Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bountiful Biscuits

Next to cornbread, biscuits are the manna of the South (and perhaps on the cowboy junket--NOTE: photo at left is not my own and from AllRecipes.com). At least in restaurants, they are quite often served with breakfast, lunch and dinner: biscuits and sausage gravy, chicken and biscuits, fried chicken and biscuits. Instead of eating them with butter and honey, as we prefer in our house, most people, in Kentucky at least, tend to slather their biscuits with butter and sorghum molasses.

I don't often make biscuits--and yes, I've baked many from the Pillsbury Dough Boy®--but yesterday decided that I should start. The other day I'd had a conversation with our neighbor, Margaret. She had invited my husband in for their noon dinner one day while I was in New Hampshire. Their noon meal is always the largest of the day and a break from their farm work, especially because of evening milking and other chores. My husband couldn't stop raving about her biscuits and she said she alway used buttermilk.

Then we struck up a conversation with a shopkeeper about biscuits. She makes them from scratch, like her mother did, and always uses shortening and buttermilk, which she also prefers to milk. Her grandmother ran a boarding house and her mother learned by the age of 10 to make biscuits alongside her. Sometimes she'd make up to a 100 a day to serve during the three meals. "Of course, my mama never measured and she always used lard." A former landlord of mine used to make her biscuits out of lard, too, and I found it difficult to work with when I tried her recipe. Although it is so bad for our bodies, there is no better taste in certain kinds of baking.

Whenever I've made biscuits from scratch they always come out a bit more leaden than I might like. I know the secret, as with pie dough, is not to mix or knead the dough too much. But still, there was always room for improvement.

I decided, because there are all of these different brands of flour, cornmeal and other baking ingredients down here (don't you love to travel and check out grocery stores just to see what is different about them from your own?), to pick up some Martha White® Self-Rising Flour with the leavening already in it. The biscuit recipe on the back of the bag is very straightforward and you could substitute any self-rising flour:

Martha White's "Hot Rize" Biscuits

• 2 cups self-rising flour
• 1/4 cup shortening (lard or butter might work well, too...I'll experiment)
• 3/4 cups milk (I used buttermilk)

With a pastry cutter, cut the shortening into the flour. Add milk and stir with fork until a soft dough comes away from the bowl easily, but do not over mix. Put dough on a lightly floured board and knead gently. Roll out to c. 1/2" and cut with a two-inch biscuit cutter and place close together on lightly greased cookie sheet.

Bake in 450 degree oven for about 12 minutes. Makes 13-14 biscuits.

Their website says that to make OLD-FASHIONED BUTTERMILK BISCUITS, just substitute 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk for milk; add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda to flour, if desired. I will try that next time and expect that, even though my biscuits tonight were light and delicious in flavor, they might rise even higher.

I also put a bit of melted butter on each before baking. You could also add a bit of sugar to the mix and make sweetened biscuits for shortcake or cobbler.

Martha White, unlike Betty Crocker, was a real person. Martha White Lindsey was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee in 1896. Her father, Richard Lindsey, Sr. founded Nashville's Royal Flour Mill in 1899 and named his finest flour brand for his then three-year-old daughter. When another family acquired the mill in 1941, they renamed the mill, Martha White®, after their best-selling flour.

Meanwhile, this excellent website, Pinch My Salt, written by a woman stationed at a U.S. Naval base in Sicily (so many great food blogs, so little time), swears by White Lily® Flour for the best biscuits. As they also sell that in our Kentucky markets, I'll try that next. [And her discussion of biscuits is like Biscuits 101, including several recipes and tips I plan on trying in the future, as mine made tonight had room for both more rise and improvement!]

I don't know if you remember a show in the mid-1990s called Ned and Stacey, but it starred Thomas Haden Church and Debra Messing, who later went on to star in Will&Grace. Anyway, Ned was an ad exec and while filming a commercial for Stacey's muffin shop, they staged a madcap dinner party where he started throwing biscuits at her, crying out, "You biscuit-buying b@#$%!!" I've never laughed so hard. That show was only on for two seasons and the "biscuit buying" episode was a particular and memorable favorite. [Sadly, only season 1 is on DVD and this episode aired during season 2.]

Well, at least now my husband can never accuse me of the same! [And as soon as I perfect the biscuit, it's on to cornbread...]

