"My dear John Gould: Many years ago you told about making 'John the Baptists,' and I never made any. Now I'd like to make some. Would you please tell us again and include a recipe for the bread? There are still some of us who make bread the real way; we knead it! Thank you."
M. Louise Forman of Plano, Texas
Dear Ms. Forman,
We think the magnificent "Zhaw- bateese" originated with displaced Acadians in Maine's St. John River valley. It has other names, and can be called just "fried dough." The French word for fried dough in the valley is discreetly avoided here, not for prudish reasons, but because we are too far out of context and it would mean nothing. Fried dough is pronounced "delicious" in any patois!
When you set bread dough to rise and have the pans ready for baking, save some risen dough to fry next morning for breakfast. Use a round cookie cutter and dough that's a half-inch-thick. Put the breakfast dough in the fridge, and go ahead and bake off your bread.
Now pay strict attention because I'm going to tell you about Bill Pelletier. Bill was cook at the Chesuncook dam "boomhouse" for the Great Northern Paper Company, and every spring he went down the West Branch of the Penobscot with the log drive to feed the "river hogs," and in particular the famed Bangor Tigers.
The Bangor Tigers were veterans of the Telos War, and one year when New Hampshire men quailed at super-high water, they went over and drove the Connecticut River, from the Northeast Kingdom right down to the Sound, going through Springfield with 3 million cords of pulp in 21-1/2 minutes. Bill Pelletier kept ahead of the drive, and had Paul Bunyan meals on the dot, beanhole beans and all. He was the one who invented the platform down the middle of the table, so the cook could push a wheelbarrow along and serve food onto the plates with a barn fork. I always considered Bill a first-rate cook. Bill gave me his recipe for Jean-Baptiste dough:
Into 1/2 cup warm water put one yeast cake or one tablespoonful of dry yeast powder. Let stand about five minutes. Into another cup of warm water put some lard (or vegetable shortening) the size of an egg, a tablespoonful of salt, and a tablespoonful of sugar. When yeast is ready, mix all together and let the mixture take up all the flour it will (about 3-1/4 cups). Let the wad of dough be rather hard. Knead well on a floured surface. Cover with a damp cloth and set aside to rise to twice its size. Knead three times in all and shape into a loaf. Put in a greased pan and let rise again. Wipe lard or butter on top of loaf. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 45 minutes. (When you knock on it, it should sound hollow when done.)
This one-loaf bread is best hot from the oven, and will make delightful toast next morning, but then it sets up and can be fed to corbies. But you've saved some dough for John the Baptists and won't be making toast.
Use any cooking fat, and fry the pieces of dough until a bit crispy outside. Turn and repeat. Butter, and eat hot. Any jelly or jam suits, and a drench with honest maple syrup has never been known to generate hostility.
If you care to try it, Bill Pelletier's one-loaf recipe is great for campfire cooking with a reflector oven, as it is tolerant of heat and will turn out well with little anticipation. Best of all, you don't see too much bread being baked in campsites and lunch grounds, and the minute the smell of hot bread permeates the area, everybody within miles will come to see if he knows you well enough to invite himself. Don't expect to do as well as Bill Pelletier on your first try. Bill did have a secret. He disliked the feel of raw dough, and always kneaded it with his mittens on.
Bill, who already had a wife and seven children in Quebec, was unavailable, so I've had my own live-in cook all these years. She makes a good bread, even if I do say so. She has an old-time hand-crank bread mixer and does not wear mittens except in winter. When she guides hunters in the moose season, or attends a motorcycle rally, I often make her recipe and it is not any great chore. I've been known to divert for fried dough with monumental success. Here it is:
Scald two cups of milk (you can use powdered milk for this) with one cup of oleo. Add a tablespoonful of salt, one cup of sugar, and two cups of cold water. Dissolve three dry yeast cakes in one cup of warm water. Add to milk when dissolved and luke warm. Add 10 cups flour and if it "comes clean," you are there. If not, add more flour. (Editor's note: Our tester used 15 cups of flour in all.) Let rise until doubled. Punch down and let double again. Knead until elastic (the dough, not you!). Put in four greased pans. Let rise until almost doubled. Bake at 375 degrees F. for 40 minutes. Butter tops of loaves. Stand back and look at them! Aren't they handsome! Open the back door so people all up and down the township can get a whiff!
One time Hannah Stinchfield set a batch of bread before breakfast, and when the farmhands came in from the barn she was ready to fry some John the Baptists. She did, and then fried some more, and the consequence was that after breakfast she had no bread left to bake. It was clover time, and she used new honey. Bon appétit!