There is a jewel hidden in the center of Elkhart, a sleepy little town just off Route 66 in Logan County. And it's filled with the aroma of homemade burnt sugar cake and cherry pie made from the traditional recipes and methods of years past.
Cynthia Hinton, owner of the Bluestem Cafe, is all about baking the old-fashioned way. No prepackaged mixes or long lists of preservatives here. And if it takes a little longer, so be it. "It's about the fact it's made from scratch," Hinton says. "It's the passion," she says, for measuring, sifting and mixing the ingredients, kneading and rolling out the dough for the pies, cookies and bread by hand. "It's about the act of traditional cooking."
Hinton serves up homemade soup and sandwiches and a variety of baked goods, including cinnamon rolls, specialty breads and pies. The bakery, open just over a year, is tucked in the back of a renovated brick building which also houses the Under the Prairie Frontier Archaeological Museum, operated by her husband Robert Mazrim. Soft sage walls, simple wooden tables and chairs and a vintage tin ceiling provide a simple and understated atmosphere. Oil pastels, painted by artist Ruthann Mazrim, Hinton's mother-in-law, share space on the walls with a few worn, brown tools from the pioneer period of the Midwest.
While the museum focuses on uncovering the frontier period which left behind a rich archaeological legacy in the Illinois region, Hinton's goal is to keep alive the style of baking often lost in today's world of modern conveniences. The location, near the base of Elkhart Hill, a stop along a 300-year-old overland trail, may be the perfect spot for the museum, which features one of the largest single collections of pre-Civil War archaeological artifacts in the Midwest. But the historical importance of the center seems to be lost on the steady stream of customers who are picking up a pie on their way home from work.
"I find it very sad that people my age are not involved in scratch cooking," says Hinton, who is in her mid-20s. As she stands behind a glass case filled with miniature key lime pies, orange almond bread and brownies, she indeed sounds concerned that many children today are growing up without the memory-making experience of baking homemade cookies or pie at their mother's knee. She says many people today are so familiar with making baked goods from prepared boxed mixes, they don't even realize what 'made from scratch' really means. And she's trying to change that, one customer at a time.
Her menu of baked goods, which changes daily, includes muffins, brownies, fruit tarts, fruit pockets, lemon and peanut butter bars and cookies. Homemade candy and pies made to order. Lunch specials include rustic potato and cheese pie, baked ham and cheddar, chicken salad and vegetable sandwiches; homemade soups, such as stuffed pepper, cream of mushroom, southwest chicken, black bean and chicken and Sante Fe potato. Quiche is served on Sunday.
Cinnamon rolls are a favorite among the locals, while desserts are sold to a lot of Springfield and Lincoln commuters. Coconut cake with a lemon curd filling and burnt sugar cake with praline frosting are among her best sellers. An experimental batch of homemade granola soon became a new customer favorite and now her 40-cup recipe sells out each week.
She says she gets customers from throughout central Illinois, many who simply like to go for drives in the country on the weekends and discover her business. One of her regular customers purchased Hinton's homemade granola to take with her on a trip to Alaska, while a burnt sugar cake accompanied another customer on a trip to New Mexico, as a present to her daughter.
Hinton discovered her love of baking as a teenager, watching her grandmother in the kitchen. "It was just one of those things. Once I started baking, I felt like it fit. That's when it began to be a passion and I was cooking more than we could eat at home," she says. She attended a few cooking classes and worked at a few local grocery stores, but perfected her craft mostly through passion and practice.
"I just collect recipes. I read cookbooks from morning till night. If I read anything it's a cookbook," she says. For some items, like muffins, she couldn't find a recipe she was satisfied with, so she experimented for nearly two years before finding the perfect one.
"My biggest job is for people to discover the difference between store-bought and homemade and that they have an appreciation for homemade," she says. "It's worth the extra time. It takes a lot of time but it's time I enjoy."
The bakeshop is located 15 minutes north of Springfield, at 109 Governor Ogelsby Street, Elkhart. (217) 947-2522. Hours:
9 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Lunch served 11 a.m.-2 p.m.