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Big Old Empty House

I'm back in New Hampshire for a week, hiding out a bit (friends and family know I am here), enjoying a few days with our daughter before she goes back to college and attempting to organize my office and some of my books into boxes to take back to Kentucky.

Upon arrival I was struck by how empty the house was--not of stuff but of people, even an expansive sense that we have truly left. The scent of the house welcomed us--that old wood smell and something else, not quite describable, but known and recognized by the nose, the most potent vessel for sense memories. With most of our family now in Kentucky, even our elderly aunt, and our dog who has never left here and always welcomed us home, the house has been quiet apart from a friend who is staying here for the winter.

The pipes rattled some and the house creaks more than I remember which is odd because I have always lived in an old house, except recently, and this is something that should not have surprised me. A few plants have died from my pre-Christmas neglect; even our housesitter, a green thumb herself, couldn't revive them. And the ceilings are so vast compared to where we live now.

The house seems like home yet also more museum-like than I remember. But it doesn't really feel like home anymore--more like a stage set for another life. Is this because the people who inhabit the house have left it, hermetically sealed, the air and soul of the place gone with them? Is home really where the heart is? I'm beginning to think so.

Right now I am in the thick of a fabulous novel, Atonement by Ian McEwan, for our book group this month. The Cupcakes will be gathering here on Monday for tea and book chat. We also read Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's first novel (also on PBS Masterpiece Theatre, tomorrow night, January 20) and the contrast of the two different but similar novels is compelling. I am not disappointed. McEwan has written a novel in the 19th century grand style, lush with descriptions of place and time and setting, the landscape and house as much of a character as the members of the Tallis family who inhabit it.

I am not likely to be blogging much in the next few days, apart from on Cupcake Chronicles. So please join us there for our blogs and discussion. In the meantime, I will continue to pack and contemplate the places where I live and have lived. Sometimes walls and the empty welcome of a familiar place are good company.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

First Day of School

With a few days late start because of illness (in a way, I'm relieved that we escaped the flu until we arrived at our new home), our boys went to their new school yesterday. We found a small private school that will work well for us with a few transitions, but no major ones. In many ways it is similar to their old school and combines the best of the new and the old. The boys also seem pleased with the transition so far. We came down for a bit of time in November when they were able to visit the school and feel more comfortable.

We all love the drive--as the crow flies it is probably only about three or so miles due northwest. But on the winding back roads it is about 12 miles, or 30 minutes of driving time. Not much more than we used to do in terms of time for their old school. The school bus ride around here would easily be 45 minutes to an hour each way. [We had to chuckle when our local county schools canceled school for one day last week when we barely had an inch of snow. But someone explained to me that because of the amount of back roads, mostly narrow, sloping and dirt, that it can be a hazard for the buses even with a little bit of snow or ice and that kids--or parents--can easily be stranded. Ironically, the kids' new school does not have snow days because they do not rely on the public bus system. I know we will miss the occasional snow day!]

But the best part of our daily drive is the tranquil valley of Mennonite farms and that Nolt's Bulk Foods (they keep changing their name so right now the sign out front just says "Bulk Foods") is right on the way. A handy stop for supplies or fresh produce.

Also, Hazel's store in Mintonville is on the way home--a perfect stop for a bottle of ice cold Coca-Cola™ (an occasional treat!). Hazel's store and business is for sale for under $50,000.

You can get almost any kind of sandwich and a great cheeseburger, good coffee, even gas (the expensive kind), and always conversation. Stepping into her store is like going back into the earlier half of the twentieth century (some canned goods have easily been there for several decades). It is was it is -- part of a dying breed, and not the fancied up cutsy "country store" one finds in so many places today with their artisanal breads and fresh muffins. Although I do miss those things sometimes, too, we're certainly grateful that Hazel perseveres.

Hazel Wesley pumping gas outside of her Mintonville, KY store.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Corn Meal Batter Cakes from the Beaumont Inn

Beaumont Inn, located in Harrodsburg, offers gracious and welcoming Kentucky hospitality and fine Southern cooking.

For the past two years when we have visited Kentucky we have often stayed at the Beaumont Inn in historic Harrodsburg. This Greek Revival style inn has been in the Dedman family for four generations and before that it was Daughters' College (later Beaumont College). A hearty Southern buffet breakfast is included in your lodging (rooms, furnished with antiques, are large, airy and ample) and if you ask them they'll prepare their famous corn meal batter cakes to order (served with a brown sugar syrup, but just as good with real maple syrup, too).

