This description of a treasured recipe handed down to husband Lamar was published in the 2012 February-March issue of San Antonio Taste Magazine as part of a feature article I wrote on artisan breads:
Grandma – my husband Lamar’s grandmother, Virginia Lamar Hornor (1895-1988) – always claimed the secret to her rusks was her ancient gas Chamberlain stove. The recipe she used was handed down through the Lamar family as they migrated from Georgia to Mexico to try to earn a living in the decades after the Civil War.
The best guess for the origins of this rustic bread is that shortages of white flour during the war led to a more creative use of graham flour, a version of whole wheat. While born out of necessity, the recipe remains a family favorite for its taste, probably boosted by a heavy dash of sentimentality.
To me, and perhaps to Lamar’s mother as well who declined to tackle it, the recipe is hardly one at all. What is “enough” graham flour? Four cups? Six cups? What kind of “sponge?” How much white flour is “sufficient?”
But Lamar gamely picked up the tradition where Grandma left off. Through the years, he has developed some rather picky (my word) rules about preparation and ingredients; although I admit they enhance the flavor.
A yeast cake yields better results than dry yeast, and we finally have been able to find the cakes in the refrigerator section of Central Market. We have switched to King Arthur Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour because its texture and flavor more closely mimics the harder, if not impossible, to find graham than standard, more finely ground whole wheat flours. And it must be freshly purchased; no matter if the canister is already full.
The nutmeg must be freshly grated, again for texture and taste. Early efforts to grate the hard kernel almost always resulted in blood, but I recently purchased a new one at Melissa Guerra’s at Pearl that offers ample protection for the fingers.
All mixing and kneading is done by hand because the only way to determine when the proportions are correct is by feel.
Warning: Rusks refuse to rise when rushed. Even when preparing for an evening meal, they should be covered and set out the night before for the first rise.
How this banker by day, baker by night knows how much flour or water to add when defies my understanding. I’ve decided it is an inbred bread sense, similar to the way he plays the guitar by ear. I don’t have it, but should you, this recipe could become a treasured one for your family as well.