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Exploring Lighthouse Inn Potatoes: Recipe and History

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Lighthouse Inn Potatoes

Lighthouse Inn Potatoes

Lighthouse Inn Potatoes Are an Amazing Side Dish

When you cook a steak (or meatloaf, or baked ham), your typical go-with is probably a baked potato, right? Meat and potatoes—just as peanut butter and jelly, salt and pepper, and macaroni and cheese fit together, the combination of meat and potatoes is a culinary marriage made in Heaven. The two were simply made to be together.

I suggest that we take your dining experience to the next level with Lighthouse Inn potatoes. Mention this creation to anyone who has visited the Lighthouse Inn Restaurant; they will close their eyes and smile as they remember each blissful forkful—so luxurious, so sinfully rich, so indescribably decadent.

The allure of Lighthouse Inn potatoes was born of equal parts flavor and ambiance. Although Lighthouse Inn no longer serves this dish (new owners updated the menu, and as of this writing even the viability of the inn is in question), we can recreate the dish that made the inn famous.

A Brief History of the Lighthouse Inn

1900 to 1939

At the turn of the 20th century, Charles S. Guthrie was chairman of Republic Iron and Steel, the third-largest steel producer in the United States. Needless to say, Guthrie was a wealthy man—a very wealthy man, and a very busy man as well.

He and his wife needed a respite, a place where they could relax, so Guthrie had a summer home built in New London, Connecticut. However, this was no modest cottage; William Ralph Emerson designed the mansion, boasting 51 rooms and 32,038 square feet. Does the name Emerson sound familiar—William Ralph was the cousin of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Perched on the highest point of a 12-acre tract, each room had a view of either the harbor or the lush gardens landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead (the designer of New York’s Central Park). The Guthrie home was truly a gem, a one-of-a-kind landmark in New London. In the six acres between the main avenue and the estate was a wildflower meadow—the inspiration for the name given the home, Meadow Court.

Sadly, the Guthries had only four summers to enjoy their retreat; in 1906 Charles died from appendicitis. His widow didn't want to live in the house on her own, so in time she began to sell off portions of the 12-acre estate. In 1925 the main house was sold to the Pequot Realty Company and on May 20, 1926, it opened as a restaurant and inn.

1926 to 1945

According to a story by John Ruddy of “The Day” (New London’s daily newspaper),

That first day, people filed through to admire two large dining rooms and the water view. Later, dinner parties were serenaded by Worthy Hill's Orchestra. New London embraced the elegant spot, and within a year, it was hosting social events for the senior classes of Williams Memorial Institute and Connecticut College.

Soon there were recitals, bridge tournaments and, occasionally, noteworthy events. In 1931, Amelia Earhart recounted her pioneering flight across the Atlantic. In 1943, the New England Governors’ Conference convened to address wartime food and fuel shortages.

Yes, in the early part of the century, the inn was a popular destination for the Hollywood elite. Lighthouse Inn was the “in” place to go and business was great, but a series of events sent the former home of the Guthries on a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows.

In 1943 new buyers applied for and obtained a liquor license but failed to complete their purchase of the Inn. Another investor came through with funding, but three months after taking ownership a fire broke out, causing $15,000 in damage.

Nine months later, the inn was placed on the market once again.

A New Beginning: 1945-1979

In 1945 the Ronnick family took ownership, and according to an entry in the National Register of Historic Places “…the inn’s reputation reached new heights. For the next 30 years, Lighthouse Inn was widely considered the premier dining and dancing establishment in southeastern Connecticut … besides its superb reputation as a place to stay.”

After more than three decades, the Ronnicks sold Lighthouse, but the new owners saw their investment literally go up in flames. In 1979, within months of purchase, a fire nearly destroyed the inn. However, the Ronnicks still held the mortgage and went to court to regain the title.

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A Phoenix Arose From the Ashes: 1979-2022

A major renovation spanning three years was undertaken, but the damage was too great; $2.5 million dollars later the owners were bankrupt. For almost a decade the doors were locked and the windows shuttered once again.

This lack of upkeep took a toll on the establishment. Thankfully the year 2016 heralded the chance for a new beginning. The property was purchased at a tax auction for just $260,000.

Once again, new owners put their hearts into restoration of the aging inn. The COVID-19 pandemic and, soaring material costs and supply-chain issues delayed the grand reopening, but finally, in April 2022 Lighthouse Inn once again opened her doors to the public.

And Then …

One month later another fire broke out in the historic building, this time destroying a portion of the roof and the upper floors of the structure.

The main staircase at Lighthouse Inn in New London, Tuesday Sept. 10, 2013

The main staircase at Lighthouse Inn in New London, Tuesday Sept. 10, 2013

What Are Lighthouse Inn Potatoes?

