Bread and sticky rolls are somewhat of a winter tradition around here. Long Sunday afternoons allow plenty of time between church and dinner to make them. While the dough rises, covered with a dishtowel, on the baseboard heater, putter: sweep the floor, tidy the kitchen, fold the laundry, take a nap.
The recipe is almost ludicrously easy, but even after fifty years of making it, the cookbook is a helpful crutch. Too much or too little salt might not be disastrous, but it taints the ambrosia that is warm bread fresh out of the oven. Fresh like that is the only time you’ll hear any contention for the heel.
The recipe is in a cookbook mom had. Better Homes and Gardens. In smaller print, New Cookbook. 1950. Yeast came in a cake and needed to be soaked and softened to be usable. Flour needed to be sifted. Shortening was Crisco in the city, or lard in the countryside. Margarine was in; butter was out. It goes like this:
5 ¾ to 6 1/4 cups of Gold Medal flour ( got to support brand loyalty)
1 cake of yeast
2 ¼ cups milk
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tbs. shortening
2 Tsp. salt
That’s it. All you need to conduct your very own experiment in microbiology. The yeast needs the sugar to proliferate. As they grow and multiply, they make alcohol and “breathe” carbon dioxide: the bubbles seen in the rich, even texture of the bread. A fermentation even the Women’s Christian Temperance Union couldn’t object to, even though it made alcohol and was going on right there in the kitchen. I guess it would be hard to get schnockered on bread. Got to choose your battles, you know. You’d never get far preaching against the demon bread. Christ even likened it to his body.
There is some art to it. Heat the milk too much while trying to melt the shortening and the protein makes a nasty skin on top. And like many living things, the yeast is kind of particular about being too hot: over about 120, it dies & you get flat bread. Not matzo, but same idea.
For a long time, I tried to get the yeast to dissolve in the water, but it was hydrophobic and always went lumpy. Then the light bulb went on: what if, instead of trying to get it to be friends with the milk, it made friends with the flour? No more lumpy yeast. It’s that line in the recipe where it says “mix dry ingredients.” I always wondered why that was. So the sugar and the salt and the butter go in the milk in a measuring cup. Into the nuke for 2 minutes. Take it out, stir it and let it sit. The butter will melt, usually. Maybe you need to give it another minute.
That thing about measuring the flour, it really is a range. So just dump some flour, a couple or three cups, into the mixing bowl. Add the milk mixture. Stir it around vigorously. The result is a gooey concoction similar to gesso, the stuff they coat canvas with before painting a picture. Don’t stop there, though. Keep adding flour and stirring until you have the illusion that you can cuddle this warm, soft ball that is your nascent bread. Flour a surface- -a table top or cutting board. Roll the dough out of its bowl-bed. Flour your hands: even though it looked like it was cute & cuddly in the bowl, it’ll still be gooey in the middle. Besides ridding yourself of aggression , the purpose of kneading is to wind up with a dough dry enough that it doesn’t want to stick to everything but moist enough that when you eat it you’re not reminded of your last trip to the Sahara where sand was the main course.
The action of kneading is really satisfying. You need to be high enough, or the dough low enough, so that you can lock your elbows and get your upper body weight behind the heel of your palms. Push down and away. The dough stretches and rolls and elongates. Fold it endways and repeat the process. Why is kneading important? It mixes. It bursts large bubbles. It improves your mental health.
Last week, I set out to make a double batch: two loaves of bread, a large glass casserole baking dish of stickies. I looked in the cookbook. There was nothing called a sticky roll. There were caramel rolls and cinnamon rolls. Synthesize. What every cook or writer or machine operator must do. Take the best of what’s applicable and put it together. Ignore the stuff that doesn’t matter. Kind of like those annoying word problems in math about a train leaving New York and another from St. Louis, only they forget to tell you that the New York one was detoured to Poughkeepsie. It turned out to be simple enough: butter, brown sugar, and a tablespoon of cinnamon.
