Bread ~ on a ‘knead’ to know basis ~ French bread ~ West Virginia-style

Joy brushes egg white on the crust of the bread with a pastry brush as she tells us that she began using the recipe for the bread when she was a school cook in Greenbrier County. “We decided to make French bread to go with our spaghetti,” she recalled. “I can’t remember where I came up with this recipe, but it’s a good one. I’ve been using it all these years. L.D. Bennett photo

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

I was recently invited to visit Joyce Mullens and to watch her make and bake French bread in the spacious kitchen of her beautiful home in Edray.

“My name is really Sheila Joyce, but my friends call me Joy,” she said.

Joy is 77 years old, but she has more energy than many people half her age. She grew up in Minnehaha Springs with two brothers and one sister.

“My mom, Virginia Buzzard, was the postmaster at Minnehaha Springs for 23 years,” Joy said. “It seemed Mom knew how to do everything.”

Like most Pocahontas County homes back in the day, the family got along on the resources at hand.

“We had a cow, hogs and some chickens,” she said.

Joy said she’s been cooking and baking since she was 11 or 12 years old.

“Mom taught me how to cook and bake,” she continued. “I just learned by sitting and watching her.

“It was the same way with sewing and crocheting. Mom made our clothes out of feed sacks.

“I learned how to sew by watching her.”

Later, when Joy had a family of her own, cooking and baking and being able to sew really came in handy.

“I made my boys jeans and denim jackets to match their jeans,” she remembered.

“Mom taught me so much, but there is one thing that I still have trouble with.

“Everybody in the county knew about my mom’s salt risen bread. And me, I just can’t seem to get salt risen bread to come out right.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to make salt risen bread, and I’ll bet it’s only come out right two or three times.

“The first things I ever learned how to bake were biscuits.

“Mom hardly ever used a recipe, she just threw in this and that.

“She used buttermilk in her biscuits. I guess because we had a cow, she always had buttermilk.

“I make my biscuits with regular milk now, and I use Hudson Cream flour.

“Lately I’ve been adding sour cream to my biscuits because I happened to be given a lot of sour cream.

“They’ve turned out pretty good.”

Like her mother, Joy doesn’t always stick to a recipe.

“I don’t measure much,” Joy confessed. “Recipes aren’t etched in stone, you know.

“They can vary. You can put in a little more of this or less of that – it’s all in what you like. 

Joy’s friend, Mary Jo Fisher, whose grandmother, Verdie Kincaid, also lived in Minnehaha Springs, was along for the “French bread” event. We sat at the counter and watched as Joy brushed the French bread loaves with egg white.

Mary Jo remembers dropping in at the Buzzard home when she was just a little girl.

WHILE the bread was cooling on the counter, Joy surprised us with a slice of a beautiful pear tart she’d made. The crust was unusual and absolutely delicious. What was the secret? “I put some crushed black walnuts in it,” she revealed. All in all, it was a pleasant afternoon, which was made even more so, when Joy gifted us each with a loaf of French bread. L.D. Bennett photo

“She always had something good on the table for us kids to eat,” Mary Jo said, with a smile.

“Mom liked to bake molasses cookies a lot,” Joy agreed. 

Joy worked as a cook at White Sulphur Springs Junior High School for 27 years. 

She has a lot of fond memories of her days as a school cook.

“One thing I made at school that the kids really liked were Fig Newtons.

“That started when we got this huge government shipment of figs.

“You know, I figured that the kids would never just eat figs, so I tried to figure out what to do with all of them.

“I found a recipe in my Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook for Fig Newtons,” Joy said over her shoulder as she pulled the familiar red and white checked classic off of an upper shelf in her kitchen.

“If you have an old Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, you should try this recipe. It’s a good one.” 

She also got the recipe for her French bread when she was a school cook.

“I can’t remember where I came up with this recipe, but it’s a good one and I’ve been using it all these years,” she said.

“It makes two large loaves and only takes about an hour and a half to make.”  

While the loaves baked, Joy shared more stories about her cooking and baking.

“When I was a school cook,” she said, “I could really put the cookies out of that kitchen – just like ‘pfut, pfut, pfut!’

“I had a system, and I’d just keep on making cookies.

“Once I made 3,000 in two days when we were having achievement tests.

“I made peanut butter, chocolate chip, sugar cookies, oatmeal raisin – just all kinds.”

Joy said she and her first husband, Robert Mullens, moved to Greenbrier County in 1973.

Tragically, at age 53, Robert died, leaving her a widow with three sons, Johnny, Jimmy and Jody.

Joy’s now a grandmother and great-grandmother, having been blessed with two granddaughters, three grandsons, two great-grandchildren and one more on the way.

“I’m glad to say I’m close with my grandchildren,” Joy said, smiling. 

“When they were young, we’d make cinnamon rolls and cookies together.

Joy has been very active in the Neola Baptist Church for many years.

With her natural energy and a nice singing voice, Joy is the song leader at her church.

 Having gone to school at the historic Huntersville School, Joy has taken an interest in Huntersville history.

She’s a hardworking member of Huntersville Historic Traditions and portrays an old-fashioned school teacher at the old schoolhouse during Huntersville Traditions Day festivities.

She donates blood six times a year and has reached what the Red Cross calls the “20 gallon plus” mark.

“I started about 30 years ago,” she said. “I guess it just seemed like a good thing to do. Something I could do to help people.”

Joy is all about helping – and feeding people.

The French bread had finished baking was put out onto the counter to cool. While we waited, Joy offered us a slice of a pear tart she’d made.

The crust was unusual.

“I put some crushed black walnuts in it,” she revealed.

It was heavenly.

As we nibbled on our pear tarts, we learned more about Joy’s life. 

She met Freddie Hannah, her husband of seven years, at the American Legion Hall in Marlinton during Pioneer Days.

But they’d known each other some 40 years before when they went to high school together and quickly fell into a companionable routine of riding bikes together.

Our conversation turned back to the French bread sitting on the counter.

“I slice this French bread in one-inch slices,” she said.

“It’s good with spaghetti – with butter or garlic butter on it”

After the bread had cooled, Joy gingerly placed them in plastic, store-bought bread wrappers.

“Here’s a tip – save your bread wrappers because it’s hard to find plastic wrappers for these long homemade loaves,” she advised.

Joy told Mary Jo and me that she was sending each of us home with a loaf of French bread.

When we thanked her and commented on her generosity, she laughed and said with well-deserved bravado,

“Well, I can make more!”
Recipe for Two Loaves
of French Bread
7 cups flour
2 pkg. yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. shortening
2 1/2 cups water
1 egg white and a little cornmeal

You may also want to have on hand: parchment paper and a pastry brush
Mix all ingredients. Let rise and double in bulk. Lay parchment paper into baking pan (s) or grease and dust pan(s) with cornmeal. Snip tops of dough diagonally with scissors. Use pastry brush to brush with beaten egg white. Let rise again until double. Bake at 375º until loaves are light brown. Brush again with egg white. Bake 15-20 minutes longer.

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