Today I attended an interesting session about social media. This is a vastly different world from the one the women of Berlin (Kitchener) inhabited in 1906 when they published the Berlin Cook Book. And yet in other ways their world shares many things in common with us. The exchange of information is an ongoing human need. These women spoke in person or via letters or short brief messages on a post card. Some had access to telephones but had to be wary of others listening in, and post cards could be read by the people processing and delivering the mail. Sound familiar? Whatever I write in this blog is going to be “out there” forever. I know that a text message or email could be accessed by anyone. And we still enjoy our phone calls and “in person” communications. So what does all this have to do with selecting a recipe from the Berlin Cook Book? The social media session included a very brief mention of doughnuts. I’ve been thinking of them ever since so today’s recipe is Fried Cakes, a recipe contributed by Clara Hagen.
I creamed the sugar and shortening together. Shortening was a somewhat new product in 1906 but was readily available in the Berlin Ontario area. Crisco had frequent advertisements in local newspapers. I added the eggs next. I use medium eggs since they best accommodate the variable size available in the early twentieth century. Egg production would naturally be slowing in November.
The next ingredient is sour milk. As usual I had to make my own sour milk by adding one teaspoon of vinegar to the cup of 1% milk. I use 1% or 2% milk since it best represents the milk available in 1906. Finally I added the baking soda along with close to four cups of flour. The recipe doesn’t even mention flour but it is a key ingredient. It isn’t unusual for the amount of flour to be missing in these recipes but I’m surprised it is lacking entirely.
Once the dough was ready I started prepping the lard for frying. I peeled a potato and put it in my saucepan. I spooned in lard, turned the heat to low, and took my usual safety precautions when working with hot fat. I rolled the dough and used a doughnut cutter to create rings for frying.
This is the first time I’ve tried making doughnuts with a potato lurking in the hot fat. It seemed to work. It raises the level of the fat so less lard is needed although it takes up space in the small saucepan I use for deep-frying. I tested the fat with a small bit of dough to make sure it was hot but not too hot. I carefully slid a ring of doughnut into the fat. Once it bobbed to the surface I watched for it to become firm and then turned it over. I like doughnuts that turn themselves over but it didn’t happen with this recipe. When they were brown on both sides, I removed them to a plate to drain and then sprinkled with granulated sugar. I let two cool slightly before tasting.
Clara Hagen was born in 1878 so she was about twenty-eight when the cook book was published. Clara shows up in the 1901 census and at that time she lives with her parents, older brother and older sister. Her home was close to relatives and several other contributors to the cook book. Mr. Hagen was working as a carpenter and Clara’s job was house work. The Waterloo Region Generations website shows that she is the youngest of 10 children. By the 1911 census Clara is still living with her parents at 163 Courtland Avenue along with her brother and sister. Her 79-year-old father is still working, this time he’s listed as a moulder in a foundry, but Clara is no longer employed. I wonder if Clara married? Did she work somewhere later? And most of all … who was eating all these doughnuts? Were they a treat or a regular dessert? I’m hoping with further research I’ll have answers to some of these questions but others will have to remain lost to the past.
The Fried Cakes are okay. I find it difficult with each of these doughnut style recipes to get the right balance of thickness, temperature and time. There is an art to making a good doughnut. The dough itself was good but it didn’t puff up much in the fat. My doughnuts were either too crispy or greasy. I tried making the ring thicker and this was an improvement but again they had to stay in the lard a little longer in order to be cooked. Even sprinkled with sugar these doughnuts were only passable. I think this dough would actually be good for making doughnut holes (timbit style). I’ll try that next time. In the meantime, I’m sticking with THE BEST recipe so far for doughnuts. On Day 50, back in February, I made Dainty Crullers and they were amazing.
Now there’s probably a few people out there who are wondering about that potato sitting in hot lard. Like any frugal cook in 1906, I removed it, sliced it, and returned it to the fat to make wonderful thick potato chips. A little sprinkle of salt on top and they were delicious. Eating doughnuts and home-made potato chips … just one of the enjoyable sacrifices necessary for this project!
1 cup sugar, eggs, 1/2 cup of shortening, 1 teaspoon soda, 1 cup sour milk, cut in rings, have your lard very hot in which place a peeled potato, to keep lard from burning and drop in your cakes. They will come to the top of the lard when light. Fry a dark brown, when taken out sprinkle sugar over them.