Following on the heels of Michael Ondaatje's memories of food and childhood, I had my own nostalgia for times past, to childhood and their link to the food we ate at the time.
I began thinking about my Great- Aunt Nellie's doughnuts. They were delicious. They were nothing like the doughnuts you buy in a store today. They were light, somehow more ethereal. They were not sweet, but more like a bun- slightly crispy on the outside and perfectly airy on the inside. And we ate them dipped in salt, or spread with a little home-made jelly. They would taste equally good with something savory, like beef stew, or curry for that matter.
I don't have clear memories of eating the doughnuts with my Auntie Nellie, or of Nellie for that matter, oddly. She passed away when I was very young- 5 years old or so. She was my grandmother's youngest sibling. I have this fuzzy image of her in longish, below the calf-length skirts and babushka, her back bent over working on something-- weeding the garden, picking vegetables, shooing the chickens. I can't visualize her face in these memories. I don't know if this is her, or simply the image I have created of her. It is interesting how the stories and memories of my grandmother, my mother, my aunt have merged with mine, become somehow not just passed down from one generation to the next but almost inherited through the genes, an integral part of the fabric, warp and weave of my own personal memories.
The thought of these doughnuts brings back very sharp memories of the things, places and people around Nellie, places where and people with whom I spent a large part of my childhood. Even today, I can close my eyes and visualize her farm house, the oil cloth table cloth with red strawberry print on it, her amazing wood stove, and most wondrous of all, the water pump in her kitchen. You had to prime it and pump like the dickens to get the water to flow. That was her source of water. As a child, I thought this was the most wonderful water delivery system one could imagine, that everyone should have one. As a adult, a mother now, I can't imagine living in those conditions. She raised two kids there herself.
But the memory of the place is sharp and dynamic. I can hear the loud lazy buzzing of a fly trapped against the window in the relentless August heat. Through the window I can see the chicken coop. I can smell the naptha from mothballs. It is an odd collision of sensations. It is a happy place in my memory, even though the site itself was fraught with difficulty and sadness. For me it was a place of learning, discovery, imagination and freedom from adult rules- hello water pump! Once the house was no longer lived in, it became a place to explore, play in, imagine. We searched for treasure in its abandoned state. We butchered chickens just outside its door. We used the old kitchen water pump to wash off the blood.
Apparently, these doughnuts were a favorite with the threshing crews, and my grandmother used to make them too, as did Nellie's daughter-in-law, Mavis. It is from her that I probably actually remember eating them.
Of course after thinking about them, I had to make some. And I'm sure glad I did.
Here is the recipe that I believe was hers. I found it in a little recipe book that I started for myself about 20 years ago, handwritten, badly, and not cited. If any of my cousins spot any errors, let me know.
2 1/2 tsps of yeast
1 cup warm water
2 whole eggs, 4 yolks
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 cup butter
1 tblsp vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
enough flour to make a soft dough
- combine the yeast and water and let it sit until frothy
- meanwhile, beat together eggs and sugar
- add the butter to the scalded milk, let cool to lukewarm and add to egg and sugar mixture.
- add vinegar and salt.
- add yeast mixture and combine.
- add enough flour to form a soft dough (I estimate this to be between 3 and 4 cups of flour)
- let dough rise for 2 hours or until doubled in bulk.
- punch down, role out and cut out doughnuts.
- let them rise again.
- fry in peanut oil until golden.