Tag Archives: cooking

bread: part 3

Another special bread, to me and countless others, has been my mother-in-law’s (Susie’s) homemade loaf bread.  The first time I ever came to her house, I was in high school and visiting the Asheville area.  Her daughter, Elizabeth, was my friend and I went to see her.  Elizabeth invited me into the kitchen, cut off a large slice off a fresh loaf of bread and spread it thickly with raspberry jam from a large pot sitting on the stove, before we headed out for a tour of their farm.  I was very impressed that there were four loaves of this home made bread on the counter (and impressed about all that jam!).  Elizabeth said her mother made 6 loaves of bread every other day – to feed, I found out soon, 5 of her own children, 2 high school exchange students, many of the 10+ cousins who came through the house, plus all their friends, and her husband.  This amount of bread – delicious, fresh, homemade bread at that – was almost magical.  And, as I came to know Susie and her bread, I never really changed my mind about it – there was definitely some magic.

Elizabeth and I tried to reproduce her bread when we were in college (even attempting to sell loaves to other home-deprived students).  But, ultimately, our bread lacked something.  Elizabeth would make new suggestions about how to make the bread, based on many observations and conversations with her mother about bread baking.  We finally gave up trying to make Susie’s bread – it just never turned out quite right – edible, yes, but not like hers.  We decided there really must be some magic in Susie’s kitchen that made her bread come out so well (and so much better than ours using the same recipe).  Was it the oven?  Her large, blackened, finicky thing filled with random objects from egg shells to pottery to cookies and bread?  Was it the general fermentation happening in her kitchen at all times?  All those fermenting (some might call it rotting) jars of jam, pickles, leftovers, and who knows what else, scattered over nearly every surface of the kitchen.  Was it her bread pans?  Old, blackened, thick – that she never washed, ever.  Was it the flour?  She claimed she thought it was important to use some pastry flour, but I’ve seen her use any kind of flour on hand and turn out great bread.   Susie was a conjurer – churning out great loaves of some of the best loaves of bread.  However she did it, her bread never lasted long at her house.  Which was good, because those homemade loaves did go stale more quickly than any store bought, less tasty, less textured bread.

Now, I incorporate some of all these bread traditions and some of my own into my cooking.  I make biscuits and cornbread.  I knead dough and form loaves.  I’ve now also made the no-knead bread – which is wonderful and easy but requires planning and time (and I tend to fall short on both).  I also enjoy making tortillas – corn and flour, and occasionally make batch of one or the other to keep the family fed with burritos, quesadillas, and tacos.  Even though we have no Latin roots, the influence is definitely felt and influence has become important (the food is so delicious!).  Will that get passed on to the next generations’ bread traditions?

Anyway, below is a simple recipe for the most basic bread I make a few times a month – a yeast-risen loaf bread.  Do you have any bread traditions or culture in your family?

Simple loaf bread (makes 2)

Mix 1 cup oats with 1 cup hot milk or water.  Let sit for 10 minutes

Add 1 Tablespoon (or 1 package of yeast) and 1 1/2 cups more of water or milk.  Mix and let yeast dissolve.

Add 1/4 cup honey or molasses (or brown sugar) and 3 cups of whole wheat flour.  Mix with a spoon for about a minute.  Let sit for about 30 minutes.

Then, add 1 T salt, 1/4 cup oil or melted butter (and an egg if you want).  Mix in well, then start adding white bread flour until the dough is too hard to mix with a spoon (about 2 more cups).

Turn dough out on counter and start to knead, adding flour as needed.  Knead for 5-10 minutes and shape into a ball.  Put the ball back into your original bowl after you sprinkle flour in the bowl to keep it from sticking.  Put a damp towel over the bread while it rises.

