Boone Tavern chef’s secret to good cooking: Use plenty of eggs, milk, butter and cream

While at a booksigning for Flavors of Kentucky this summer at Evans Orchard, Bob McCormick came by to talk about cooking. McCormick told me he had worked with the late Richard T. Hougen at the Boone Tavern Hotel in Berea from 1958 to 1963.

Hougen, who was associate professor of hotel management at Berea College and manager of Boone Tavern Hotel from 1940 to 1976, can be credited with putting Boone Tavern on the culinary map.

McCormick said Hougen was “very meticulous in everything he did. Cooks got a stern reprisal when he saw them not using his cookbooks in recipe prep even though they’d made it hundreds of times. He told them that over a period of time they’d vary it a little until it would not be close to the original.”

McCormick has autographed copies of all three of Hougen’s books, Look No Further (1951), Cooking with Hougen (1960), and More Hougen Favorites (1971) which he let me borrow for a few weeks.

In Look No Further, Hougen wrote: “I believe that the secret of good cooking is a combination of simplicity of procedure, accurate measurements, and the use of plenty of eggs, milk, butter, and cream. Although it is helpful to be enthusiastic about cooking, it is by no means a necessity. There are those of us who love to cook and there are those of us who have to cook. But even the unskilled cook can in most cases achieve wonders if he has good recipes.”

Southern spoon bread and chicken flakes in birds nest are two of Boone Tavern’s most famous dishes and they are printed in Look No Further.

“This is the spoon bread for which Boone Tavern is so famous. Be sure to use white cornmeal for the true Southern bread,” Hougen said.

Southern spoon bread
3 cups milk
1 1/4 cups cornmeal
3 eggs
2 tablespoons butter
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

Stir meal into rapidly boiling milk. Cook until very thick, stirring constantly, to prevent scorching.

Remove from fire and allow to cool. The mixture will be cold and very stiff. Add well beaten egg, salt, baking powder, and melted butter. Beat with electric beater for 15 minutes. If hand beating is used, break the hardened cooked meal into the beaten eggs in small amounts until all is well mixed. Then beat thoroughly for 10 minutes using a wooden spoon. Pour into well greased casserole. Bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees. Serve from casserole by spoonfuls.

“This change from the often served creamed chicken in patty shell has met with popular acclaim at Boone Tavern,” Hougen said.

Chicken flakes in birds nest
4 medium sized Idaho potatoes
5 cups of chicken cream sauce (recipe follows)
4 cups cooked chicken (half-inch cubes or pieces)
Deep fat for french frying potato nest

Peel and grate or shred potatoes on a vegetable shredder with 3/8-inch round holes.
Line a strainer (4-inch diameter at top) with the shredded potatoes, using only enough to thinly cover the inside of strainer. Place another strainer (2-inch diameter at top) inside of the first strainer (which will keep the potatoes in place.

Set the strainer down in the hot deep fat and fry until golden brown. Remove and tap or help the nest out of the bottom strainer by urging with the blade of a knife. Allow to cool and reheat in oven before serving the chicken flakes in the shell. Combine the chicken flakes and cream sauce. Add additional seasonings if desired and serve in the bird nest. This recipe serves 8.

Chicken cream sauce
6 cups chicken stock
1 cup chicken fat
1 cup flour
Salt and pepper
Make a roux by combining flour and fat in a heavy sauce pan or skillet. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. Heat chicken stock. Add roux and cook 10 minutes to thicken. Season with salt and pepper as desired.

These recipes are from Cooking with Hougen.

Spanish eggplant
2 cups eggplant, cubed
1/2 cup cut celery
1/2 cup cut onions
1/4 cup cut green pepper
1/4 cup oleomargarine
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 cup tomatoes

Soak cubed eggplant in salt water for 10 minutes. Saute onions, celery, and green pepper in oleomargarine. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, and eggplant and cook covered for 20 to 25 minutes on medium heat. Serves 6.

“These cinnamon kites are much relished by guests at Boone Tavern Hotel,” Hougen wrote.

Cinnamon kites
4 baked cloverleaf rolls
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons rich milk
1/2 cup sugar mixed with 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Deep fat for frying purposes

Separate rolls into sections. Mix egg and milk. Dip each section into the egg wash. Fry in deep fat, as for frying doughnuts, until brown. Remove and drain on a paper towel to remove excess fat. Toss each kite in cinnamon sugar and serve hot. Makes 12 kites.

“The curry puffs served in the sauce, similar to small dumplings served in gravy, are a popular meat accompaniment at Boone Tavern Hotel,” Hougen said.

Curry puffs
2 cups corn bread, finely crumbled
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup finely minced onion
2 eggs, well beaten

Mix the first 6 ingredients together. Add eggs, mix. Shape into small balls size of a walnut. Place in refrigerator for 20 minutes. Fry in deep fat until browned. Drain on paper towel. Place puffs in the following sauce.

1/2 cup chicken fat
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups rich chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt chicken fat in top of double boiler. Stir in flour and cook 3 minutes. Add chicken stock. Stir frequently while cooking for 20 minutes. Stir in curry powder, salt and pepper. Heat puffs in sauce for 30 minutes. Serve the puffs in the curry sauce.

Roquefort-olive dressing
1/2 cup roquefort cheese, broken in small pieces
1/2 cup chopped stuffed olives
2 cups French dressing

Mix all ingredients together. Chill. Serve over heard lettuce or any green salad. Serves 12.

“This is the dressing the Northerners wonder how the Southerners make and the Southerners wonder why the Northerners don’t know how,” Hougen said.

Southern bread dressing
3 cups cornbread, broken in pieces
2 cups white bread, broken in pieces
1 tablespoon ground sage
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups rich chicken stock
1/2 cup minced fine onion

Mix all together. Place in a baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

Tavern hush puppy
1 cup white corn meal
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup onion grated
Sift salt, baking powder, and corn meal

Mix soda with buttermilk. Combine with corn meal mixture. Add beaten egg and mix well. Add grated onion. Shape into small balls and drop into deep fat. Fry until golden brown.

Tartar sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 tablespoon finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped stuffed olive
1 tablespoon chopped pickle
In a small bowl, combine all ingredients. Chill.

These recipes are from More Hougen Favorites.

Custard potatoes
3 potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon freeze dried chives
1 cup grated yellow American cheese
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups milk

Layer potatoes in greased casserole. Sprinkle each layer with salt, pepper, chives, and cheese. Make 4 layers. Mix eggs and milk together. Pour over potatoes. Bake covered for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Bake uncovered 45 more minutes. Serves 4 to 6.

Boone Tavern cherry sauce
1 can (16 ounces) sour red cherries
2 1/2 cups sugar

Mix the cherries and juice with the sugar. Cook at a rolling boil until your candy thermometer reaches 220 degrees or about 10 minutes of cooking time. Cool the sauce. Serve over ice cream or as a pudding sauce. Makes 16 servings.