So, the other day I’m soliloquizing about “the recipe that got away.” It’s a painful subject for me, one that often leads to tears and angst-ridden baking. You see, it was a recipe handed down for generations in my family and it generated the absolutely most delicious dinner rolls you could possibly ever put in your mouth! Honestly, it’s THE recipe that ignited my passion for cooking. (Followed closely by Alfredo pasta, but that’s another story.)
My grandmother used to bake this bread recipe twice a week. It was so delicious that they used it for EVERYTHING that needed bread; dinner rolls, sandwiches, sausage breakfast sandwiches, even bread crumbs for thanksgiving dressing! It was basically the cornerstone of her entire menu. The problem was, we lived 6 hours away. That meant I only had this delicious treat a few times a year. My heart wanted more! I longed for it, craved it, dreamt about it at night (I’ve always been a bit dramatic and food-obsessed. You’ll get used to it.) So, naturally, when I grew a little older, I asked my grandmother to teach me. And to my surprise and delight, she agreed!
She gathered the ingredients and began explaining how to mix them properly. “With a wooden spoon, or your hands, but never a metal spoon or whisk!”
With painstaking patience she demonstrated the proper technique needed to form perfectly shaped dinner rolls with smooth tops and fluffy centers. “You pinch, and pull outward, then tuck it in the bottom.”
Ok, this is where I start to cry. You see, my grandmother had severe rheumatoid arthritis. Over the course of her life she had multiple surgeries on her hands which were gnarled and twisted by the disease. I know it must’ve been painful to make rolls, to cook in general, but she never once complained in front of me. Not. Once.
She taught me to bake bread and I memorized every single detail, but there was no written record of the recipe. She claimed it wasn’t necessary, it was too simple to forget. So, I went home and practiced. I made bread just the way she taught me and they came out beautifully. I couldn’t wait to put that delicious substance in my mouth! Everyone oohed and ahhed over my pan of dinner rolls that night.
“Just like grandma’s! Wow!”
Then…we ate them. And I cried. And I cried. And I cried. And I may have tried to throw them all in the trash. They were NOT just like grandma’s! They tasted like mere bread. My mom kept trying to reassure me that they were fabulous, a great success for a first-time bread maker, but I knew the truth. It was just bread. It wasn’t grandma’s bread. I had failed.
And then…she died. She died before I could see her again. Before I could ask her to explain the mystery, before I could learn ANYTHING! There was so much I wanted to know now. How long had that recipe been in our family? How was it different before store-bought flour? How old was she before her mother taught her to make it? And where were all her other recipes? I suddenly wanted to know them all! How I wished I’d spent every moment in the kitchen with her instead of in front of the tv or in the yard playing when I could be soaking up her knowledge. Knowledge that was now lost. Holidays were never the same after that. Eating dinner rolls always reminded me of her and what I’d lost. Not just a recipe, but history, and a chance to connect with the one woman in my life that had always been the hardest for me to relate to…my grandmother.
So, there I am at the dinner table, complaining again about the one recipe I’ll never have, the only one that really matters. And my mom gets this funny look on her face. “Wait. What recipe are we talking about?”
“Mom! Grandma’s bread recipe!”
“You mean her dinner rolls?”
“Oh. But, Heather, I have that recipe.”
“Yeah, it’s at home in my box. I didn’t know you didn’t have it.”
And suddenly my world is upside down. How could I have been so close all this time?
After a few days and a little more begging my mother gave me the recipe (and a bunch more! But that’s another story.) I couldn’t wait to bake a batch. So, I hurried home and got to work. It wasn’t long before I sensed something was wrong. The technique was all wrong for one thing and it called for an egg. Hmmm…that can’t be right.
I baked it anyway and soon discovered my instincts were right. It was NOT my grandmother’s recipe. It was just bread. My family insisted it was delicious (flashbacks anyone?) and they ate the whole pan, but it was little comfort.
“Maybe it’s time to let it go. Instead of searching for her recipe, why don’t you begin perfecting your own bread recipe? Your bread can be the new family bread recipe for the next generation.”
I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t stand the idea that it had been lost. So much has been lost!
Mom suggested I write to a cousin who had been asking for family recipes. Her mother was my grandmother’s sister and they both learned the recipe from their mother Hazel. So, I wrote to my cousin Anita and asked if she knew the recipe. To my surprise she answered right away. Yes! She had the recipe! She’d blogged about it and gave me the link. It turns out my cousin is an avid cook and prolific blogger. I was thrilled to find not only detailed instructions for the recipe, but many other family treasures as well, like my great aunt Virginia’s pecan pie recipe. I cried. Then, I got to work.
I’ve never been happier baking than I was last night baking that batch of bread. The house filled with the most precious smell and when I pulled it out of the oven I KNEW it was the perfect recipe.
My son took one bite and his face lit up. “Mom, can you make these every week?!”
I certainly can. Every week for the rest of my life.
Want to try my grandmother’s rolls for yourself? You’ll find the whole recipe complete with excellent photos on Anita’s fabulous blog, Sugar, Spice, and Spilled Milk.