When it has doubled in size, take it out and cut in half and shape each half into a football shape.  Put each shape into greased (or buttered) loaf pans.  Let rise again, with a damp towel over the loaves.  After about 30-45 minutes you can bake the loaves (when they’ve doubled in size again).  I like to slice the tops a little with a serrated knife just before baking.  I bake at 350 for about 30 minutes.  There are a lot ideas about how to know when your bread is done.  I tap the loaves on the bottom to see if they sound hollow, but I also bake until they are golden or browned on the outside.  Susie says she can tell when they are done when she put a loaf to the tip of her nose and it does not burn.

Let cool out of the pan.

We eat lots of toast and sandwiches, so this bread does not last long.  I’m lucky if it lasts a week, but usually, it’s just a few days.






bread: part 2

Being a good Southerner, cornbread and biscuits played predominate rolls in my culinary upbringing.  My mother made good cornbread and we absolutely loved it with butter and molasses.  So good . . . such a treat.  This is still a treasured supper dish in our house now.  Our children adore cornbread and molasses – finding it as big a treat as I did as a child.

Mom-mom, however, was not a born Southerner, coming from Oregon, but she endeavored to make a pan of cornbread nearly everyday for farm dinners (mid-day meal).  Her cornbread was very different from my mother’s.  Hers was flat and dense and quite sweet – everything my mother’s wasn’t.  You didn’t put molasses on that flat bread, just butter.  I don’t know where she learned how to make it like that, and I’ve never seen cornbread like it anywhere else.  But, it was good.  And, my grandfather liked it – and that was all that really mattered.

We were not a strong biscuit family.  Sure, we ate biscuits, made good ones and liked them, but I don’t recall anything special about them – no important techniques, recipes, or ingredient secrets that were passed on.  In fact, the first biscuits I remember making were with my great-grandmother, Grammy.  I thought it was amazing and I loved helping her.  First, you took a cardboard tube and peeled off the top, then you whacked it hard on the counter and pulled doughy biscuits out and set them on a pan.  We baked them for 10 minutes and you were done.  Grammy was a farm wife with four children, and many time-consuming tasks, who did not really enjoy cooking.  For her, sliced bread really was one of the best inventions . . . canned biscuits, a close second.

I make biscuits like my mother (and mother-in-law) did – from scratch and almost once a week.  They are easy to make, and often I make them because they are fast and filling for this small brood of mine.  This past fall, I checked out a book from the library called Biscuit – part of the Southern Foodways Alliance series.  It was a great little reference and had many rifts on biscuits I wanted to try.  I turned the book in after a few weeks but my mind kept coming back to it every time I made biscuits.  So, when I was in a book store in Raleigh last month, I bought this little gem.  I’ve made a few of the different biscuits and it has been fun.  One of the most popular in our house has been the fried pie recipe.  Basically, a biscuit dough, rolled thin, filled with spiced pumpkin or apple, deep fried, and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.  So good!


mixing dough


currant, gorgonzola, pecan biscuits
fried apple pies


gnocchi . . . and my brother




My brother is not known as a good cook, though he really is.  He is definitely not a foodie – nor is he of the type that doesn’t care what he eats as long as it is food.  I often underestimate his cooking skills and palate.  In my defense, mashed potatoes are well-known as his favorite food.  We used to make our own suppers of rice and frozen peas when we were younger and our mother was out.  He was the one who thought to add a few extras to this bland dish – a fried egg, a dash of soy sauce, a sprinkle of ginger (well, the ginger might have been me).

My brother is an avid sportsman.  He brings home dozens of game birds throughout the fall and winter.  His freezer is stocked with fish he caught (as well as shrimp and venison gifted to him by fellow hunters and fishermen).  All of this he cooks and eats (with his wife and young son).  He’s been way ahead of the wild food trend currently quite popular with foodies.

Occasionally, I ask him for his tips on cooking, especially wild game (often it is “wrap it in bacon and grill it” – this advise goes surprisingly well for many foods).  Or, I’ll ask him for his favorite recipes.  Except that he does not usually do recipes – he just cooks, putting together what he thinks, or has learned, works.  Once, a few years ago when we were on vacation, I asked him what he liked to make for supper – something he liked that he made often.  He said “gnocchi”.  What?!  Isn’t that time consuming, finicky, and difficult?  His answer was no – it was simple, fast, and really good (and had mashed potatoes, so, in his opinion, perfect).  He proceeded to describe to me how he made it and told me he’d learned when he was in college and worked at an Italian restaurant.

