January 24, 2012
My family’s amused suspicion regarding my cooking dates back to a childhood specialty, “Indian bread,” which I made solely from flour and water, no leavening or salt. I’d read, not in a cookbook, that combining flour and water was how the Native Americans made it, and I could be obstinately literal. With only the World Book to extend my research, that was as sophisticated as my Indian bread-making got. I would slather the starchy pucks with margarine when they emerged, steaming and leaden, from the oven, and gnaw them with the supreme satisfaction of the scratch baker. I think my Indian bread is why I now love the crusty hulls and heels of rustic breads like boules and baguettes.
Why no one steered me to biscuits is a mystery. One of my grandmothers still made them, airy and soft, the circumference of half-dollars; I could easily eat twenty at a sitting. The rest of the family had moved to canned biscuit dough in pressure-packed cardboard tubes you split open by pressing the seam with a dull knife or by whacking it against the edge of the counter. I could eat plenty of those, too.
The cheapest store-brands of canned biscuit, dotted through with yellow lumps of shortening and resistant to the flaky layering of Pillsbury or Hungry Jack, are best for making doughnuts. Deep-fried in an electric skillet and rolled in powdered sugar, they somewhat resemble beignets. Paula Deen has appropriated the recipe, but the greater credit should go to my aunt Kathy, who let me gorge myself so fully one summer that it was more than thirty years before I hankered for them again. Now I serve them to my sons at Hanukkah, a finer tribute to the miracle of endless grease than our half-dozen menorahs.
I come from a quick-bread people, leavening with soda or powder instead of yeast or sourdough: primarily, cornbread baked in a pan and cut into squares, or, better, spooned into hot grease and fried into salty, crisp cakes. Hushpuppy mix was an acceptable medium (House of Autry brand preferred), but never the sweet Jiffy, which is ill-disguised Johnny cake, a food of the North.
Other bread, beyond my Indian-styled lumps, came pre-sliced in plastic bags, or as parbaked “brown-and-serve” rolls. On spaghetti nights, “French” bread entered the scene, still white and soft as Wonder Bread but formed in a cigar shape. We would score it at intervals and fill the splits with margarine and garlic salt, toast it under the broiler, then wrap it in a linen napkin and serve it in a basket. The brown-and-serve rolls were likewise shrouded and basketed, as was my Indian bread, where it lay in state: a plaster-cast Yeti footprint, inspiring skepticism and awe in equal measure.