Monday, December 6, 2010

The Rolls Have It

What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it?

The last thing I made from scratch was Thanksgiving Dinner, the centerpiece of which are always my yeast rolls.

Flour, yeast, salt, sugar, butter, eggs & milk.

I have been fiddling with yeast for the life of my marriage. The first time I ever worked with it I could have used the loaves I made as doorstops. To impatient to read the directions, I forgot the let them rise.

Now, almost 30 years later, this is one thing I can say for certain that I know how to do.

It is rote now, how I (sort of) measure the sugar, combining it with a teaspoon of salt measured in the palm of my hand. Add the butter, get the yeast going, watching as it bubbles and forms a sponge on top. I use the same measuring cups, the sifter I have used for years, and the first batch always, always, rises in an Italian pottery bowl with a donkey painted in the center that was a wedding gift to my parents.

Ina Garten would not like watching me as I pour the loose dough onto my Silpat, sifting bread flour over it as it oozes, just a little. Surely, she would say, don't you need a little more flour, so the dough forms a soft ball? Trust me, Ina, this I know.

I can still hear the directions for that first failed batch out of Redbook all those years ago whispering in my head: Add just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. That's the secret, I think, what makes my rolls lighter than most I've tasted, less dense. I move my palms over the warm mass, losing myself for just a few minutes out of my busy holiday day, and though I can not describe exactly when I know to stop (don't knead for too long), by feel I can tell the rolls will be perfect.

The recipe came from my mother, who got it from her mother. I can barely read the  recipe my mother wrote down, the card long-smudged by scaulded milk, bits of yeast, butter stains. It is a treasure.
I passed the recipe onto my daughter, and her own first attempts last year didn't work, this year the aroma of yeast, flour and butter filled her little NYC kitchen, the rolls rose, baking a golden brown just like mine (almost). I am so proud of passing this tradition on, though I am not ready to give up making them just yet.

Though making the rolls each year for my family and friends is calming, there have been times when I spat at my children for trying to sneak the last piece of dough from the counter — (I had too many to make and no time to do it and so much more to do that I was about to go CRAZY for saying I would make rolls for every teacher and assistant and neighbor and party and friend.) I remember their eyes wide as they peered over the counter... just a little bite, please? No! There was NOT enough to share. They would have to wait until Christmas Day to get a bite of their own.

We used to leave Santa rolls instead of cookies, and each Christmas morning, only crumbs remained, and I felt finally satisfied, knowing I was able to give something so special back to Santa, who had always given so much to me.

Several years ago I stopped making so many, selfishly reining in my roll frenzy,  trying to return it to a sacred ritual, unwilling anymore to lose the magic of roll-making, in the middle of the muddle of making too many.

Now I make them, freeing my mind to think about other things as I bake. The calm of the morning, the hum of Christmas music, my grown children, finally home, sleeping just above me.

On Thanksgiving, my mother rolled and cut the dough into the foldover kind my father likes. Just as she pinched the last roll tight, I took the small sliver of leftover dough from her and handed it to my son, who popped it right into his mouth. Finally, he didn't have to share with anyone.

What do I wish I could make but there is no time for it? I wouldn't make more rolls, but I wish I could make time, just for the sake of having a little more quiet.