I dismissed gnocchi making for a few years, though I was impressed by his knowledge and ability, because when I got home and looked up a recipe, I was again daunted by the seemingly long, slightly confusing, task.  Every recipe was full of long instructions, and each said you had to take every one of those little potato dumplings and roll them on a fork.  Which would take forever – especially when 4 kids are rolling on the floor crying for supper.

But, this past summer, I dropped by my brother’s house and he was in the kitchen peeling hot potatoes.  I asked him what he was doing.  “Making gnocchi (with these fresh out of the field potatoes from the farm).”  I couldn’t believe it – in real life I was seeing him make his “simple” supper.  I didn’t get around to watching him do the whole process (but to give credit to his claim of a quick supper, I was only in the house for about 5 minutes).

So, when I came across a recipe for gnocchi in my Smitten Kitchen cookbook the other day, I decided to make it.  This recipe actually did look pretty simple.  There was no rolling each dumpling on a fork to make ridges.  The sauce was a simple tomato broth.  I could at least try it!

So I did.  It did not take long to make – probably slightly longer than my average meal-making time, but much of that was baking the potatoes.  Once they were baked, it was pretty quick.  And, simple.  And, delicious.

William loved it, the kids were mediocre (but, turned out they were starting to come down with a stomach bug, so they don’t count this time).  I think I did not quite get the dumplings right, but I also think I will try again.  And, I will probably ask my brother for some tips!



Bake on Tuesday: English muffins






I remember my grandmother, Mommom, making these English muffins once or twice when I was a girl. At the time, I was so impressed that she could make something that we normally bought from the grocery store for breakfast – and hers tasted so much better! They were a treat, and I remember her telling me they were not difficult to make.

As an adult, I’ve made these English muffins a few times, and they really are pretty easy. You just need a little bit of time, but not even that much! These little breads are tasty and tender. They are really good fresh, but store pretty well for a few days (and serve up well toasted). Officially, these are not baked in an oven, but on the stove top — so I am still with my theme!

Here’s the recipe with my notes below.

English Muffins
½ c. scalded milk
¼ c. shortening
1 ½ tsp. salt
2 tblspn sugar
½ c. water
1 pkg. yeast
3 c. sifted flour
4 tblspn cornmeal
If dry yeast is used, dissolve in water according to directions on pkg – and subtract water used from water in recipe. Combine scaled milk, shortening, sugar and salt. Cool to lukewarm by adding ½ c. water. Add flour, gradually and mix until well blended. Cover and let stand 15 minutes. Roll out on floured board to ¼ in. in thickness. Cut into rounds with 3 ½ “ cutter. Place on baking sheet with has been sprinkled with 2 T. meal. Let rest 30 min. Sprinkle tops with additional meal. Bake slowly on hot ungreased griddle about 7 min. each side.

My notes:
I used dry active yeast dissolved in a 1/4 cup of water. But, I still used 1/2 cup scalded (very hot) milk and used 1/4 cup of cool water to cool the milk down. It worked fine. I also think that the sugar could be cut back just a little, and the rise time could be a little longer, 30 minutes, maybe more. If you are like me and you get distracted by someone who needs you to help them with homework, fine art supplies, read them a book (or by running errands, playing outside, getting in the garden) — I think the dough will be fine. Also, I do not have a 3 1/2″ biscuit cutter, so I used a wide mouth jar lid (perfect size). I have a griddle to cook on, but a thick fry pan (cast iron) would work well, too.

Also, don’t forget to open them with a fork (poke fork around the edge till it comes open).  Good with breakfast, lunch or supper.