Here is the recipe from Beaumont Inn Special Recipes cookbook that, I'm relieved to say, I just located in a missing box. The book was compiled by Mary Elizabeth Dedman in 1983 and is still available at the inn. The recipe tastes the same as the cakes we have had for breakfast there and has received enthusiastic response in our house (it is also good for those with wheat intolerance because they have no flour in them). I've started to save bacon fat in an old milk glass "Drippings" jar and its addition in the griddle adds much.

Corn Meal Batter Cakes
from the Beaumont Inn

• 1 cup corn meal (we use H.R. Wentzel's**)
• 1/2 tsp baking soda
• 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
• 1/2 tsp salt
• 2 eggs, beaten
•2 Tbsps bacon drippings or shortening

Sift meal, soda and salt together. Add beaten eggs, then buttermilk. Beat until smooth. Dip a tablespoon of batter (or a bit more) onto a greased hot griddle. Let brown on bottom, then turn quickly and lightly to brown on other side.

Makes about 10-12 good-sized cakes. [I made this entire recipe in a 4-cup measuring cup and poured it directly from that.]

**NOTE: Several years ago we purchased some marvelous corn meal (ok, I was lured by their great bag for some shoots for The Pantry, but the meal itself is almost an umber color, perhaps because it is roasted). I believe I found it somewhere, perhaps at a farmer's market, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Today I tried to track down the company, H.R. Wentzel & Sons, on-line. Instead, I spoke with a man at this phone number, 717-789-3306, and he is going to send me a price list (no website as of yet--they still trade the old-fashioned way which, while inconvenient at times, you have to admire). They mill several kinds of flour and grains--without additives--at their mill and store in Landisburg, Pennsylvania. They are not far from Harrisburg, along one of our routes back and forth to New England, so I hope to stop in the next few months. They sell by mail or their retail store and I'll blog again when I have more information. I love a good grist mill!

In fact, and this is another aside (I'm just full of asides these days), among the enterprises in which my family was involved in Akron, Ohio was grain milling (and the manufacture of mowers and reapers, and later on, tires--an industrious bunch). Recently, on eBay, I came across a set of these Seiberling Milling Co. flour bags in perfect condition, well over 100 years old. I expect they had been unused in a box or drawer. Anyway, I traded the nice buyer an Aultman & Miller trade card for one of these bags! [And speaking of Miller, my great-great grandmother, for whom I was named (and I am lucky to have her portrait, too, thanks to my Dad), was Catherine Miller Seiberling. Ah, synchronicity!] This bag awaits a nice ironing and then framing. It will go in my new kitchen, of course.

This morning when we had our corn cakes I was reminded of the ones my Dad's friend Mr. Weller used to make for my brothers and I when we visited Akron. I think he used a Jiffy cornmeal mix. The best part were the chocolate malteds he made to go with them! Maybe I should eat breakfast more often because this morning's sure conjured much.

Thursday, January 3, 2008


I am a person who is tolerant of other religious views as long as no one rubs them in my face too much or tells me that I'm "going straight to Hell" because of my own. [A well-meaning girl in my high school used to hand out "Straight to Hell for Sinners" cards and I told her that was probably not the right way to go about converting people.]

There is nothing I like better than a good healthy debate, or rather a "discussion", on religion or anyone's personal philosophy. I try to put "Judge not, lest ye be judged," into regular practice. In general, I find the question of "what makes people tick" an intriguing concept. I will read spiritual or religious texts as much as I want to read something like Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisoned Everything. [If I am to understand the gist of the book without having yet read it, it deals with organized religion and its many disruptions in our world, instead of dwelling in the essential core of spirituality by removing religion from that realm.]
So it was in the spirit of amusement (his) and annoyance (mine) that my husband happened to point out this sign on our way home "from town"--somehow I had not noticed it before. [Perhaps an attempt at seasonal humor? I have a feeling it is not a joke.] It reads: Wives are to be subject to their husbands in everything. [Ephesians 5:24] I said, slow down, I want a picture! [Lately I've taken to bringing my camera everywhere I go because it is just so much darned fun to scrapbook everything...or to think about the blog potential of any image.] NOTE: Upon later research I learned that presidential candidate and former Baptist minister, Mike Huckabee, came out in support of this verse as mentioned in a recent Newsweek article, so perhaps the sign is a form of political support, as well as religious?

