“Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken” by Ronni Lundy (Atlantic Monthly Press, $15) was published in 1991, but somehow I made its acquaintance only recently.
The book is subtitled “The Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens, Seasoned With Memories and Melodies From Country Music Stars.” Some of the most appealing recipes are for corn bread, biscuits and other hot breads - the kinds of things country cooks have always whipped up from a few ingredients to stretch meals when unexpected company drops by.
Country people treasure stories and love to retell them. Somehow, knowing the history of Earline Tibbs’ biscuits - she’s the grandmother of country star Dwight Yoakam - makes them taste even better. Treat yourself and try them.
According to Lundy, Tibbs “kept her bacon grease in a small brown ceramic pitcher. She kept her flour, already sifted, in a big green porcelain pan that, when she wasn’t using it, sat in the bottom of an old, wooden Hoosier cabinet in her kitchen.
“From these two simple vessels with their plain ingredients, she made biscuits that her daughter, Ruth Ann Rankey, remembers as being ‘the smoothest in the world. They were lighter than any biscuits I’ve had since, not as short as most people make them. And that little dab of bacon grease she put on the top of each one gave them such a good flavor.”’ As for corn bread, Lundy writes: “If God had meant for corn bread to have sugar in it, he’d have called it cake.
“Real corn bread is not sweet. Real corn bread is the fundamental building block of good Appalachian eating. Crumble it in a bowl and cover it over with hot soup beans, serve a slab of sweet onion and maybe a little pickle relish on the side, and you’ve got the ultimate supper.
“And speaking of greens, you simply can’t serve greens with pot likker unless you’ve got a big wedge of corn bread to soak up all that good juice.”
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 cup bacon grease
1/2 cup milk
Sift flour, salt and baking powder together into a large mixing bowl. Add bacon grease and work into the flour using your fingers, rubbing flour into grease lightly until it is evenly distributed.
Add milk a bit at a time and continue to work it into the dough with your hands. Some flour will require a little more, some a little less milk; the dough is right when it sticks together easily and can be patted into a ball but isn’t wet or sticky. If you get it too wet, add a little flour.
Pick up a big handful of dough (about 1/3 of what’s there) in your hand and pat it smooth lightly. Then squeeze about a third of the dough through the circle made by your thumb and forefinger, pushing gently from the back with your hand and pull off. Put biscuit on an ungreased baking sheet, with the rough, broken surface down. (Actually, country singer Bobby Bare believes the best biscuits are made in a cast-iron skillet.)
Continue to make all biscuits this way until done. Leave plenty of space between biscuits on the baking sheet. When finished, put your finger in the bacon grease and dot each biscuit with a little dab on top - just a streak of grease for flavor, not a big dollop.
Bake in a preheated, 400-degree oven for 15 minutes or until just beginning to brown. Serve hot, with sorghum or honey.
Yield: About 9 biscuits.
Real Corn Bread
4 tablespoons bacon drippings (or 1 tablespoon butter and 4 tablespoons bland vegetable oil)
2 cups finely ground white cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
The secret to really great corn bread is the crust, and the trick to getting the crust just right is to heat the pan and drippings good and hot in your oven before you put the corn bread batter in it. So before you so much as get out a bowl to mix up the batter, turn the oven to 450 degrees.
In a 9-inch, round cast-iron skillet, put about 4 tablespoons of drippings. Bacon grease is the traditional choice and gives corn bread a distinctive flavor. Put skillet, grease and all, into the oven. (You can’t accomplish what you want by heating the skillet on a burner on top of the stove. Doing that will make hot spots in the bottom of your skillet, which, in turn, will make your corn bread stick to the pan.)
While the grease is getting good and hot in the oven, mix cornmeal, salt, soda and baking powder in a big bowl. Add egg and buttermilk, and stir until just blended.
Remove the skillet from the oven and very, very carefully swirl grease around in skillet so it coats the bottom and lower half of the sides. Now pour hot grease into cornmeal mix and if everything is perfect it will snap, crackle, pop and bubble invitingly. (Even if it doesn’t, there’s no problem. It just means your grease wasn’t hot enough and you should leave it in the oven a smidgen longer next time. But don’t leave it too long and start a fire.)
Mix lightly until grease is just blended in, then pour the corn bread batter into the hot skillet and put it back in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until the bread is firm in the middle. If the crust isn’t browned on top, pop the pan under the broiler for a few seconds to get it crispy golden.
Serve from the skillet, or turn skillet upside down on a big plate and the corn bread should slip right out.
Yield: 6 hefty wedges.
Mystery Morning Cake
If you happen to have leftover mashed potatoes, this is a quick, moist coffee cake.
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup mashed potatoes
1 (1-1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast
2 tablespoons warm water
1-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
Nutmeg or cinnamon
The night before you want to serve cake, mix sugar and oil, then cream in mashed potatoes. Dissolve yeast in warm water and add to potatoes, mixing thoroughly. Add flour, 1/3 cup at a time, mixing with a wooden spoon. The result should be a stiff batter. Cover bowl with a clean towel and set in a warm place to rise overnight.
In the morning, heat oven to 375 degrees and grease a baking pan (about 11 by 7 inches, or the equivalent). Turn dough out into pan using a rubber spatula to scrape out any that sticks to the side of the bowl, and to smooth it evenly into pan.
Butter the tips of your fingers and use them to press dents over the top of the dough. Sprinkle brown sugar, then nutmeg or cinnamon over the top and dot with butter. Bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees, or until the dough is firm and golden brown on top. Serve warm.
Yield: 6 polite servings.