Making lard

My grandfather had a hog farm when I was growing up, and my husband raised a few pigs every year when he was growing up, so hogs are part of our history (and legacy?). Luckily, pork is one of my favorite meats. My brother-in-law raised some experimental pigs this past year, for home consumption. They were some kind of dwarf heirloom pig, and he cared for them well while they were at the farm. He was severely disappointed, however, when he got them back from the butcher to find that their body mass was mostly fat. The hams were grapefruit-sized, surrounded by 2 to 3 inches of fat, the sausages were inedible. The up-side to these pigs, for me, is that I have been rendering lard from them. I have been rendering the ground fat, as well as the fat I’ve cut from roasts. It is really easy and the lard is great to use for sautéing, browning meat, and making tortillas, tamales, pie crusts, and cookies.

Here’s what I do:
Put the fat in a heavy bottom pot. I cook 1 to 2 pounds at a time. The ground fat is easier to cook because it comes in smaller pieces and renders evenly. But, if you are cutting fat off a piece of meat, try to chop it to small pieces.

ground fat

Add 1/2 cup of water, and turn heat on low. You can pretty much walk away from it for a while because it takes about an hour for the fat to melt down and the water to evaporate.

rendering lard

Check on it, though. When the fat has melted, and the cracklings (pieces of fat and meat that do not melt) have fallen to the bottom of the pot and are getting a little golden, it is ready to strain.

rendering lard
This is ready to strain.

Turn the heat off, and pour everything through a cheesecloth covered strainer over a bowl or pot.


Then pour the liquid fat from that bowl/pot into a jar. It will look a little yellow, but if it is not overcooked, it will turn white when cooled.

hot lard

cooled lard

Let it cool and store it in the refrigerator.

I overcooked my first batch and it is slightly brown with a smoke-y flavor, but is still good to use to make tortillas and tamales.

The other fun thing about making lard is having cracklings to eat. That is what is left in the cheesecloth after you’ve poured it through. Put them back in the pan and cook till they are well browned. Then, salt them and sprinkle on salads, casseroles, beans and rice, in your cornbread, or eat them out of your hand. The smaller the fat is cut or ground, the better they are. They also store well in the refrigerator.

cracklingsCracklings are delicious!

Southern Corn

My grandfather grew corn every year on the farm for at least as long as I have been around. It was part of the crop rotation of corn, wheat, and soybeans, which he sold to elevators and fed to his hogs. This corn he grew is called field corn, and is very starchy, harvested when the kernels are dry and hard, and is usually fed to livestock or ground into meal.

I’ve grown field corn in my garden for the past few years. My children far prefer me to grow sweet corn, but I get discouraged about how much room it takes in the garden to get a few measly ears. If I am going to grow corn in my garden, I want tall field corn stalks with long, full ears. Field corn also seems hardier and more resistant to insect pests, not to mention the product has a better shelf life.

024William cleaned out the barn the other day and came in the house with a bushel of corn from the garden that I had stored in there months ago and forgotten about–white and yellow varieties. I had left the husks on so the ears were mostly in good shape. I shucked the corn, and had some little fingers help me shell it. [Hythe kept asking if he could eat the corn while we were shelling, but I had to explain a few times that this was not sweet corn and might break his teeth if he tried to eat if off the cob.]  In years past I have made hominy, so I thought I would do that again.  We like it in soups and I can make a lot and freeze it.


I cook the washed kernels in 2 tablespoons of slaked lime for about 15 minutes, then let them soak for another hour. Then I wash the kernels in water, rubbing off all the outer coating. At that point the corn is ready to be cooked into hominy, or ground into masa.


This time, instead of cooking it all into hominy, I used some to make masa tamal, or corn flour for making tamales. My girls love tamales so I thought I would try it. It was very easy–just a few minutes of whirring in the food processor. Then, I mixed the flour with lard and chicken broth. I had some great pulled smoked pork, so I used that and some frozen corn for the filling. Tamales are pretty easy to make, but can take some time.  It did not seem as time consuming this time–maybe I was mentally prepared for a marathon cooking session and it was not that.


