, $32, It can be ordered at littlecreekpress.com/bookstore.
Question: What inspired the cookbook project?
Answer: All along people would say you should do a cookbook. I did want to write, but a cookbook wasn’t the thing I was thinking about. I always had writing in the back of my mind. I didn’t know what that was until we knew we were closing. Then it all suddenly gelled. Not only would this be a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to write, but here are hundreds of regular customers who were begging for the recipes.
Q: What was the number one recipe you had to include?
A: The oatmeal pancakes, the most requested recipe from our bed-and-breakfast guests. A close second was the pumpkin chocolate chip muffins …
The oat cakes have a long history in terms of people asking for them. Before we had Manna I’d give out this recipe to special people who asked. I was just recently reminded of that.
My son is a chef in New York, born and raised in Madison. Through middle school he had a couple close friends, one of whom is now a writer and editor for Wisconsin Public Radio. The man she married used to work for us. When he went off to college, he was an oatcake fanatic. We gave him the recipe as a gift. Everyone on staff signed it. They have it framed and hanging in their home now.
Q: Was it a struggle to part with any of these recipes?
A: No, it was time. It is funny how you hold them tight when you’re still in business. You’re not afraid someone’s going to steal them, but they just feel like yours. Now, more than anything I want people to have them and I can’t imagine not sharing them.
It was hard for me when people knew I was writing the cookbook. They would say “Please, I’ll pay you for the oatcake recipe.” I’d apologize and explain everyone has to wait.
Q: What were some of the other unexpected challenges?
A: I’ve got a big audience of people who are probably mostly novice cooks. Even so, they clamored for the recipes that I knew would be difficult and challenging. I wanted to include them, but I had to break them down for people who didn’t have a lot of experience. Take the morning buns, the sticky buns, which originated out of Ovens of Brittany here in Madison. There is a lot of technique to make a good morning bun, using croissant dough. I couldn’t not include it because it was difficult. I had to include it, but had to write it concisely and clearly for most of the novice people. Suddenly he has a recipe that is three to four pages long. I had to balance that with simple recipes, like the pumpkin chocolate chip muffin.
Manna was completely from-scratch food. We were famous for our quiche. People would order hundreds during the holidays. The quiche recipe includes making the crust, then making the custard, then the filling, and then taking all three parts and putting it together. That was a whole chapter. I made sure I included the things people loved, even though they might not take them on because they’ll open the book and say “oh really? That’s what that involves”?
Q: What would you most like to be known for?
A: Creamy, custardy scrambled eggs, the technique of which I learned from reading Julia Child once. I feel like people really don’t know what scrambled eggs can be, until they’ve had a properly slow-cooked scramble with just the right amount of salt, and perhaps a sprinkle of great parmesan cheese. … Three ingredients, eggs, salt and a bit of butter, cooked with the right technique, turn a simple dish from pedestrian to luxury. …Anyway, I don’t mind being known for my passion for scrambled eggs (see page 87 of the book)!
Q: What has feeding people and creating these recipes taught you?
A: It has taught me the importance of food and bringing people together, in particular with breads… In St. Louis, Pratzel’s bakery was founded by three brothers in 1908 or so and continued to 2010 or so. My husband was third generation. One of the things they developed was a corn Tzizel. We have that recipe in the cookbook. … Pratzel’s bakery was known for this rye bread, and we made it at Manna.
After Pratzel’s closed we’d get calls from people from St. Louis, or wherever, who wanted this bread. It is a sourdough rye bread, the entirety rolled in cornmeal. We made challah every Friday. … Our cultural identity was based on our Jewishness, and we made these breads that were reflective of that and told a story about us as people. Sharing those breads and their stories with our customers, we were making a connection.
Autumn Apple Cheesecake Bars
Makes one 13 x 9 loaf
Recipe tested by Pete Sullivan
For the crust and streusel:
- 2¼ cups all purpose flour
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons vanilla
- 9 ounces (2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons) chilled butter, cut in half-inch cubes
For the apple topping:
- 5 medium apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/4-inch thick slices (see note)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- ¼ cup apple brandy or regular brandy
- ⅓ cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
For the cheesecake filling:
- 24 ounces (three packages) cream cheese
- ¾ cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
Grease a 13 x 9-inch baking pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
For the crust: Place flour, sugar and vanilla in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add butter and use on-off pulses to cut the butter into the dry ingredients. The mixture is ready when it is crumbly and dry, like a coarse meal. Do not work it to the point where it starts to come together.
Set aside about one-third of the mixture to be used for the streusel topping. Press the remaining two-thirds into the bottom, and slightly up the sides, of the prepared pan.
Bake the crust until it is just barely golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside until you are ready to add filling.
For the apples: Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the butter and then the apples. Stir the apples frequently so they cook evenly. As they cook, they will give off some juices, and begin to soften. Once the liquids have evaporated, turn up the heat to high and add the brandy. As soon as the brandy has cooked off, reduce the heat to medium, add the cinnamon, sugar and vanilla and keep tossing the apples until the sugar has melted, and the apple mixture has taken on a caramel stickiness.
Do not let the apple begin to disintegrate. They are done when they are softened and a bit limp, but not fully cooked. They need to keep their shape. Let apples cool while preparing the filling.
For the cheesecake filling: Clean the food processor and blade before reusing. Place all the ingredients for the filling in the food processor and blend for 30 seconds. Scrape down the bowl and blend another 30 seconds. Let sit for a minute, then blend one last time for 30 seconds.
Pour the cheesecake filling into the crust, and smooth the top. Place the apples in neat overlapping rows on top of the filling, making sure to cover the entire top of the cheesecake.
For the streusel: Turn the reserved crust components into a streusel topping: use your fingers to toss the mixture together, encouraging the formation of tiny lumps the size of dried peas or smaller. Work quickly so that the butter does melt into the dough from the heat of your hands. Sprinkle this streusel evenly over the top of the bars.
Place pan in the oven and bake bars at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn the oven temperature down to 325 degrees and bake another 30 minutes, or until the filling is just set.
Cool bars on a rack, then refrigerate until fully chilled. Remove the bars from the bread before cutting into serving pieces using a sharp knife. They are best eaten somewhere between room temperature and refrigerator-cold. Feeling fanciful and festive? Drizzle caramel sauce over the bars just before serving. Add a sprinkling of chopped, toasted pecans.
Note: Choose an apple that will hold its shape when sautéed. Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp or Granny Smiths are a common choice as well, but they are more tart. Prepare the apples for cooking just before you are ready to use them, so they don’t turn brown in the meantime.