For almost seventy years, Betty Betenz of Palmyra has been the area’s unofficial Potato Pancake Queen. Now into her tenth decade, Betenz has decided to make sure her iconic recipe remains a part of Wisconsin cuisine for years to come. Lake Effect’s Mitch Teich explains:
SOUND: sizzling of the grill
MITCH TEICH, reporter: It’s a typical Friday afternoon in the kitchen at The Trout House, the restaurant that’s part of Rushing Waters Fisheries in Palmyra. There’s a lot on the winter dinner menu that Executive Chef Nate Chappell is preparing – things like Pecan-Crusted Rainbow Trout, Blue Crab Mac and Cheese. But right now, the attention of Chappell and the others in the kitchen is drawn towards an accompaniment.
SOUND: tapping of pots and pans
BETTY BETENZ: We always did this to get it the right size.
NATE CHAPPELL: Mmm-hmm.
Consulting on this important task is Betty Betenz, for whom Betty’s Famous Potato Pancakes are named. Chappell and his team follow Betty’s recipe closely, but as she looks on, there’s always room for tweaking.
BETENZ: Maybe use a trifle more onion, I think.
CHAPPELL: Uh-huh, okay.
TEICH: Before the night is out, the Trout House will have dished out upwards of two hundred potato pancakes, which requires mutiplying the measurements in Betty’s original recipe. But of course, Betty was also used to making large batches of pancakes in her decades of work in restaurants around Palmyra. Sitting in the Trout House’s dining room, Betty shares a secret – her iconic potato pancake recipe did not originate with her.
BETENZ: Well, there was a restaurant up at LaGrange on Highway 12, and it was a supper club. And I was a waitress there. And the gal that was doing the cooking had to go for an operation. And so the boss – Fred Judy, I’ll never forget his name – he came up to me and he said, “Could you take over the cooking while Irene is gone until she gets back?” And I looked at him and I thought, “I’m not a cook, I’m just a waitress.” So I said to him, I said, “If you’ve got enough confidence in me to think I can handle this, I says, I’ll try it.”
TEICH: She says it was her boss’s potato pancake recipe, and it took her a while to master it.
BETENZ: He’d come into the kitchen every Friday night and he’d have a pancake and he’d say like this, “Another pinch of salt,” he’d say.
TEICH: That was about sixty-five years ago. And Irene – the cook for whom she was filling in – got married and quit her job, meaning Betty was now a professional chef. She stayed at that first supper club for a few more years, went to work at another restaurant – eventually, she and her husband bought a resort in Rome, Wisconsin, where she refined the recipe a bit more. Still a few years later, the couple bought the Nite Cap Inn in Palmyra – owning it for a quarter-century. She sold that restaurant a couple years after her husband died – but was coaxed out of retirement to work at still another restaurant, called the Fireside. Betty says she can’t remember exactly when she realized people were seeking out her potato pancakes.
BETENZ: A lot of people asked for the recipes – of course, I always give it to them, and then it was in the Milwaukee Sentinel a couple of times and it was also in the Jefferson County Union. A lot of pictures and everything was in the paper, too – the chefs and myself. I almost have an album of all my pictures (laughs).
TEICH: So it’s not necessarily a secret recipe. But still, while many people can follow instructions, not everyone can credibly re-create Betty Betenz’s Famous Potato Pancakes. Enter Chef Nate Chappell and the evolving Trout House restaurant.
CHAPPELL: We kind of were in the R&D phase of developing the pancake we wanted to use here at the Trout House. You know, I worked at the retail store here on many weekends. And people would come through just on their way to the Nite Cap. Because they’d been going there forever – and the potato pancakes. All about the potato pancakes. Your potato pancakes have a following in Wisconsin – completely have a following.
TEICH: But for the Trout House to become the official keeper of the potato pancake flame, the kitchen staff had to acquaint itself with the technique that Betty has honed over 70 years or so.
BETENZ: In the first place, you gotta use Idaho potatoes. Idaho potatoes are a drier potato. And you grind ‘em, and you put ‘em in a sieve, and you squeeze out the water – much as you can. You grind your potatoes and then you grind your onion – but you grind your onion separate from the potatoes, in a different bowl. And then it’s flour and salt, and a little baking powder and eggs. And mix it all together. When I had my business, I had certain pans made – they were real thick, heavy, heavy pans, and used those for fryin’.
TEICH: Chappell says more than the recipe itself, it’s that technique that Betty Betenz has imbued that is the key to the potato pancake legacy – and his philosophy in general.
CHAPPELL: The method is the most important part. And I tell people that all the time. People ask me, “Well, how long do you put it in the over for?” Well, you put it in until it’s done. You do it until it’s done the right way. And that’s what we’re up against as chefs and cooks – doing it the right way. The right method.
TEICH: Still, at the end of the process is what it tastes like. And Betty and her latest protégé agree that the ideal potato pancake is browned, crispy, and not overly greasy. But in the Trout House’s kitchen, to get to that point, also requires patience. And if there’s anything 70 years of frying have taught Betty Betenz, you can’t rush a potato pancake. For Lake Effect, I’m Mitch Teich in Palmyra.
SOUND: Sizzling of the grill
BETENZ: Yep, they look good.
SOUND: Pans clank
Are you looking for the recipe? You can find it here.