Southerners are known for corn (not pasta or bread) and their corn products like grits, cornbread, and corn pone. I thought of these tamales as a metaphor for the convergence of the Southern agricultural tradition and recent Hispanic influence. They were delicious.


christmas ham

When I was growing up, we always had a country ham for Christmas dinner in addition to the turkey and other fixings.  I would always take a few paper-thin slices and eat them with a roll or the dressing.  I did not LOVE the country ham, but I knew that the ham came from one of the hogs off our farm and my grandfather did LOVE it (plus it you could get a piece without fat–one of my biggest childhood(?) food dislikes).  So, I liked it fairly well.  Once my grandfather sold his hog farm and Smithfield implemented vertical integration, we did not have country ham at our holiday meals anymore.

Last year, we were visiting my cousin in Richmond at Thanksgiving and I saw a country ham in a Virginia agriculture products store.  It was a fairly upscale store, but the smell reminded me of those country hams from my childhood.  I have come to really like good country ham, especially on a biscuit or roll or in greens.  So, I decided to buy a ham, cook it and serve some at a Christmas party we were hosting.  I know we would have some left for Christmas dinner, too.  It was fairly expensive, but we took that ham home and I scrubbed it, cooked it, and William carved it.  It took most of a day to cook it and most of a night to carve it.  I had no experience cooking a country ham, despite some knowledge absorbed by osmosis at those long ago holiday dinners.  And, William had not experience carving a country ham.  We also realized we’d bought a very large ham.  It was really good, though, and it lasted us through the party, through Christmas dinner, through New Years celebrations (where we flavored everything we ate with ham), and through the next 4 months whenever we pulled slices from the freezer to use in meals.

Layden's Country Store

This year, I did not plan to buy a country ham, but we went to Layden’s Store in Belvidere when we were visiting my family for Thanksgiving.  When I saw his hams hanging, I decided we needed another country ham for the holidays.  These hams were smaller (and cheaper) that the one from last year, but I got them to cut it in half since I knew a smaller section it would be easier to deal with. William also had them slice a few thick slabs off to fry up for breakfasts.  I cooked this ham when we got home and William carved it.  We now have lots of sliced country ham in the refrigerator and the freezer.

carving the ham

carving the ham

I LOVE pulling out some to use to flavor a meal or to put on a roll with mustard and brown sugar.  I think of country ham as more of a condiment rather than a main part of a meal–it is so strong and salty.  But, I really like having it around.  I think we will make this something we do every year now.   Maybe I will try different methods of cooking it (I did not realize at first there were different ways to cook a country ham, but there are).  Maybe, one year, I will try to cure my own ham (I already have ideas).  But, we will have it and I hope my children will appreciate it as part of our tradition.

What about you?  Do you like country ham?  Do you have a secret to cooking it?  A favorite place to get your ham?

After supper


Tonight after supper, William took all the children, except Steven, to Anne’s basketball tryouts.  I was left with a sleeping baby, and the task of cleaing up from supper*.  It was a difficult task, and I enjoyed doing it partly because I was able to do it uninterupted (by children or by another task that needs completing right.now.).  I like making the dishes clean, the table and stove shiny, and finally sweeping up the kitchen–just how my grandmothers would have done for centuries past.  I also washed the cast iron skillet and reflected on how this type of pan has been used for decades to make really great food and, for its value, can’t be beat by the modern high-tech fancy metal cooking pans that are all the rage (and terrible expense) now. 

Now, I can relax and do a little writing, a little sewing, and little quilting (my first–more on it later), a little reading, and wait for my loves to come home and tell me how the basketball tryouts went.  What team is she on?  Who else is on her team?  Who is her coach?  Did daddy get roped into being the assistant coach?  Did Hythe run up and down the bleachers the whole time?  Did he fall? 

Then, the flurry of bedtime.  Then, a quiet, content household.

*Full disclosure:  I rarely have the task of cleaning up after supper.  My wonderful husband insists it is his duty to clean up after any meal that I cook, and he does so cheerfully almost every night–no matter what awful messes I have made in the kitchen.