I am not one to believe in ghosts.
Perhaps that is due to a childhood spent watching “Scooby-Doo” cartoons, where the creature thought to be haunting a house or an amusement park or an old sawmill always turned out to be some unscrupulous businessman or woman who by episode’s end was unmasked by the Scooby gang.
“You meddling kids!”
Despite my skepticism about paranormal activity, I do believe in a different kind of haunting. Specifically, I believe that one of my hometowns is haunted.
It’s not ghosts that are the problem, however. Instead, it’s memory. The memory of a scent … and a taste … and a feeling.
Sheldon is a town of roughly 5,000 people located in O’Brien County in the northwest corner of the state. Predominantly Dutch in heritage and conservative in politics, the community is the kind of place where homes are nice and tidy and no one mows their lawn on Sunday. In fact, it was a scandal three decades ago when the local Hy-Vee announced it would be open seven days a week.
Like many towns its size, Sheldon was once the commercial center for the area. That meant that the downtown was filled with businesses.
I can still close my eyes and remember most of the storefronts. There was Wick’s Drugstore and JC Penney. There were three men’s clothing stores — Murphy’s, Tanner’s and Wolff’s as well as Karl’s Footwear and Rudolph’s Shoes and Stuff. The Radio and TV Center was across from Sarah’s Ice Cream, and if you wanted lunch you could choose from the L’Trio Grill, the Hamburger Shop and Pucci’s Pizza.
Then there was Brower’s Bakery. The bakery, which was located on 9th Street, was a Sheldon downtown fixture for three generations until the Brower family sold the business in 1984. Yet, 38 years later people in Sheldon continue to talk about it.
I realized this a couple of months ago when I was scanning the Sheldon Facebook page. Someone mentioned Brower’s Bakery, and it was like the years melted away.
Soon, past and current town residents were sharing their memories of cream horns and elephant ears. Others talked of the glass case that held the cakes.
Me? I remember the way the place smelled. It was a scent that combined flour and yeast with sugar and just a hint of cinnamon. It was simply a delight.
After we all finished sharing our memories about Brower’s on FB, one post caught my attention. It referred to one item that the bakery carried that this person said still haunted their memory.
It was the memory of a bread that Brower’s made and sold. But this was no ordinary bread. It was made with actual sugar cubes that were baked into the dough.
Having never heard of such a thing, I was immediately intrigued. I quickly Googled “sugar cube bread,” and, voila, a page full of recipes popped into my browser.
Apparently, sugar cube bread is a Dutch treat. That culinary heritage made sense given Sheldon’s own ethnic makeup.
According to the website, “The Dutch Table,” sugar cube bread — known as “sukerbole” (or “suikerbrood”) — originated in the province of Friesland. It was traditionally given as a gift to a new mother to celebrate the arrival of a baby girl.
For some Sheldonians, however, sugar cube bread is a specter from their past. It’s a ghost they can just taste on the tip of their tongue … one that lingers with the scent of cinnamon.
Until now. I’ve baked a half-dozen loaves of “sukerbole” over the last few weeks, and, despite my German heritage, I am ready to pronounce it “good.”
Below is the recipe I found to be most successful. It’s also not too difficult to make, provided you can find sugar cubes, that is.
Apparently, at some point in the past five years, sugar cubes have gone the way of the dinosaur. You can still find them in some local supermarkets, but it might take some searching. If you can’t find them, there are options.
- 1. You can order sugar cubes online.
- 2. You can use pearl sugar (also available online)
- 3. You can make your own sugar cubes. No, really! It’s not that hard. In fact, there are instructions below.
Give this ghost from Sheldon’s past a try. You will not regret it.
Dutch Sugar Bread
While there are many recipes for this bread out there, I liked this one from the website Baking Sense the best.
For the Dough:
- 2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (one packet)
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2½ cups bread flour
- ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1 egg
- 5 oz. sugar cubes, roughly crushed (you want to have chunks of sugar, so don’t crush the cubes too much)
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon butter, melted
- 1 egg, whisked with a tablespoon of water for egg wash
To Make the Dough:
Stir together the yeast, ginger, sugar, salt and 1½ cups of the flour in a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
Heat the milk to roughly 100 to 110 degrees. Stir in the butter. Pour the milk mixture into the flour mixture and mix. Add the egg and mix until combined.
Switch to a dough hook, and knead in the remaining 1 cup of flour. Knead for 5 minutes until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl (you may need to add an additional tablespoon or two of flour).
Put dough in a lightly greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for about an hour to 90 minutes (or until doubled in bulk).
To assemble your loaf:
Butter a 9×5-inch loaf pan. At this point, I like to place a strip of parchment paper into the pan. Butter the parchment, and then sprinkle in about a tablespoon of sugar (not sugar cubes). Turn the pan to coat the bottom and sides of the pan with sugar. Dump out any excess sugar).
In a small bowl, toss the crushed sugar cubes (reserve a few pieces of sugar for finishing your loaf), the melted butter and the cinnamon.
Turn your dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Use your fingers to press the dough into a rough 12-inch square. Sprinkle the sugar cubes mixture onto the dough and use your fingers to evenly distribute them across the dough. Gently fold the dough together as you would a letter for an envelope. Seal the seams together. Cover the dough with a cloth, and let it sit for 20 minutes.
After the dough has rested, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to a 9×12-inch rectangle (this distributes the sugar throughout the dough). From the short side, roll the dough into a loaf. Seal the seams, and place in your prepared loaf pan. Cover with plastic, and leave to rise for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
To finish the dough, lightly brush the loaf with the beaten egg and water. Sprinkle the reserved crushed sugar cubes over the dough.
Bake for about 35 minutes.
Immediately after removing the loaf from the oven, use a knife to loosen it from the pan. Turn it out onto a cooling rack, and leave it to cool completely before slicing.
To Make Your Own Sugar Cubes
As I said above, finding sugar cubes in 2022 can be a challenge. If you can’t find them, you can make your own. Here’s how.
Mix together a half-cup of sugar with 1 teaspoon of water. Use your teaspoon to scoop up level teaspoon of moistened sugar. Lightly tap it out onto a sheet of parchment paper (if it doesn’t come out perfectly, that’s OK. You’re going to crush them anyway). Leave your sugar “cubes” to dry overnight, and then crush them for the bread.