I've heard it happen a number of times. When people first learn of the Meatloaf Bakery in Chicago's Lincoln Park, they ask, "There's a meatloaf bakery?" It is as if the idea that the quintessential comfort food could actually be the basis of a whole shop is ludicrous, too much to ask for.
Yet there it is, at 2464 N. Clark St., where owner Cynthia Kallile has been dishing up several versions of the hearty dish since 2008. And now, she's sharing her creations with a wider audience through "The Meatloaf Bakery Cookbook: Comfort Food With a Twist" (Adams Media, $19.95). It's a handsome volume, with photos of every dish (so rare these days and so frustrating when you want to know just how a dish is supposed to come out), plus behind-the-scenes shots of the shop and its food truck, the Meatloaf-a-Go-Go.
In an opening that's helpful to the novice, Kallile explains the structure of a basic loaf — the meat (she touts a classic blend of beef, veal and pork, but also includes lamb, poultry and salmon or tuna), filler (breadcrumbs, though she is partial to crushed butter cracker), binders (eggs and dairy) and flavorings (spices, vegetables). It's a primer that encourages a build-your-own point of view. She then describes one of the most important aspects of meatloaf construction, mixing, emphasizing to use your hands but don't overmix.
The 66 recipes are divided among meatloaves (more than 30), sides and sauces. Though some border on too cute (loafer pops, essentially meatballs on a stick, like a savory cake-pop, and loafies, essentially meatballs, sans stick), most are convincing arguments for straying from your house favorite — from her mom's recipe to loaves based on Thai, Cajun, pizza, Reuben-sandwich or barbecue flavors.
Just as Kallile takes her meatloaves beyond your mom's, she also goes further with the classic side, mashed potatoes. For Kallile, the potatoes go on top to dress up what she calls a sometimes-not-so-pretty dish. And they go on top of nearly every loaf (and those without have a special glaze or salsa or other accompaniment), and not just a basic mashed, but varieties matched to the loaf beneath: caraway-horseradish smashers for the Reuben loaf, garlic spuds over the Cajun. For pans, she goes beyond the loaf, putting some recipes in muffin tins, pie plates, layer-cake pans, sheet-cake pans and potpie pans.
The recipes can be long on ingredients, yet don't let that put you off as most either require quick prep (chop some onion, carrots, parsley) or represent small amounts of multiple herbs or condiments you have in the cupboard. And if you don't, you could leave them out or make substitutions. When making the sassy turkey-sausage meatloaf cupcakes (a ground turkey and turkey-sausage combo) as a spur-of-the-moment project, I was forced to leave out the carrots and red bell pepper.
The mini-loaves came out fantastic.
That result speaks to the malleable nature of Kallile's subject and of her recipes. Is it too much to make the meatloaf and the potato-topper and the sauce? No problem. Just make the loaf. Try a few varieties, and pretty soon your kitchen will be the meatloaf bakery.