My wife periodically goes on some kind of quiet rampage wherein she re-de-organizes the kitchen. The glasses move from this side of the kitchen to the other, the plates migrate, the pots somehow stampede, bulldozing everything in their path. The whole process is some sort of genetically engineered cross between government disinformation and a hoard of locusts and a Chinese firedrill. The landscape looks nothing like it did previously, and nothing is what it seems. So the brown sugar had taken up residence in the broom closet, something which made perfect sense to the great organizer. The spices, relatively small and thus less mobile, as they are, had only to move from the corner cupboard next door to the skinny cabinet next to the stove, where they had taken up residence crammed together like boat people coming here from Haiti or Cuba.
On the one hand, finding the cinnamon seemed an un-difficult task. There is usually a large-ish quantity of the ground up bark in this house, so all small containers could be eliminated. It gets used with some frequency, so it should be in one of the more recent geological strata. I picked a likely one, a brown powder in a plastic potato salad container, still posing as potato salad. It was about ¼ full of a finely ground brown powder. I was about to scoop out a tablespoonful without further consideration when my nose told me I should consider allowing the use of its expertise. Cloves. Disaster averted. Thank you, nose.
For those of you who don’t know a little cloves goes a long way. It wasn’t that long ago that there were a dozen pumpkin pies needed for Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant. The recipe called for ¼ cup of cloves in a pie. The pie-preparer was young and had no gauge to test the reasonableness of such an amount, but other amounts in the pies were measured in whole cups, so ¼ cup didn’t set off any alarm bells. She emptied the clove container into the filling, but it was only a little more than a cup. For 12 pies, she needed 3 cups (you do the math). So she went to the head cook and asked for more cloves. Without questioning this alleged need, the cook requisitioned the requested amount.
Cloves are fragrant. Their aroma permeated the kitchen. The head cook came over to investigate, dipped his finger in the filling, and made a face as his tongue numbed. Cloves have anesthetic properties, you know. He looked at the recipe. He quizzed the pie preparer, who assured her that she had followed the recipe. “See,” she said, ¼ cup per pie. 12 pies. Three cups of cloves. The cook furrowed his brow. Something was out of whack, by an order of magnitude. “Teaspoon,” he bellowed. “It’s supposed to be ¼ teaspoon per pie! They rectified the situation by pitching most of the filling, then adding the little bit that was left to two new cans of pumpkin to get the correct amount of cloves. The pie preparer has been razzed about that gaffe ever since. How close I was to a similar fate, but for the caution of my nose. Potato salad, indeed.
The next brown powder was cumin, the one after that another “c” spice. Then finally the cinnamon. The saucepan had patiently watched from the stove as the first shock of revelation occurred, followed by more diligent search. The brown sugar and butter blorped and bubbled lazily. The cinnamon was unceremoniously added and stirred in, the gas fire turned off.
One of the key things about wheat flour that makes it so good for bread is its gluten. Gluten is what makes the dough elastic so that the CO2 bubbles don’t just rise and burst as they do in a glass of soda. So that’s good. But what’s good some ways can prove a nuisance others. So you have this ball of dough that you’ve kneaded to perfection, but it is in its entirety, a ball. The road to stickydom requires that it become flat like a pizza crust. So you start with the rolling pin. Roll it this way, and the dough squishes out in front of the rolling pin, giving cause for optimism. This is going to be a piece of cake (figuratively speaking, of course). Only the dough behind the rolling pin follows almost as fast. Now instead of being a ball, the dough is shaped more like a disc. All you did was flatten the top and bottom. The dough smiles confidently. The yeasts grow. But that’s the drill. Success is incremental. Change comes slowly. Persistence is essential. All these life lessons from a recalcitrant lump of dough. After rolling it this way and that, like a bear fighting off a pack of dogs, the dough lies flat and exhausted on the table.
The rest is almost anticlimactic. Sprinkle some nuts or raisins on the flattened dough. Brush on the sugar-butter-cinnamon mixture. Roll it all up. Slice it into one inch discs and plop it in the glass baking dish. Let it rise again. Bake it. Turn the baking dish upside down over a cookie sheet so that when the sugar hardens after it cools, the stickies aren’t terminally glued into the baking pan. Then comes dessert. Ah heaven, or as close as we’ll get here on earth.