Grandma Hopp’s Never Fail Doughnuts

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.

Tightwad BankOn 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
2 eggs
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.

Perfect Popcorn

Uncle George was my father’s older brother. He had a farm near Orchard, Nebraska and came to visit Grandma and Grandpa Rang every couple years when I was growing up. He raised corn, hogs and beef cattle. When we visited Uncle George and Aunt Alice and their family in Nebraska one time, my cousin Vernon took me out to see all the piglets. Vernon was seven and I was nine.

We climbed over the fence into the farrowing pen and watched the piglets nursing on the biggest sow I had ever seen. I am still impressed by that massive sow. Vernon then showed me the bull, the grain bins and his father’s big John Deere tractor, which also impressed me. It was an exciting introduction to another way of life that I shared with everyone when we came back into the house for supper.

Vernon’s mother was not pleased to hear that we had gone into the pen with the sow. I remember her saying that we could have been attacked and killed. But, young as he was, he had been taught to be careful around the sow. We did not go too close and so we lived to eat a good supper and have a ride around the fences on a wagon pulled behind the tractor.

One time Uncle George brought us some popcorn from his garden. For some reason it had never occurred to me that farmers like Uncle George could grow popcorn, and it prompted me to start begging my father to plant popcorn. When he explained that northern Wisconsin was not a good place to grow popcorn, I just kept saying that maybe if we tried we would have all the popcorn we wanted.

We planted two short rows of popcorn the next summer, and I hoed it with special care. I even carried water in buckets on my wagon to irrigate the rows during a bad dry spell in July. A frost in August before the kernels were hard ended my hopes, and we never tried growing popcorn again. Today I understand that some varieties have been developed that mature in a shorter time.

So we kept buying our popcorn at the A & P or Co-op, and my mother popped lots of it, especially in the winter. Watching “Gunsmoke,” “Dragnet” or “The Red Skelton Show” was even more fun with popcorn fresh from the pan and I think I saw my first Shakespearean play on “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” while chomping away. Mom first popped it in her large frying pan until she got an electric popper.

Our cook at Blair School, the one-room school I attended for three years, popped gallons of popcorn for us about two weeks before Christmas. She and our teacher showed us how to make ropes of popcorn and cranberries that we used to decorate the school Christmas tree. On the day before Christmas vacation, the janitor would show up early, and we would all help move the tree outside so the birds and rabbits would have a special Christmas treat too.

Once I entered college I graduated to an electric popper that was actually a multifunction food cooker used for everything from frying fish to warming soup. Over the years we have used at least two different electric poppers, a popper designed to be held in the fireplace or over a bonfire, many different frying pans and skillets and even those handy little packets you put in the microwave. The one thing that all these devices have in common is that they always leave a bunch of “old maids,” unpopped kernels, in the bottom of the bowl.

When a neighbor gave us an ice cream pail full of premium popcorn kernels last fall, I decided to search the Web for a popcorn recipe that might solve this problem. In a few minutes I found one on a wonderful food blog called “Simply Recipes.” I followed the instructions and am happy to report that it works. The ice cream pail is nearly empty, and I have had fewer than four old maids in any batch. Here is what you do.


3 T canola oil or other high smoke point vegetable oil
1/3 cup high quality popcorn kernels
Salt to taste


Heat the oil and four kernels of popcorn over medium high heat in a three or four quart covered saucepan or skillet. When the kernels pop, remove the pan from the heat and add the corn. Cover the pan and swirl the kernels in the hot oil for thirty seconds.

Return the pan to the heat. The kernels will begin popping in a few seconds. Gently shake the pan over the burner. After the corn has been popping a few seconds, you can lift the lid slightly while shaking the pan to release any steam.

When the popping slows to a couple of seconds between pops, take the pan from the heat and dump the popcorn into a large bowl. Salt lightly and serve immediately.

NOTES: Popcorn pops because the moisture in the kernel expands when heated. Like any food product, popcorn dries out gradually. When I popped some from a partial bag of popcorn which had been hiding on a shelf for several years at the cabin, only half of the kernels popped, so buy good quality popcorn and try to use it within a year.

Some folks like to add melted butter to their popcorn, and until theaters started using imitation butter I used to order it when we went to movies. I love butter, but it makes my fingers greasy when I am eating popcorn. Besides, popcorn is one healthful food that I like as is. I do have some cheese-flavored salt that is pretty tasty, however.

Elise Bauer has a good explanation of why this method works so well. You can visit her site at