Measuring lessons

Learning from an idiosyncratic cook

November 14, 2012

“Then stir in half an eggshell of lemon juice.” It sounds like a recipe instruction circa Little House on the Prairie, but no, “half an eggshell” was a standard measurement for my great-grandmother well into the 21st century.

An independent-minded cook with a creative kitchen methodology, my great-grandmother, whom I called GG, was perpetually cross-referencing and adapting the recipes in her exhaustive collection, taking an improvisational approach and haphazardly noting what she did — if she noted it at all. The result was that little of her cooking turned out the same from one time to the next.

While savory dishes didn’t usually suffer from this spirit of experimentation, baking was different. That spirit, along with her preference for a dry texture in baked goods, gave GG’s kitchen a reputation for tooth-chipping molasses cookies, leaden muffins, and coffee cake charred to the point of being carcinogenic. Not exactly the stuff of fond memories, or, for that matter, the type of treasured recipes that are carefully passed from one generation to the next.

GG, cooking on a boat.

I did, however, look forward to one reliable item at GG’s: sweet rolls. While these too generally fell into the overbaked category, she served me the rolls nestled in the center of the pan; their location protected them from the worst of the temperature abuse. Tender, cinnamony, and slightly sweet, they were the treat that lured me over to her house. I savored mine by carefully uncoiling each roll, lingering over the last gooey bites in the center.

As the only (and decidedly skinny) great-grandchild, I was accustomed to being the beneficiary of as many sweet rolls as I wanted, and it wasn’t until GG approached her mid-90s that I recognized these rolls were in danger of extinction. No one in the family knew how to make any of GG’s specialties, so I appointed myself the kitchen apprentice, albeit one with an agenda for transcribing the few dishes of hers that I enjoyed. GG seemed pleased with my request for a sweet-roll lesson, and we made a date.

I knew this lesson would be a challenge. GG was a strong-minded widow of 20-plus years; she did things her way, in the kitchen and everywhere else. Not only did she loosely follow a compendium of recipes, but the sweet-roll one had modifications scrawled on the back of an envelope containing no fewer than 16 different versions. And then there was that eclectic approach to measuring. In addition to the ever-changing half an eggshell, she relied on a battered one-cup scoop and a soup spoon as her primary measuring tools.

On the appointed day, GG greeted me at the door with a perfunctory greeting — “Well, let’s get started” — and handed me a faded smocked apron that was a cleaner twin to hers. I followed her into the well-used kitchen, with its ample counters that had become more cluttered as she shrunk with age and had a harder time reaching the cupboards.

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I trailed after GG all afternoon, scribbling notes. Before I let her toss anything into her mixing bowls, I painstakingly re-measured each ingredient with standard-size measuring cups and spoons imported from my mother’s kitchen.

She wasn’t enthusiastic about my shadowing, cutting off my questions and swiping utensils out of my hands with arthritic but remarkably nimble fingers. My initiation into the art of baking cinnamon rolls proved to be the antithesis of the bonding moment I had envisioned, prompting a running narrative of complaints and criticism from GG about my insistence on writing everything down.

Her not-so-subtle subtext: I was underfoot, throwing her off, misinterpreting instructions. If the rolls didn’t turn out well, it was my fault.

In the end, the sweet rolls were fine, and as the Wisconsin winter day drew to an early close, we settled into a truce while sampling our handiwork over tea. Never one to shy away from self-criticism, GG declared, “I can do better,” and wondered whether she had let the rolls rise too long or put too much sugar in the filling.

I was silent, tired of questioning, and thinking I was unlikely to ever make these damn rolls; given all our skirmishes over measurements, I was skeptical I had gotten the accurate recipe anyway.

For all of GG’s imperious bluntness, I still did absolutely adore her, and as I tidied up my notes the next day, I realized the lesson had been an eye-opening one. Not only did I now know that the cap of the vanilla bottle holds exactly 1/2 teaspoon of extract, but I was well-versed in the art of making sweet rolls — and incredibly relieved that the dough was shaped into a single log and then cut into pieces, making the process much less intimidating than my naïve assumption that each roll was assembled individually.

GG’s sweet rolls.

And I had a newfound respect for GG’s kitchen expertise and the inquisitiveness and perseverance behind her unorthodox approach to cooking. According to her, the combination of regular milk plus buttermilk yields a particularly tender dough (a variation she discovered via her sister-in-law). The layering of two cinnamon-sugar fillings — the first with cane sugar and the second blending flour and brown sugar — was an idea adopted from her sister, and the secret to the perfectly distributed gooeyness I relished. She wasn’t such a slapdash cook after all.

I admit I am biased. But after consuming a good number of sweet rolls and buns over the years, I believe these modifications, tested and honed over decades in my GG’s kitchen, make for a superlative rendition.

I can still hear her voice in my head, demanding, “Am I right, or am I right?” It was a statement ostensibly framed as a question, even if the only possible response was “Yes, you are.”

Now that the recipe is in my hands, I confess I haven’t made any significant alterations, except to the baking time. I rescue my rolls from the oven a full 10 minutes before my great-grandmother would’ve even considered taking them out. Although the ones from the center remain my favorites, I happily devour the entire batch.

Brooklyn-based writer and cultural omnivore Alyssa Alpine contributes regularly to Flavorpill and Culturebot. Her work has also been published by Leite's Culinaria, and she recently traipsed all over Brooklyn for Brink Media’s NYC guide.

Related recipe: Edith Phillips’ Sweet Rolls

There are 2 comments on this item
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1. by Rosemary Wolbert on Nov 15, 2012 at 4:32 AM PST

A delightful story. Grandmothers (and great grandmothers) are often bestowed a halo effect, viewed as sweet, kind and excellent cooks and bakers. How refreshing this real life GG is portrayed, with one memorable recipe. GG definitely reminds me of my own grandmother!

2. by Kathryn Grace on Jan 3, 2013 at 1:28 PM PST

Yup, those were my mother’s measuring tools too! Only when forced to take Home Ec for two years, where it was mandatory for girls in my state back in the 60s, did I discover that the tablespoon with which we served up everything from gravy to peas and mashed potatoes was not a cookbook’s tablespoon.

Thank you for a delightful story, and would you please send me a batch of those rolls? : )

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