Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Not Gladys' rolls

When I was growing up, my great-grandmother owned a cabin on a lake in Northern Minnesota. Since her family (two children and their spouses, eight grandchildren and their spouses, 16 great-grandchildren) all lived in the Twin Cities and my great-grandmother lived in Underwood, North Dakota, this was a terrific place to meet up and spend some quality old-fashioned northern Minnesota time.

Every summer my parents would pack my sister and me into the back seat of the car (at first with Colorforms and Legos, later with Walkmans, books, and friends) and we'd drive the four hours to Park Rapids, where we'd turn off the paved road and into another world. This world was full of communal meals around a table buffeted by vinyl red bench seats, of swamping the canoe to swim in the center of the lake (where it was deep enough that the weeds couldn't strangle your feet), of adopting one of my grandfather's bait leeches to be my personal "pet" for the week (or a box turtle someone accidentally caught on a fishing hook), of mornings spent in rocking chairs around the fireplace, of late nights playing games around the kitchen table, of woodpeckers and woods and a funny old dog who hung around waiting for table scraps.  There was an old fashioned candy store in town, and an abandoned gravel pit down a nearby road where the hunt for agates often took place.

But the best part of the trip was when Great-Grandma would arrive. Grandma Gladys always, without fail, unpacked her things in the main bedroom off the kitchen (the rest of us slept in a lofted space filled wall to wall with beds of different sizes and mattress firmnesses which were accessed by one of those terrifically novel ladders that fold flat to the ceiling and squeak delightfully when you climb them), and then set immediately to making a double or triple recipe of her famous, amazing, caramel rolls.

She didn't use a recipe, she didn't measure the ingredients.  She did, however, have a completely captive audience of daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. We'd sit at the table while she worked, chatting aimlessly to keep her company while she kneaded the dough, patted it out in a puffy rectangle that filled the entire (communal) kitchen table, and spread it full of an intoxicating mixture of evaporated milk, brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon to roll into a beautiful spiral, which she'd slice using sewing thread.  Each roll would go, face down, into all the flat sided pans that could be found.  They'd rise again (three rises is torture for a kid, I'm telling you) and then finally go in the oven to fill the cabin with the smell of comfort: sweet, browned bread and sugar and butter.  And then, for the rest of the week, we'd feast on these enormous, sticky, incredible rolls. Sweet, doughy perfection.

So it's with this information that I have to tell you: these are not my great-grandmother Gladys' caramel rolls. My mother watched my great-grandmother make those rolls once desperately trying to get a fix on some kind of recipe (measuring things behind her back and estimating when she had to) and my sister and I have that recipe now--though it's my sweet Alaskan sister who makes them most often.  But I'm working on getting through my bread book, and these sweet little Miniature Chelsea Buns looked so festive and welcoming, I just had to try them out.

Don't get me wrong: they're really good. Flavored and sweetened with honey and brown sugar, and filled with dried fruit and orange peel, these rolls are sweet and sticky and perfectly tiny (you get to eat three!).  My husband Joe loved them. Moaned through each one with delight. Actually told me that he now expects that I'll make them once a month.  But I won't. And not just because they take all day, or we'd gain back all that weight we managed to shed in the Sahara.

It's because they're not Gladys' rolls. And though Joe met my great-grandmother, it wasn't until old age and too many strokes had rendered her confused and cranky.  He never went to the cabin; never put puzzles together on the porch or played Rook until three in the morning while fruitlessly trying to keep sticky caramel off the cards.  Never fished for sunnies and waited patiently for his dad to clean every tiny one so they could be rolled in breadcrumbs and pan fried to perfection.  So to him the Chelsea buns are fabulous. But to me they're yummy, but ultimately empty.


Grammatically Delicious Designs said...

What a great story! And anyone in ND is salt of the earth anyway. ha! I used to love my grandmother's sugar cookies just like that. And now I love my husband's grandmothers divinity. I pray I get the hang of it soon, or I will spend the rest of my life craving them. Yours look good too. Let's hope someday someone looks to one of our dishes with such admiration.

Pamela said...

This makes me cry! I miss those days!!! Thanks for a sweet, nostalgic homage to the wonderful times at the cabin and to Grandma Gladys!