My husband and I have our moments, days and weeks, certainly, but we've always been a partnership and he would be the first to agree with that notion. Although I did "honor and obey" him by moving to Kentucky, I did finally concede that it was a great idea. And he has assured me if ever things did not work out, if I wasn't happy, that we would move back in a New York minute...whatever a New York minute is!

Some would argue that all men secretly want a Stepford Wife but I don't think so. My husband knows that if I were to transform into one that my batteries would likely expire fairly quickly or that I would need to be traded in, and fast (there is something to being high maintenance, whether flesh or robotic). We do the dance of compromise: he helped pick up the domestic slack (immensely) while I wrote The Pantry, or do any writing for that matter (and idle blogging--I say "idle" because apart from selling one article which came from a blog, it is not profitable). So now it is my turn to help him fulfill his dream of having a farm. When you meet each other half-way, sometimes it turns out to be the best way for all and that is what I am (slowly) realizing about our move. Besides, I am one of those "glass half full" kind of people: as much as I love a good sarcastic jostle, at my core I am an optimist, even, at times, a fatalist.

Some time if the sign man and his wife are in their yard, I think I will want to stop and chat with them about it. Or at least meet them first and then say, "Hey, that's an interesting sign--what does it mean to you specifically?" They look like kind, hard-working people who have a small farm. I haven't seen any children around but perhaps they have grown and moved on. My intention would not be to convert them to my way of thinking but to get a sense of what they're thinking. I believe they are from a branch of car-driving, but still conservative, Mennonites but I am not certain. Friends of ours further down the valley might know but that really doesn't matter.

We have come to understand how the Amish and more conservative sects of Mennonites have remained as they are in this modern world. It is simply because they turn away from it. They seem to acknowledge something that, on a core level, most of us do not or wish to: that cars, television and radio, computers, even telephone wires and electric cables, and certainly higher education, all connect us to the larger world. And that world can bring great change and even corruption. If we keep our wives--and our children--close to us and "at heel" then change is likely to happen less. Simplistic? Perhaps, but if you objectively examine how our culture has changed because of these modern inventions--and women working outside of the home with children raised by other people--you can better see how these changes might be a part of a vast and destructive socioeconomic cog.

There are elements of this turning away from the larger world that I find we are trying to garner for ourselves now in our own family. While I can respect the Amish and Mennonite orders because they truly practice what they preach, even admire them for their stoic ability to "turn away", I could not become a part of them. As a mother, I do see the logic of "keeping them on the farm" or working from home, at least one or both of us. No family needs a three-car garage for three cars, multiple gadgets and too much stuff for themselves and their kids. Usually, because we want these things as a culture, both members of the partnership have to work outside the home, and then be mortgaged or credit card maxed. If we should want to work for what we need, rather than needing to work for what we want, then we can also embrace this notion of paring down to essentials--in home, life, and our economies--more fully.

Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer-writer-poet, whose writings I admire, even pondered this concept in his essay, Feminism, the Body and the Machine. He wrote:

"I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything better to do than to make one's marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that 'employment outside the home' is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women. It is clear from my experience as a teacher, for example, that children need an ordinary association with both parents. They need to see their parents at work, they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents. [eg. Catherine's note: being raised on a farm fully embodies this concept.]

...My interest is not to quarrel with individuals, men or women, who work away from home, but rather to ask why we should consider this general working away from home to be a desirable state of things, either for people or for marriage, for our society or for our country.

...But for the sake of argument, let us supposed that whatever work my wife does, as a member of our marriage and household, she does both as a full economic partner and as her own boss, and let us supposed that the economy we have is adequate to our needs. Why, granting that supposition, should anyone assume that my wife would increase her freedom or dignity or satisfaction by becoming the employee of a boss, who would be in turn also a corporate underling and in no sense a partner?"

