Every year at Thanksgiving, I spend quality time with my grandmother, a wonderful woman who died about 40 years ago. Together, early each Thanksgiving morning, she and I pour a cup of coffee, dig out a handwritten recipe card, peel, cut up, and boil one large potato, and set about creating “Memama’s sweet roll dough.”
Our tradition stems from some of the best early times I can remember: her, humming as she bent over her kitchen table, rolling out dough; me, crawling around below that kitchen table; and often my dad, stopping in for coffee and something from the oven on his way to start his farm work for the day.
While I played under the table or drew my name backward on the foggy window by the sink, my grandmother focused on creating something she could do by memory. Her sweet roll dough recipe was in her head; nothing was written on a card in those days. Seemingly at the drop of a hat, she could whip out 3 dozen delicious dinner rolls and 2 dozen gooey cinnamon rolls, all in a single morning.
As I grew older, I decided that I wanted to learn to cook. That tuna casserole I had learned to make in my junior high home ec. class just wasn’t enough. I wanted to learn how to be a REAL cook. A cook like my grandmother. What better way to begin, I thought, than with something I loved to eat: gooey cinnamon rolls.
“Let’s try something else first,” my grandmother advised.
“Why?” I responded. “I can do it. Just tell me the recipe.”
“There isn’t any recipe,” she told me. “I just make it. I don’t know what the recipe is.”
That was a problem. Any cooking experience I had at that time had started with a recipe. How could anyone cook without a recipe?
“Let’s try something else first, maybe biscuits,” my grandmother said.
Okay. Not too hard. But, really, how impressive are baking powder biscuits?
The next week, we made “Memama’s sweet roll dough,” taking it one step at a time.
“Let’s see,” she began, “first you have to scald the milk…”
“Scald the milk? Why?”
“Well, I’m not sure if it’s because you’ll be melting the shortening in there with it or because that’s the way we always used to do it when our milk wasn’t pasteurized…. Also, we need some left-over mashed potatoes—about half a cup, maybe more….”
“What happens if everyone eats the mashed potatoes?” I asked.
“Then you’ll have to peel a big potato, cut it up, and boil it until it gets tender. Then you can mash it up.”
“Okay, I said,” writing furiously on a recipe card. “What next?”
“Well, pretty soon we’re going to have to put in enough flour to take up the moisture…”
Our morning continued, my grandmother slowing down, taking it step by step, stopping to measure when she could, me writing down the instructions on my card.
I use that same card every year on Thanksgiving morning. I’m not impressed with my childish scrawl, there are grease marks which make some things hard to read, and some measurements aren’t exact, but, with my grandmother’s presence hovering in my kitchen, we get the job done: 3 dozen dinner rolls and 2 dozen cinnamon rolls, ready by the time the turkey is cooked.
Check out our recipe on the HPPR Radio Readers website.
Memama’s Sweet Roll Dough
Scald 1 pint sweet milk, ½ cup shortening, and ½ cup sugar. Let cool. Add ½ cup cooled mashed potatoes and 1 yeast cake dissolved in warm water.
Add 1 tsp. baking powder, ½ tsp soda, and enough flower to take up moisture. Knead. Let rise. Make dinner rolls or cinnamon rolls with this dough. Bake at 425 degrees until slightly brown.
--Recipe from Mattie Terah Gover Miller, grandmother of Lynne Hewes.