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Re-creating Brigham Young's buttermilk doughnuts

Published: Thursday, Feb. 19 2009 12:33 a.m. MST

Nobody had as good a breakfast as Brigham Young. At least that was the opinion of his daughter, Clarissa. "To be sure, there was corn-meal mush and milk, which was no great treat, but there were also hot doughnuts and syrup, codfish gravy ... squabs from the pigeon house, and some little delicacy from our own garden," Clarissa said.Did she say "hot doughnuts"?If only we could find a recipe for Brigham Young's doughnuts, then we could get an idea why Clarissa wanted to eat breakfast with her dad.Brock Cheney, a living history enthusiast whose blog, Mormon Pioneer Foodways, explores pioneer food, said Brigham Young's breakfasts would have two or three courses. "It would have been a little bit later after early morning chores or office work had been done. It would have more to it than just a bowl of oatmeal," Cheney said. "I think that the doughnuts would have been the 'wipe-it-up' at the end."Cheney found a recipe for "Brigham Young's Buttermilk Doughnuts" that was printed in Winnifred Jardine's 1967 book "Famous Mormon Recipes." Jardine is a former food editor for the Deseret News, where she worked for 36 years. She is also a great-granddaughter of Emily Dow Partridge Young — wife to Brigham Young.Cheney lamented that the recipe had been modernized: "The big question for me is why do people feel that they need to change historic documents? We are going to make pioneer food, but it's not going to be real pioneer food — it will be a pioneer food that gets us feeling like (a pioneer) without going all the way. So we adapt the old thing to a comfortable level."One of the adaptations that jumped out at Cheney was the addition of baking powder to the recipe. He said that although baking powder was invented in the 1840s in England, it really wasn't available in America until the 1870s. Cooks would have used yeast, baking soda or saleratus to raise the dough. Saleratus is a naturally occurring potassium bicarbonate that is similar to baking soda, which is sodium bicarbonate. Mark Twain, in his book "Roughing It," wrote that Mormons often came to "Soda Lake" to haul away saleratus. He marveled that they could take two wagon-loads of a chemical "that cost them nothing, to Salt Lake, (and) sell it for twenty-five cents a pound."Cheney said the reaction between the acid in the buttermilk and the soda should be enough to raise the dough. "I think we forgot a lot of the old chemistry that was common knowledge for the old-time cooks ... and we began to distrust the old soda and buttermilk method."Even though Jardine had halved her great-grandmother's recipe for Brigham's doughnuts, the baking powder was already in the recipe by the time she modernized it."Those old recipes were not that specific," Jardine said. "Now how that would have been modernized is that I gave the temperature for the fat, and I told how many doughnuts I made because I measured the flour more specifically."Unfortunately, Jardine no longer has the original recipe.Fortunately, Jardine is not the only descendant of Brigham Young.Naomi Young Schettler, who died in 1990 at the age of 102, was Emily Dow Partridge Young's granddaughter. The February 1976 Ensign magazine printed a recipe from Schettler called "Brigham Young's Doughnuts." It was twice as big a recipe as Jardine's version and did not specify the amount of flour. Jardine thinks this is probably the version she modernized.The Ensign recipe said Emily Young's version of the doughnuts became so popular that they were even sold at ZCMI.Cheney thinks this recipe is closer to the original — and may be as close as we can get to an original document. He said that recipes began to be more "scientific" in the 1890s when Fannie Farmer's "The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook" began advocating recipes with precise and standardized measurements that could be easily duplicated. Cheney's guess is that Brigham Young's buttermilk doughnuts were either modernized by ZCMI or by Emily Young, who died in 1899."Maybe early on, when she was making them for Brigham, she made them from rote memory," he said. "But then, when she transcribed the recipe for her daughters to use, she would have standardized it." "From day-to-day, as you made the dough up, the humidity would have been a fluctuating factor. A sensitive cook would be able to say, 'Well, it's raining outside, I've got to use a little more flour,'" Cheney said. "The unspecified flour amount is really indicative of that older, shoot-from-the-hip kind of deal. "The fact that the recipe doesn't give an amount for flour doesn't surprise Cheney.Mary Ellen Elggren, current president of the Brigham Young Family Association, thinks the recipe may go back even further than her great-grandmother, Emily Young."It probably would have been Brigham's mother's recipe," Elggren said. "That was Abigail Howe. Her (extended) family was in the innkeeping business in Massachusetts." Howe's relatives ran the Wayside Inn made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his "Tales of a Wayside Inn."Brigham's mother fell ill when he was a teenager. "He ended up doing a lot of the cooking while she was in bed dying," Elggren said. "My guess is that (the doughnuts) would be a recipe that he learned from his mother."Brenda Hopkin, head baker at The Lion House Pantry Restaurant, agreed to try creating Schettler's version of the recipe. At Cheney's suggestion, the baking powder was left out of the recipe. Would the soda and buttermilk be enough?Even though the soda was four times less than what Jardine specified in her halved recipe, the doughnuts rose without problems. The pioneer chemistry worked. Hopkin noted, however, that the buttermilk available in stores is not exactly the same as buttermilk made from churning your own butter.The recipe also calls for a lot of nutmeg — the proportion of which Jardine had reduced in her modernization. "Nutmeg is the spice that the pioneers used most commonly," Cheney said. "If it was a modern recipe it would probably be cinnamon.""I think it is impossible to even fathom having a pound of nutmeg in your kitchen," Cheney said. "We don't use spice like they used spice."Cheney said the list of items for the pioneers to take west included "a dozen nutmegs." He said they are about the size of a chestnut and need to be grated to make the powder. Another pioneer source, according to Cheney, described a kitchen with "a pound of nutmeg."Hopkin fried some of the doughnuts in lard, like the pioneers did, and some in oil. The consensus of those who tasted the doughnuts was that the lard-fried ones tasted better.Hopkin was able to make about 60 doughnuts from Schettler's recipe — which were finished off quickly by staff at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.But don't look for the doughnuts to be offered at the Lion House on its regular menu. You might be able to make a special order for a breakfast event, but the kitchen isn't set up for deep-frying. If you want to try Brigham Young's buttermilk doughnuts you'll probably have to make your own — pigeon squabs and codfish gravy optional.

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