painting of my Grandmother's Kitchen

Grandma’s Kitchen, El Cerrito, CA. 8″ by 8″ Watercolor pencil and gouache. Sharyn Dimmick.

My Grandma was not a great cook — maybe not even a good cook: she was a home cook who fed threshing crews, a husband and seven children on very little money. But she could make bread: my Mom remembers her making bread in a huge dishpan, four loaves at a time. She made jam, too, and I am sorry not to have her recipe for berry jam (she died before I got interested in canning) — I don’t know what kind of berries she used. Not strawberries, but maybe blackberries and raspberries together? I don’t know. She made excellent chicken and noodles and a nice cocoa cake. On holidays she brought the rolls.

Mom made rolls, too, but not for Thanksgiving or Christmas. She liked to make “bread rolls,” a less rich roll dough. She liked to use dried milk. Grandma always used fresh milk and scalded it. She warmed the flour and the eggs. She used oil rather than shortening or butter.

After Grandma died at ninety-six, I took over her roll-making job: I make yeast-risen oil rolls. I make cloverleaf rolls in a muffin tin greased with Crisco because that is what my Mom always did. The recipe comes from Grandma. The shape comes from Mom. My contribution is sometimes to sneak in a little whole wheat flour, but everybody else likes it better if I don’t: the consensus is that we should be allowed to eat white flour on holidays, along with pie and gravy and stuffing and whipped cream. “It’s only for one day,” Mom says. Two, if we’re counting Christmas, but hey, why be literal-minded?

Here is my grandmother’s recipe for rolls.

Scald 1 cup of milk and pull off burner to cool.

Dissolve 4 and 1/2 tsp of yeast (two packets) in 1/2 cup lukewarm water by sprinkling the yeast into the water in a one-cup liquid measuring cup and beating it with a fork

To the scalded milk, add:

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1/3 cup corn oil. You can add this stuff while the milk is still warm — it will speed the cooling.

While the milk is cooling to lukewarm, if you want to imitate my grandmother you need to warm the flour and eggs. This is how you do it.

Turn on your oven to warm or low. Measure 5 cups sifted flour into a glass, metal or ceramic bowl. Bury 2 large whole eggs in the shell in the flour. Turn off the oven. Set the bowl in the oven for a few minutes until the flour is warm to the touch. This is a good trick for cold kitchens: the warmed flour gives the yeast a little boost.

Remove eggs from flour (or just take 2 eggs out of your fridge) Beat the eggs until blended and whisk them into your milk-oil-sugar mixture. Pour liquids, including eggs over flour. Add dissolved yeast.

Knead until dough is uniform, soft and spongy — about ten minutes by hand. The dough should be soft and light, but not sticky. If it is a humid day, you might have to add more flour, but you only want to do that if it is impossible to knead.

Cover your bread bowl with a warm, damp tea towel (I like linen and find that dampening it and microwaving it for twenty seconds gets it warm enough).

Set bowl in warm oven (warm from before — your oven should not be on at this point) or other warm draft-free spot. We have been known to run our clothes dryer for awhile before turning it off and setting the covered bowl of dough inside to rise. Let dough rise until double — I’m going to say an hour, but you need to go by volume rather than time.

Punch dough down and let it rise again. This will take half the time of the first rise.

While dough is rising the second time, get out your Crisco vegetable shortening that you bought to make pie crust. Grease two normal-size 12 cup muffin tins or 1 12-cup muffin tin and one 6-cup one. This recipe will yield eighteen to twenty-four cloverleaf dinner rolls, depending on how big you make them. If you have extra dough, plop it in a small greased bowl and make a bun.

When dough has doubled again, punch it down and form cloverleaf rolls by pinching off three balls of dough. They should be about the size of the circle you make with your thumb and forefinger, unless you have huge hands, in which case they can be a little smaller. Place three balls of dough in each greased muffin cup: as the dough rises and spreads it will fill the muffin tin and leave you with rolls.

While your rolls complete their last rise, go ahead and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Do not put the rolls in it yet. The rolls are ready to go in when they have risen above the edge of the muffin cups.

Bake rolls in 425 degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Serve hot — or at least warm. You can eat them cold later — and you will, if there are any left. We eye them jealously and fight for our share. Sometimes we make more during the holiday weekend if we feel we have been shorted.

Food Notes: These rolls are simple and good. You can add a touch of butter to the milk mixture if you like. You can also substitute up to 1 cup of whole wheat flour for unbleached flour or bread flour — add more than that and you will lose their marvelous lightness and beautiful creamy color. My brother would say just lose the whole wheat flour altogether and my Mom would say to hold it to a quarter cup. You can, of course, use only one packet of yeast or 2 and 1/4 teaspoons — if you do, things will just take a little longer: these rolls take me about two and a half to three hours total time.