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On Ma, Her Doughnuts and the Afterlife

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What happens when we die is a matter of great debate. One thing is certain, though: As long as one person remembers us, we remain connected to the living world.

That's where doughnuts come in.

A stretch, perhaps, to link sacred notions to such a humble and quotidian food. But when the kitchen is filled with the warm and somehow golden fragrance of dough bubbling in a kettle of hot fat, the veil between here and there, between then and now, becomes very thin, indeed.

When I was a child, my great-grandmother kept a big, copper-colored tin filled with homemade treats. It was never, ever empty. Mildred's cookie repertoire was glorious: iced molasses, cocoa-walnut drops, orange-almond slices and chocolate chip.

But it was her doughnuts that elevated a simple treat into a full-sensory experience.

The aroma came first. Before you'd even reached the front door, the smell wafted over you. Once inside, there you'd see her: Ma (as we called her) standing over her little stovetop cauldron, watching those bobbing rings with unwavering exactitude. Each doughnut was cooked to absolute brown perfection and transferred to a baking dish lined with paper towels.

We wanted to eat them immediately. Yes, there were gentle admonitions about how hot they were. But in her perfectly non-prescriptive way, Ma let us learn for ourselves the lesson of how hot is too hot.

We burned our fingertips. We burned our tongues.

Worth it.

When I make Ma's doughnuts, she's in the room with me. True, I'm using her recipe, transcribed in her own impeccable handwriting. I'm using her 100-year-old cast-iron kettle, her favorite cutter and her one-handled rolling pin. When the doughnuts are cool, they're going into that same old copper-colored tin.

Heck, the house where she worked her culinary magic is my house now.

Not many people left on the planet remember Ma. A few local oldsters like me — folks with names like Barnum and Bistrin — may remember the sweet old woman who sometimes babysat them back in the day. Every year, though, Mildred's tether to this physical world becomes a bit more tenuous.

That's OK. It's the way life works.

An abundance of studies have demonstrated the powerful link between our sense of smell and our memories. In essence, smell bypasses the thinky processing circuits and blasts straight into our emotion-and-memory brain bits.

Ma's doughnuts, humble and unadorned, are delicious. But it's the smell, you see, that brings her back. The smell of these doughnuts cooking is something you ought to build some memories on.

For me, this is what heaven smells like.

Mildred Lowe's Doughnuts

Make the sour milk by combining scant 1 cup of milk with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar. Let it sit a couple of minutes until curdled. The doughnut holes are great for testing the readiness of your fryer. You can purposely save a bunch of them to fry up as bite-size morsels (quality control is SO important!) Otherwise, you can gently reincorporate them back into your dough scraps for a second roll-out.

And safety first! Never attempt to put out a grease fire with water — it will spread the flames. Keep flour or baking soda on hand to smother flames in an emergency. And, of course, children should not be anywhere near the stove when deep-fat-frying.

Makes approximately 24 doughnuts and doughnut holes.

Ingredients:

3 ½ to 4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

½ cup sour cream

½ cup sour milk

Fat for frying (lard, shortening or vegetable oil work)

Lightly beat the eggs together. Add the sugar and stir until the eggs are light-colored and well-mixed. Beat in the sour cream and sour milk thoroughly.

In a separate bowl, sift together three cups of the flour with the rest of the dry ingredients.

Mix the dry ingredients into the egg and sugar mixture until just blended. Gradually add flour to create a soft, sticky dough. Don't overmix or the doughnuts will be tough.

Cover bowl and chill dough for at least 2 hours.

Place fat in kettle and slowly bring up to frying temperature, about 375 F.

When dough is thoroughly chilled, lightly flour your work surface. Work with half the dough at a time, keeping the second half in the fridge so that it doesn't soften too much while you're making the first batch. A floured cloth and stockinet cover can be helpful for rolling out the dough. Roll to a scant ½-inch thickness (3/8 inch is better if you can be exact). The dough will be a bit sticky; use a little extra flour to help ease the stickiness as you roll and cut out the rings, dipping the cutter in flour between cuts.

When your fryer is ready, brush off any excess flour to avoid a buildup of scorched flour in your kettle and carefully add a couple of doughnuts into the kettle. To keep the fat at a consistent frying temperature, don't cook more than 2 or 3 doughnuts at a time. Occasionally monitor the temperature with a cooking thermometer as you go.

Go easy and be careful not to splash the hot oil. If you first dip a metal spatula in the fat, you can then place a raw doughnut on it and slide it into the hot fat without misshaping the dough or splashing.

The dough will sink for a few seconds, then bob to the surface while cooking. When they're golden brown — only 1 or 2 minutes — flip and cook another minute.

Remove doughnuts to cool on paper towels.

Eat at least one doughnut when it has cooled enough to handle. A complementary beverage of choice — coffee, tea, milk — will round out the experience.

Store cooled doughnuts in a sealed container. Reheating in a 300 F oven for about 10 minutes will give you the warm doughnut experience all over again.

Carla Baku is a novelist, poet and Eureka local. You can read more at www.carlabaku.com.

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