I'd like to think that my husband and I have the kind of partnership from the Wendell Berry School of Marriage. We both work at home and we both work in the home and our children were not raised in day care centers (but that's a whole other essay, isn't it?, and this is a BLOG after all!). Because my husband is a confirmed luddite, as is Berry who eschews the computer, I would gladly type his essays if he wrote them. And he will gladly take the kids off for the day or do the dishes or even make dinner on occasion, too. He's just that kind of guy. [And yet he is sometimes, perhaps, also the kind of guy who might agree with that porch sign, especially when I'm blogging and should be unpacking or making dinner or any number of things...but not really!]

In 1946 my grandparents did very much what we have done. They moved from the comfortable New Jersey suburbs to a farm in New Hampshire where they knew no one. We wanted to replicate that at their farm, where my mother grew up and where my brothers and I grew up for a time, too, but that location did not work out for a number of reasons. My grandparents were a true team, a highly educated pair who also wanted to provide a value structure for their children by trying to live off the land as much as possible with a sustenance farm. After their children had grown my Grandmother returned to teaching and Grandfather worked for a travel agency, while keeping their commercial greenhouse and vegetable stand. Theirs was an idealistic proposition, but it can and does work. Here we are surrounded by farm families and a supportive environment for that lifestyle. We will be home and farm-based. I'll keep you posted on our progress and our pitfalls.

[For further discourse, and a brilliant one, on these subjects, see Home Economics, Sustainability and the "Mommy Wars" by Sharon Astyk at EnergyBulletin.Net. Like Berry, she also argues that it is best for our economy--both of the global, domestic and household, even in a partnership with a spouse or significant other--to work from our home (or have at least one partner stay at home) and be with our children. She also brings up the validity of the energy-saving standpoint of all of this.]

I do have to admire the guts it takes for someone to put a sign like that about wives and husbands on their side porch, or car, or any where else. But you have to ponder its validity if it sits alongside the trash, an upright freezer, and a washing machine. Well, then again, maybe that's the point.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Pantry Preparedness

Is it a surprise to anyone that one of the first things I've done in settling in is to stock and organize pantry spaces? We don't have a cellar here and space is at a premium (my dream walk-in kitchen pantry with a window will wait for our eventual farmhouse). Fortunately, our walk-in closets in the bedrooms are larger than what we had in our spacious New England home.

On New Year's Eve we stopped at a Mennonite furniture shop and picked up several solid oak bookcases: two will be used for books, in addition to those we already lugged down (we have a lot of books) and one has now become a make-shift food pantry in a bedroom closet. Meanwhile the actual "pantry" that came with the place, a small closet with shelves, is filled with cleaning supplies and other miscellaneous items. An old pie-safe, also brought from home, is filled with baking supplies. [Although we are not certain, it is possible this pie safe may have been made in Kentucky.]

Before we moved we essentially emptied our cellar pantry back in New Hampshire. We also lugged up the large chest freezer (ok, my husband and Chuckie did), after emptying it, then refilled it in its trailer, and plugged it in for a week before our departure. Now it is in its new location on the north deck, plugged in under our kitchen window (again, thanks to my husband!). This set-up is actually not an unfamiliar sight on Appalachian porches where the climate is user-friendly enough for outdoor home appliances.

Here we live seven miles from the nearest small market and within a half-hour of major shopping. I suppose it isn't any different from where we lived in New Hampshire, except we no longer have the ease of a village market right across the street. I am grateful that Country Valley Foods (formerly Nolt's) is at the bottom of the hill from where our children will go to school. They have great local produce (even Stayman Winesap apples in season) and bulk foods and baking supplies (grains, pastas, beans, you name it), even a deli.

They also sell Amish and Mennonite-made butter, milk, eggs, cheese, honey, sorghum molasses, soaps, baked goods, loose herbs and homeopathic remedies. I can also pick up any number of cooking utensils and equipment here. In many ways, it is one-stop shopping apart from the meat we will eventually raise--or buy in bulk--and basic household supplies. (But first to use up that freezer!)

Today on a Good Housekeeping link via AOL.com there is a handy list of Cupboard Cleanup information for your home pantry. Of course, I violate most of these shelf-life rules but do extend the life of some flours, grains and nuts by freezing them. I suppose when a can has exploded or you see signs of pantry moth activity, that's a good time to throw something away! But some things do live happily in our pantry for several years before we actually use them.

The New Year is always about taking stock and inventory, not just of our shelves and cupboards but of our goals, dreams and hopes. Here is to a Happy New Year and a well-filled pantry for all of you.