First and foremost, lighthouse potatoes are not light. These are the potatoes that you would request for your last meal. They are indulgently rich with cream and a seductive buttery-cheesy topping. Here is an explanation of the components and how each of them contributes to this amazing dish (in other words, accept no substitutes).

Diced potatoes

Diced potatoes

Potatoes

Gertrude Stein penned “a rose is a rose is a rose”, but a potato is not always a potato. They are not all the same. Allow me to explain:

  • Waxy Potatoes: A common waxy potato is the Red Bliss. They have a low starch content, so they cook up firm and moist, but that’s the problem. They remain firm, not creamy.
  • All-Purpose: On a scale of 1 to 10, with ten being the potato with the most starch (this means sticky—starchy bakers are 10), all-purpose potatoes are a 5 (medium starch). In the words of Martin Luther “What Does This Mean?” Well, it means that, like starchy potatoes, the all-purpose cousins cook up tender, but they also hold their shape. Yukon golds are a perfect example of an all-purpose spud. It's your perfect choice for preparing just about any potato dish, but it won’t contribute to the rich, creamy texture of the sauce for Lighthouse Inn potatoes.
  • Starchy: these are the ones that are high in starch and low in moisture. You might recognize them as bakers, russets, or Idahos. When cooked, they become fluffy, creamy, and absorbent. They're great for boiling, baking, and frying, but they don’t hold their shape when cooked and diced. However, that absorbent aspect makes them the perfect candidate for a potato dish that relies on the starch to make the cooking liquid luxurious (and that same cooking liquid infuses the potato chunks with flavor).
Grated Parmesan

Grated Parmesan

Parmesan Cheese

Parmesan cheese has such an incredible flavor and texture; please allow me a minute or two to explain what makes this cheese so extraordinary and essential to this recipe.

For the story of Parmesan, we need to travel across soil and century to Italy, 1300 A.D. Today we know this area as Parma and Reggio Emilia. In the 12th century, it was the heart of a Benedictine monk community where life was dedicated to worship, study, and self-subsistence. When not in prayer and devotion, the monks tended gardens and orchards, milled grain, baked bread, and raised livestock for meat and butter. And, they were making cheese, but not just any cheese. The monks were using the milk of Vacche Rosso cows, cows grazing in the perfect climate that supports the lush grasses between the Rhine and Po Rivers. And the monks discovered a method to create a low moisture (grana) cheese that would not only keep well but would improve with age.

Today the process to create Parmigiano is the same as it was 800 years ago. The line between past and present is blurred as Casaros, cheese masters who know and understand the true craft of milk processing, use their hands as the monks did in centuries past. They still use the milk from farms in this fertile, green area—about 4,000 of them today.

No preservatives or chemical additives are used to hurry the process—only whey, natural rennet, and salt are blended with the milk. The only significant change in technique from centuries past is that cows no longer graze in pastures. Instead, the grasses are grown and fed to them in barns; this ensures careful food intake monitoring and thus, a consistent product.

The flavor of Parmesan is complex—it’s tangy, fruity, nutty, and boldly umami—imparting the topping of Lighthouse Inn potatoes with an unforgettable flavor.

Panko breadcrumbs

Panko breadcrumbs

Panko

What is panko? The word (in Japanese) means bread (pan) and ko (dust). So, panko is breadcrumbs, but these are not your ordinary breadcrumbs. Please, don't reach for the box of Italian pangrattato in your pantry (the ones you use for making meatloaf or breading chicken).

Standard breadcrumbs are a uniform 'dust' of pulverized whole bread. Panko is rough and craggy and made with only the interior of the bread (no crusts). And it's that non-uniform texture that contributes to the crunchy topping that everyone loves in the Lighthouse potato casserole.

You can find panko at any Asian market or (I hope) in the aisle at your local grocery store where Asian foods are displayed. But, if you can't find panko, never fear—you can make your own. Here's a link to homemade panko.

Rich, fresh cream

Rich, fresh cream

Cream

The ATK recipe calls for "light cream" (in Canada, this is commonly called table cream). Light cream has a butterfat content of 18 to 29 percent. There's not enough fat to whip it into peaks (as you might with whipping cream or heavy cream), but there's enough richness to create a creamy sauce with a luxuriant "mouth feel."

One word of caution—this cream is less stable, so make sure you do include that 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda.

The Original Recipe

Sadly, there is no written version by the original inn's chef, but the recipe developers at America's Test Kitchen (ATK) have recreated one based on their skill with cooking science and childhood memories of one of their star cooks.

The Day, the daily newspaper of New London, Connecticut, published ATK's recipe.

Sources

© 2022 Linda Lum

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