Many years ago we used to drive from Murray, Kentucky to Hayward, Wisconsin in one day. Eight hundred miles may not seem so far today, but in the 1970’s three hundred of those miles were on two-lane highways that went through cities like Rockford, Illinois, that had, I swear, forty traffic lights timed to turn red as we approached them.
Actually, part of the pleasure of the trip north was driving those old highways. We drove past neat farms with wonderful murals painted on some of the barns, well-tended fields and pastures populated by horses and cows. Pheasants watched us from the shoulders and once we even waited for a bear to walk across highway 27 north of Ladysmith, Wisconsin. People sometimes waved as we drove by and we could read the ads in the store windows in towns we passed through.
The Interstate system is wonderful for getting safely and more quickly to your destination, but Jerri and I still occasionally choose a route that takes us away from the four lanes of concrete. We enjoy the forests and farmland, tiny villages and lovely cities. We pull off the highway to read historical markers and sometimes stop to visit a bookshop that catches our attention. For lunch we choose a cafe that looks promising.
On one such trip from Oklahoma we wandered through western Missouri north towards Iowa. My navigator suggested that it might be fun to see the Truman Reservoir and the Harry S. Truman State Park so we headed east on Missouri highway 7 to the village where I became a paid photographer. Doug Lansky sent me a check for this photo of the Tightwad Bank when he included it in Signspotting 4. If you want coffee table books to make people smile you might pick up some editions of Signspotting.
We left the village of Tightwad and continued into Warsaw, Missouri, where we stopped at the Chuck Wagon Bar-B-Q. We ordered pulled pork sandwiches and sides to go, then drove to the state park where we enjoyed the scenery almost as much as our lunch. The park was not crowded and the barbecue was excellent. Later that day we stopped at a little motel in Clinton, Missouri, where we had to telephone for the clerk, who was having supper a few blocks away at home. He asked us if we wanted ice and brought us some when he arrived to check us in.
When we were young, we didn’t stop overnight for a trip of eight hundred miles. We wanted to get to my family as soon as possible, and we didn’t have money to waste on motels. The kids could sleep in the luggage area of our little station wagon and we could take turns driving. If we left Murray by eight in the morning, we could count on reaching Hayward before midnight.
We would call my parents before we left so they would know when to expect us. They wouldn’t be awake when we pulled in the driveway, since the lights went out in the Rang household shortly after 10:30 PM when the TV news, sports and weather ended. They appreciated knowing that we were on our way, however, and made sure the front door was unlocked. The back door was always unlocked, but Mom thought that the front door was more convenient for us. The back door would have been more convenient for a burglar, but none ever paid a visit.
When we opened the front door, we were greeted by the smell of cinnamon. Mom had been busy as usual. Jerri and I tucked the kids into their beds and went to the back room where we found a platter of fresh cake doughnuts on the kitchen table. My mother made wonderful cake doughnuts. A friend and I once ate almost eight dozen at a single sitting before running outside behind the woodshed to dispose of them. When Mom came home to find us rather “green around the gills,” she was concerned. When Dad got home, he just laughed and said he hoped that we had learned our lesson. I couldn’t even look at a doughnut for months.
Anyway, I peeled back the plastic wrap and picked up a donut. They felt like steel rings. Instead of the tender doughnuts I had grown up with, these were tough and hard. We warmed up some coffee left in the pot and soaked them. I may have eaten two, just to be able to tell Mom that were tasty. Actually, before they were dipped in the coffee, the doughnuts tasted the same as always with a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon sugar on the outside.
The next morning Mom apologized for the doughnuts. I told her that they tasted good.
“But they turned out so tough!” she wailed, “I wanted them to be perfect, so I dug out Ma’s recipe and followed it exactly. And they turned out awful. I called Ma, and she told me I used too much flour. I told her I used four cups, just like the recipe said. She told me that she knew the recipe called for four cups, but that was too much.” Grandma and Grandpa made good doughnuts too, so I’m sure she knew what she was talking about.
My mother had been making wonderful cake doughnuts for years without consulting the recipe, tweaking the ratio of ingredients until she got it perfect. Then one day, to please her first born, she decided to trust something on paper. Fortunately she went back to her old ways, and I ate lots of her cake doughnuts in the years that followed.
I really wanted the recipe, and my sister Patsy found it in Mom’s handwriting. Mom didn’t note where the recipe came from, but I’m sure this is how Grandma told her to make “Never Fail Doughnuts.” Just don’t use all the flour it calls for, or they will fail.
3 1/2 – 4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup milk
1 T. shortening or butter
1 tsp. vanilla
Oil for frying
Sugar and cinnamon for dusting
After listing the ingredients (without quantities for salt and nutmeg), Mom’s recipe said only “Roll out, cut, and fry.” If you haven’t been watching your mother stir up cake doughnuts since you were old enough to get in the way, you may need some guidance. Try this.
In a large bowl mix three cups of flour with the sugar, salt, baking powder and nutmeg. Melt the butter or shortening. In a smaller bowl, beat the eggs until they are lemon colored. Whisk the milk, vanilla and butter or shortening into the eggs, then stir the liquid ingredients into the flour mixture.
Add more flour by quarter cupfuls until the dough begins to firm up. You may need to add a little over a half cup, but be careful not to add too much. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. It will be sticky, so use a spatula or baker’s scraper to turn the dough until the surface is covered with flour. Knead gently for eight to ten turns. Form the dough into a ball, cover it with plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for an hour.
Start heating about two inches of oil in a pan or skillet.
Roll about a quarter of the chilled dough to a half inch thickness on a floured surface. Cut circles using a doughnut cutter or round cookie cutter about two and a half-inches in diameter. If necessary cut the center holes with any small round tool. Even an old pill bottle works.
When the oil reaches 360º carefully drop the doughnuts into the oil. They will sink to the bottom but soon rise to the top. Turn them over with a slotted spoon in one minute and fry for another minute. Turn the doughnuts to make sure they are golden brown on both sides, then use the slotted spoon to set them to cool and drain on paper towels.
Gently knead the trimmings and roll out the dough again until you have cut all the doughnuts. The last bit of dough can be patted flat and simply cut into two or three pieces before you fry them.
Put about a half cup of granulated sugar and a heaping teaspoon of cinnamon into a paper bag. Hold it closed and shake it to mix the spice and sugar. Depending on the size of your bag, put three to six doughnuts into the bag and shake them vigorously. Shake off the excess sugar as you remove the doughnuts to a plate. Add more sugar and cinnamon to the bag if necessary.
Eat ‘em while they’re warm!
NOTES: A candy/deep fry thermometer is almost essential for making doughnuts. I don’t think Grandma or Grandpa used one, but I remember Grandpa telling me that he could tell how hot the oil was by how it shimmered.
The oil has to be over an inch deep. Period.
As with any food you cook, you can vary the spices to suit your taste. You also can ice or glaze these doughnuts instead of sugaring them. If your refrigerator is like ours, you might look toward the back on the bottom shelves for a partial container of cake icing that someone forgot.
After you make your first batch of these doughnuts, you will have a better idea of how much flour to use in the dough. The first time I made them, it was very sticky, but the doughnuts turned out great. The dough stuck to my fingers, but I used a fork to pry the doughnuts from the cutter. I kneaded a little more flour into the dough after rolling out the first batch, and that took care of the problem.