“Uncle Mark is going to make biscuits in the morning for breakfast!” my niece told her son this past weekend while preparing to put him to bed. “Yummy!” he replied. Recently, my family gathered at my niece’s house in Alabama to celebrate a late Christmas. And, anytime my family gathers, delicious food will not be far behind.
My sister and I grew up cooking and there’s nothing that makes me happier than our family being together and crammed in the kitchen preparing some of our family’s traditional recipes. Many of them can be traced back to our granny. Sometimes food can somewhat fill the void left of loved ones who have passed away.
My granny had drawers and boxes full to the brim with recipes written on everything you can imagine — and probably some things you can’t. Fragments of torn paper, envelopes, deposit slips, church bulletins and grocery store receipts morphed into her recipe cards. Wherever she was and wanted a recipe, she simply opened her purse, found something on which to write and a pencil or pen. She then scribbled down the list of ingredients, but I found she only used these notes as a reference point when she cooked.
Take her biscuits, for instance. In a carved wooden bowl, her frail hands carefully formed a small well in the middle of her sifted flour. She then reached into a container filled with shortening and scooped up a handful. Using every arthritic finger on both hands, she combined the flour and shortening until it magically turned into dough. Along came the buttermilk and, when the time was right, she “choked off” (as she called it) a small piece of dough.
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With a quickness that could only come with years and years of experience, she rolled the small piece of dough between her floured palms and placed it onto a baking pan. As if putting her own personal stamp of approval on each one, she used three of her fingers to slightly flatten the rolled dough. When all the dough was used, and the pan was full, into a hot oven it went. Before long, you had a piping hot buttered biscuit in your hand. What you didn’t have was a recipe!
I often asked her how much of something she used, and she always replied using her hands as human measuring cups, “Oh, about this much!” Apparently, her hand-measuring system never failed her because her biscuits were delicious each and every time.
As I learned to cook, I tried to emulate her method of measuring. If a recipe called for a cup of cheese, I would throw in some extra just because I loved cheese. If a spaghetti sauce called for a quarter cup of sugar, I’d toss in a half a cup, just because I happen to have a sweet tooth. Add more of something you like and less of what you don’t is the way I have always approached cooking.
I had a dear older friend who reminded me a lot of my grandmother. She was also an excellent cook who, over the years, produced some very tasty delights. One day I decided to hang around and watch her bake. It was then that I found out she was what I refer to as a chemist cook. Not one grain of sugar, one piece of salt or one drop of extra extract entered the bowl if it wasn’t listed on the recipe.
Since I’ve produced five cookbooks over the years, recipes are important to me — especially family ones. But I love to tweak them here and there. In fact, as I was making the biscuits at our gathering, I mentioned to my sister something I had tinkered with when making biscuits. Before we knew it, I had two pans of biscuits in the oven getting ready to meet up with some real butter.
It’s alright to follow a recipe, but don’t be scared to venture out and add a little more of your own special spice to it. Although recipes and instructions are great tools, it is fun to see where veering off the path will take you. Who knows, you may even like your version better!
Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions or comments to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; call 478-757-6877; email firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him at instagram.com/mark creates; or become a subscriber to Mark’s Facebook page.