I was raised by a great Southern cook, in my opinion. Not gourmet Southern, just plain buttermilk biscuit-fried chicken-mashed potatoes-and-gravy Southern. And it was good. However, mama never made anything with yeast, to my knowledge. I thought making one’s own rolls and breads was exotic, and only for real chefs to do.
That changed when I met Mrs. Classen. She is my husband’s best friend Kevin’s mom. The Classen’s are a Mennonite family, which I had never encountered before, either. They were very kind to me, and had a simple, tidy home, which I really admired. And oh, the food. The food Mrs. Classen cooks is amazing!
She was very kind to me, a young wife who knew just a handful of things to cook. One Sunday their family was going to join our little family for Sunday dinner after church; Justin, now nearly 18, was just a baby then. I had been given a set of enamel-coated pots and pans with strawberries on the sides as a wedding gift by my grandmother. I decided to make the one thing in those pots that I was pretty certain I couldn’t mess up: spaghetti.
I made my spaghetti sauce in the dutch oven from the set, and decided it would be ok to leave the pot simmering on low for the hour or so I’d be at church, which was right next door.
Oh, how wrong I was.
The sauce quickly scorched in that inexpensive quality enamel dutch oven, and the whole pot of sauce tasted burnt. However, with characteristic graciousness, the Classen clan, and especially Mrs. Classen, said it was perfectly delicious and ate it all up. So kind.
The enamel dutch oven went into the garbage can the next day. I was not amused.
Mrs. Classen also taught me to make her homemade cinnamon rolls. She patiently explained it all on the phone to me, as I wrote down all her words on a blank page in my Good Housekeeping cookbook. I still refer to it, though the ink has faded quite a lot. When I reflect on how patient she was to share with a young homemaker who wanted to try something new, it makes me want to hug her! I haven’t seen her in years, though we still get updates on the family from Kevin. I’m sure she still cooks for Mr. Roy, though all the children are adults now and have their own homes.
This is part of what I love about cooking and baking: the connection to the past, the reaching forward into the future. By doing so we help each other, we give each other ideas and encouragement, we feel useful, we are inspired. We who cook and bake should always keep our eyes open for others who would like to learn. It’s part of preserving our heritage.
“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook
in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice
and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”
~ Laurie Colwin
Mrs. Classen’s Cinnamon Rolls
1 1/2 c. scalded milk, cooled
2 packets yeast (I use Fleischman’s Rapid Rise)
1/2 c. warm water
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 c. shortening or oil
2 tsp salt
7 cups plain flour
Dissolve yeast in the warm water. Cream eggs, sugar, shortening, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add yeast mixture. Mix well with warm (but no longer HOT) milk. Add flour, two cups at a time, to make soft dough. (some days, seven cups seems like it will make the dough too dry. Once you get to six cups, judge whether the dough is really wet and sticky, and if it is, add 1/2 cup more, and see if that’s enough. If it still seems too wet, add the last 1/2 cup.)
Place ball of dough into large, oiled bowl. (just a teaspoon or two of oil.) Flip the dough over so all sides are lightly coated with oil. Cover loosely with a clean dish towel, or with a sheet of plastic wrap that has been sprayed with Pam. Place bowl in a warm spot to rise until double; this may take up to two hours.
Punch down the dough after it has doubled. Then, let it rest for five minutes.
At this point, you can either make dinner rolls with the dough (by pinching off walnut-sized pieces of dough, rolling each piece between your hands, and placing on a baking sheet. Cover again with clean cloth or saran wrap that you’ve sprayed with Pam to keep it from sticking to the rolls. Allow to rise until double, about one hour, and then bake at 350 until brown on top. I then rub butter on their tops when they’re still hot from the oven. Cool on a baking rack so as not to have damp bottoms.)
To make the cinnamon rolls:
Once the dough has rested, divide in half, and place one half on surface which you’ve sprinkled with powdered sugar. With rolling pin, roll dough out until it is about 1/2 inch thick. (With practice, you can make this a nice, uniform rectangle of dough.)
Completely cover the dough with softened butter, preferably room temperature. Cover every inch of it! Then sprinkle it with ground cinnamon (I use a lot to get lots of flavor) and then completely cover again with brown sugar; light or dark brown, whatever you prefer.
Now, begin rolling the dough from the longest side, keeping it nice and tight, not floppy. When you have it in a nice long log, you can use a serrated knife to gently slice the log into rolls, about 1 1/2 inch thick. Alternatively, you may use unflavored dental floss to slide under the log, then lift through the dough, and cross the floss at the top of the log to cut through the dough. It is easier to do than it sounds, really.
Place the rolls on a baking sheet to rise in a warm spot for about an hour. Cover loosely again with the clean cloth or sprayed plastic wrap. (Sometimes we don’t wait the full hour; even in 30 minutes they will rise enough to be wonderful and they’ll raise even more in the oven as they bake.)
Bake the rolls at 350 degrees for about ten minutes, or just until lightly browned. You don’t want to overcook them, or the edges will become hard.
Cinnamon roll icing
2/3 c. melted butter (1 stick plus 2 tbsp.)
4 c. powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp salt
4-8 tbsp. hot water
In medium bowl, mix melted butter, powdered sugar, salt and vanilla; add hot water 1 Tbsp. at a time until glaze reaches desired spreading consistency. Spread over slightly-cooled rolls.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I have had these turn out perfectly on many occasions, and have given them as gifts to happy receivers. On the other hand, some of my batches have not been as good, and the reasons for that have varied: too much flour, too much humidity in the house, or baking too long.
Baking is a learned skill! I hope that if you try these, you will feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions. That will get a quicker response than commenting here might, although I totally love getting comments here, and welcome them always. 🙂