The line at the counter is 20-deep. Young and old, they mill around the air-conditioned pavilion, their thoughts drawn to one thing and one thing only. A confection of iconic proportions: The Wisconsin State Fair Cream Puff.
It’s a resplendent August morning at the Wisconsin State Fair, and the wafting aroma of funnel cakes is in the air. Yes, it’s only 10 a.m., but fair foods don’t follow a consumption timeline.
Just as the devout will flock to the healing shrine in Lourdes, France, a pilgrimage to the Original Cream Puff Pavilion is a necessary rite of fair passage. Back in 1924, the Dairy Bakery, as it was then called, went about its routine (selling cream puffs for 15 cents) in 400 square feet of space. Over time, the quarters expanded to accommodate the increasingly prodigious baking load. The last pavilion remodel, which occurred in the 1990s, resulted in the 18,000-square-foot structure (about a third of the size of a football field) that the bakery occupies today. (Inflation has bumped the cost of a puff to $4.)
It’s in this building that I stand on this arid morning in 2011, waiting at the threshold of a somewhat inconspicuous white door. A door of nail-biting mystery. When it opens, a man stands before me dressed completely in white, and it’s as though time stops. Seemingly in slow motion, I turn to see that all eyes – eyes belonging to the tank top-clad, flip-flop-ambulating, pastry-craving public – are on me, or rather on this white presence gesturing me inside the door to the place where few venture – the Cream Puff Kitchen.
Inside the mystery door is an oblong-ish room. But not just any room. It’s filled with stainless steel tables, shelves that extend to the ceiling, a row of cash registers, trays of cream puffs, cardboard boxes and a dozen or so people dressed in white T-shirts, their backs stamped with the “Team Cream Puff” logo and their heads covered in caps plastered with a black-and-white Holstein cow pattern.
Per instructions, I don a hairnet and wash my hands at a little corner sink while the pavilion’s Mr. Big, a benign drill sergeant, puffs out his chest. The subtle movement signals a ripple effect of productivity through the room. The bakery has 200 workers, and only a handful are stationed at the payment windows exchanging puffs for cash.
The majority of these “team members” are teenagers working six- to eight-hour shifts during the 11-day fair, filling baked pastry shells with cream, boxing the finished creations and manning the cash registers. The kitchen, which was built all those years ago to support the state’s dairy products, operates as a teaching bakery, and the Wisconsin Bakers Association oversees the show.
Beyond the summer-vacationing adolescents, the kitchen employs five certified professional bakers and 20 supervisors, including Mr. Big himself, Dave Schmidt. A 44-year veteran of the baking industry, Mr. Big is the WBA’s executive director. He also may be the State Fair cream puff’s biggest cheerleader. “No place else during the year can you get a cream puff this fresh for 11 days,” he says.
Schmidt is a formidable presence who towers over me. He also goes by Puff Daddy, though that’s not his nickname of choice. “Enter At Your Own Risk” reads a sign affixed to the door of his cubbyhole of an office. And that’s no mistake. The man spends 17-hour days keeping customer/puff relations going off without a hitch.
On this day, Schmidt is decked out in Team Cream Puff white and carries two cell phones as well as a whistle that hangs around his neck. He skirts a table and a half-dozen persevering puff personnel, beckoning me to follow. From the boxing and selling area, he opens another door, glancing back with a Willy Wonka-esque wink.
Within seconds, it’s like we’re standing in the Sahara Desert at midday. I peer inside one of five mammoth baking ovens and watch puffs expand and turn golden on their baking sheets. The cooling racks – layers stacked virtually to the ceiling – emit throbbing heat.
Further into the room, head baker Tom Barger effortlessly maneuvers a cadre of kitchen appliances and gadgets made for giants. Copper kettles – big enough to bathe several of the Octomom’s young progeny at one time – boil water and shortening. Once the flour goes in, the kettles are moved over to the 80-quart Hogart stand mixers. From there, the hot ingredients are poured in the mixers, then the remaining ingredients are added – eggs, baker’s ammonia, milk. Dough is mixed with paddles almost the size of boat oars.
Making 33,000 cream puffs each day – in a bakery that operates for 11 days straight with no breaks – requires exactitude. There isn’t someone using a spoon or pastry bag to haphazardly arrange circles of puff batter on a baking sheet. That task is given to a machine called The Depositor, which squirts out the precise amount of puff batter. The Depositor is a whiz at the task, churning out 60 dozen shells in 10 minutes. Fascinating.
But Puff Daddy is ready to move on – to a room far colder (kept between 32 and 38 degrees), the Cream Room. It’s no place for short sleeves, and the sweat on my brow dries in a millisecond. Crates holding 5-gallon bags of cream are stacked from floor to ceiling, and a few steps ahead, a line of puff proteges – wearing knit gloves under plastic ones and hoodies as insulation under Team Cream Puff shirts – is filling pastry shells with sweetened whipped cream. The job is crucial, but it’s also rote and involves a magic stainless steel contraption connected to a long tube with a pastry bag at the end. The machine knows exactly how much cream goes into each puff. It’s hard to mess up. But also not impossible…
A sign catches my eye: “Do Not Lick Your Fingers At Any Time.” Apparently, Puff Daddy caught someone in flagrante delicto years before. “It hasn’t happened since,” the Big D of Puffs says with a look much like Willy Wonka’s to Augustus Gloop when he tries to drink from the chocolate river.
Maybe it’s temperature shock (or fear), but this part of the Puff Team works with steely determination while a rabid audience of fairgoers watches, mesmerized, through a set of windows.
As I, too, watch and scan in vain for an unobtrusive spot to stand in this crammed, frigid room, Puff observes, grinning proudly, “Every bag of cream will be gone by the end of the day.”
From cream filling, the puffs move to the powdered sugar rotation, 1,000 pounds of which are used by fair’s end, and then, finally, the freshly finished puffs are boxed up and delivered to the hands of fairgoing fans who flock to the pavilion and the park’s two satellite “drive-through” locations.
But the hundreds of thousands of puffs sold each year weren’t enough to satiate the crew. So on Aug. 11, 2011, Team Cream Puff created a pastry of truly epic proportions – a 125-pound State Fair Cream Puff. There’s even video of Puff Daddy scooping cream inside the shell and pumping his fist when it set an official Guinness world record. Not that people need any more reason to pile praise on the puff that dares you to try eating it daintily.
Won’t happen. This is eternal, messy bliss.
“Puff Pandemonium” appeared in the 2012 City Guide issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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