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Locke-Ober's Lydia Shire
Lydia Shire, owner of Locke-Ober, is on a mission to create Bailey's butterscotch sauce - a sweet memory from her childhood. (Janet Knott/Globe Staff)

In search of a childhood memory

Lydia Shire is on a mission to re-create Bailey's butterscotch sauce

WESTON -- A taste memory can linger indelibly on the palate and create an overwhelming longing. Sometimes, that longing can lead to action.

Lydia Shire stands by her bright red stove at her home here, brushing crystals from the sides of a saucepan as sugar and water boil to a deep, rich shade of amber. Shire, owner of Locke-Ober, the former Biba, and other restaurants, and a chef who enjoys preparing luxurious ingredients for rarefied tastes, is intent on using her culinary magic on something common enough to have appeared in a 19th-century cookbook. She is trying to re - create a memory: Bailey's butterscotch sauce from the old Boston ice cream shops. ``Nothing ever compared to Bailey's butterscotch," says the chef.

Shire's a woman on a mission, trying three sauces to see if she can come close. The sauce she remembers, she says, had ``something that made it not so sweet, so that you never felt too full." As she cuts a lump of artisanal butter and measures out sweetened condensed milk, she explains that the most important part of ordering a Bailey's ice cream sundae, which was overflowing with sauce, was at the end. ``At the very bottom, you'd take your spoon and go around the saucer," she says, to get every last spoonful of butterscotch.

A few weeks ago, Shire sent a handwritten letter to the Globe. ``Maybe you think I'm crazy," she wrote, ``but something has been haunting me for years, and that is: Bailey's butterscotch sauce." She had been experimenting with recipes, she wrote, but still hunted for the original. She wondered if Globe readers could help her track it down. ``Would anyone have a recipe for the original?" she asked. She wrote that she could probably make do with a list of what the sauce contained. ``Even with just the ingredients, I might be able to replicate it."

Bailey's, which closed in the late 1980s, was a candy and ice cream company that opened its first store in 1873 on West Street in downtown Boston. All these years later, a mention of the shop still brings a dreamy smile to Bostonians' lips. Shire, whose parents were fashion illustrators for Boston department stores while she was growing up in Brookline, remembers going down to meet her mother to buy her first fancy dress. ``It must have been for an eighth-grade party," Shire says. ``Afterward, we went to Bailey's."

Some people might remember Bailey's densely fudgy chocolate sauce, but Shire insists the butterscotch was better. The sundaes were served in silver-plated pedestal dishes, which were set on small round silver plates and eaten with long spoons. The butterscotch sauce wasn't too sweet, and it always dripped down from the dish onto the tray below.

Bailey's was opened in Boston's old Agassiz mansion on West Street by John B. Bailey and D.H. Page. It was originally a candy company, then later ice cream was added. Eventually growing to 11 stores, Bailey's had several owners through the 20th century until it was sold to Joey Crugnale, who built up Bertucci's and other restaurant chains. At first Crugnale reportedly planned expansion, but then he closed all the ice cream shops.

Bailey's used to sell both the butterscotch and chocolate sauces in 10-ounce jars for $3.29. When a Globe columnist wrote about Bailey's in a 1975 feature story, she marveled that the sundaes and ice cream sodas, which had sold for 20 cents each in the 1920s, were then up to 85 cents each.

But then, going to Bailey's wasn't an everyday affair. It was always connected to something special. In her kitchen, Shire studies three handwritten recipes. The first is adapted from a battered copy of ``The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," originally written in 1896, with an inscription to ``My dearest Lydia on her 18th birthday, Mom." Farmer's sauce is sweet and doesn't have the dairy quality Shire remembers. The taste is more sugar rush than rich.

There's another made with Karo syrup, which Shire says is often used in sweet sauces. ``This one, I know, is probably going to lose the battle." The first cloying taste is the last.

Finally, she pulls out her own innovation, which involves boiling sugar and water until they're not quite caramel. ``It's butterscotch," she says as she watches the bubbling mixture. ``It needs to have that brown color." When the mixture is the right shade, she adds butter, then cream, and finally condensed milk. ``I was looking for something with condensed milk," she says, explaining that a recipe she saw on the Internet inspired her. ``Sweetened condensed milk was used a lot in the '40s and '50s." Bailey's might have picked up on that trend. At the end, she adds a tablespoon of browned butter.

The sauce, thick and golden, rolls wonderfully around the tongue, its ``dairy" tastes, as she says, rounding out the sweetness. ``I have to say this is pretty close to Bailey's."

Her favorite sauce was less sweet and thicker than butterscotch at Friendly's and Brigham's. Bailey's, whose West Street shop was a mixture of marble and mirrors, was known for its voluptuous and slightly messy presentations. But it kept the sundaes pure. ``They didn't do anything stupid like put a cherry on top," she says.

``OK, now it's time to eat," she announces as she begins to assemble a sundae. First she warms the best of the sauces -- the one she figured out herself -- and gives a stir to a double boiler full of homemade marshmallow fluff. ``When you had a sundae at Bailey's, you always had marshmallow fluff." Her pastry chef at Locke-Ober, Kilian Weigand, makes this fluff, and he and Shire plan to put the sundae on the restaurant's fall dessert menu.

Using one of her antique ice cream scoops -- she found several in varying shapes at the Brimfield Antiques and Collectibles Show -- she scoops coffee ice cream onto an old silver pedestal ice cream dish, another Brimfield treasure. When she spoons warm butterscotch sauce over the ice cream, a little drips onto the tray beneath the dish.

``The flavor of coffee ice cream is perfect with the butterscotch," Shire muses. ``It cuts the sweetness." Then she ladles on a dollop of marshmallow fluff, and finally toasted, salted walnuts.

She's right, of course. The butterscotch sauce is perfect with the coffee ice cream and the slightly salty touch of the walnuts. The fluff, well, that puts the dish over the top.

As the last bit of ice cream is spooned up, Shire watches a visitor carefully. ``Now taste the butterscotch on the plate underneath," she instructs. The sauce has thickened just a bit, and its buttery goodness melts ineffably on the tongue.

``When you eat the butterscotch off the bottom, it's all about Bailey's," Shire says. ``It's the real thing."

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