Why you should care
Because let’s be honest: This is even better than cheese curds.
Every Saturday from April to November, the Dane County Farmers Market in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, is a sight to behold: More than 150 vendors set up in the square around the capitol building and a constant stream of shoppers moves in a steady counterclockwise ripple. It’s a producer-only market; everyone behind a stand has raised, grown or otherwise produced their goods in Wisconsin themselves — be it carrots or cheese curds, flowers or beef jerky. But the market is also home to perhaps the best thing to eat in Madison: hot and spicy cheese bread.
The dough is buttery and sweet, almost brioche-like.
If you’re like me, you’ll beeline for the Stella’s Bakery stand. You will join the fast-moving line and may balk at the $12 price tag, but then you’ll see this is a gigantic round loaf of bread. You’ll find a seat, tear into the still-hot red-pepper-flecked bread — it easily pulls apart into bite-size pieces — and utter “oh, my God” as your senses process the dopamine overload. Hot, freshly made bread of any sort is generally amazing, but add cheese and spice to the mix and it’s next-level delicious.
It’s no wonder this bread has become a local icon since its debut in 1988. The bakery’s founding family had shifted from farming to baking following a prolonged drought. As the story goes, the spicy cheese bread was a happy accident: One of Stella’s original owners, Coralia Harn, had planned on making cheese empanadas. “My mother was from Panama. She was making a new type of empanada, a cheese empanada, to serve the people of Wisconsin,” says Jennifer Patrello, one of Harn’s daughters, who now runs the wholesale side of things at Stella’s. Wisconsinites, it’s true, have a thing for cheese. However, empanadas are tiresome to make, so Coralia instead dumped the cheese filling into some white vienna bread dough. When her mom brought the odd mashup to the farmers market, Patrello recalls she and her sister were hardly optimistic — but the loaves sold out. And the people of Madison wanted more.
The recipe has since been tweaked to achieve cult-status perfection: The dough is buttery and sweet, almost brioche-like. Stuffed inside is a quarter-pound of Wisconsin provolone and Monterey Jack cheeses, as well as chives and parsley; on top is a generous shake of hot red pepper flakes. Some bites are cheese-free. Others are like biting into a hunk of melted cheese.
Some 2,000 loaves sell at the market every Saturday, and somehow each one is warm. According to Patrello, much of the bread is baked throughout the morning and trucked in at a rate frequent enough to keep things steamy. She credits her father, Max Harn, for laying down that ingenious law: “It has to be hot.”
Except it really doesn’t. Despite having no preservatives, hot and spicy cheese bread is delicious at room temperature too. My husband and I ate ours for days — it was our late-night hotel snack in Madison, our in-flight treat two days later. Stella’s current owner (and Patrello’s sister), Julie Winzenried, agrees: “I prefer to eat mine a few days old, because I’m always so surprised at how great it still tastes.”
Madison-area people have several options for finding this bread. For the rest of us, fortunately, the bakery can ship across the U.S. (Unfortunately, it will cost $19 with shipping.)
You’ll never look at empanadas the same again.