As promised, there are going to be recipes on the blog. I’m starting with ones that come to me through my matrilineal ancestry (from my mother’s mother and maybe my great-grandmother), because it is the tradition and history of food that is on my mind these days. That branch of the family were first generation German immigrants, not a culture whose cuisine translated well to the American shores. Plain cooking, lots of butter and the belief that sugar can relieve suffering are the main tenets that I inherited.
My great-grandmother, Grammy, died when I was 8. By the time I remember her, she lived with her two daughters, my grandmother Nana and great aunt Sis. Grammy wasn’t cooking much by then. What I do remember is that Christmas morning always began with a pan of Philadelphia rolls, a sticky caramel bun, wrapped in aluminum foil and reheating in the oven while we opened presents. Nana and Sis must have made them and by Christmas magic they made their way to our house. Or maybe I’m remembering it wrong, and we didn’t get to have them until second Christmas when they would arrive in mid-morning with more presents and a stuffed celery tray for the dinner feast that was mostly enjoyed by Sis. The pimento cheese stuffing was one of those things that only was only on the table at Thanksgiving and Christmas, which was just fine with us kids.
Before I went to college, I asked Nana to write down the recipe for me. The images are scans of the 3×5 cards she wrote, stained with butter and whatnot over the 35 years I’ve been the custodian of them. I’ve made them at least a dozen times. It takes several hours each time, during which I’ve thought quite a bit about what the stories behind the recipe, ones I know and ones that are lost.
Before I started making them, either Nana or Sis, or both of them together, would make up a batch of these rolls. Already there are some interesting things about our family food history to observe. The recipe card is just labeled “Sweet Yeast Dough” and “Topping for Rolls” but we always called them Philadelphia rolls. My great-great-grandparents settled in Pittsburgh; the more cosmopolitan Philadelphia must have had connotations of luxury or elegance or something. Or maybe the recipe just came from a Philadelphia newspaper.
Making a batch of these rolls, as you will see, is quite the endeavor. Our family was small, mostly just our two households, and yet the recipe makes four pans of rolls. Besides more than pound of fats, the dough calls for 5 eggs and 5 cups of flour. Nana and Sis were part of the generation of post-World War II career women who embraced the convenience foods of the 1950s and 1960s. Bread-making and yeast doughs were not a regular thing in their house. Boxed cake mixes were more their style. Who ate the rest of those rolls? Why would they have been making so many to begin with? I always cut the recipe in half, freeze a pan and even then it’s a ridiculous amount of food.
Nana and Sis didn’t have a big stand mixer–this dough would have been kneaded by hand. I did it that way once or twice. It’s an ordeal. The dough is sticky and hard to handle. Even with my Kitchenmaid mixer it’s a pain. And getting the dough prepared is only half the battle.
While we don’t know when or where the recipe came from, it starts with a technique that has been nearly abandoned in the last 30 years or so, although it was standard in my mom’s cookbooks from her early years as a housewife. Scalding the milk for yeast doughs apparently has some value in helping the dough rise by breaking down the milk proteins. You hardly ever see modern recipes taking the time for the heating then cooling steps–maybe leaving out something valuable in the process because we didn’t understand it? Or is it just laziness?
The other thing that fascinates me is that the recipe calls for both margarine and butter. When I make it, I use all butter and the dough works fine, so I don’t think it’s the mechanics of glutens and yeast. Perhaps it was habit, or trying to reduce the cost of the ingredients. It’s weird, as is the instruction to use 1 3/4 sticks of butter, not 2, in the topping. I can assure you that 2 more tablespoons of butter at that point is irrelevant to the process. And there’s more butter yet. A full stick of butter or more is needed to smear on the dough once it’s rolled out. Why does she call for oleo in the dough? Maybe they just used what they had interchangeably. I’d say it was because oleo was faster to write than butter, but she took the time to explain to me that it was shortening (oleo) and later she calls it margarine. As Grammy would say, it’s another mystery of the Church.
Let’s add up the sugar, shall we? 1 3/4 cups white sugar, 2 1/2 cups brown sugar and 1 3/4 cups dark Karo syrup. No wonder we kids were bouncing off the walls on Christmas morning. The dough is really just a carrier for sugar. Mom says that Grammy used to say that brown sugar toast could cure most anything. The matrilineal sweet tooth goes way back. And again, I don’t understand the precision in the measurements. Surely Karo syrup came in pint bottles back then, not the odd sizes that the food industrial complex of today foists upon us to reduce sizes, thereby saying they haven’t raised prices but still pad their bottom lines. What would you do with the extra 1/4 cup in the bottle?
Raisins or not? After the dough is rolled out into a rectangle, smeared with butter and cinnamon sugar, you sprinkle raisins over it before you roll it up. When you slice the roll into the segments, the raisins invariably fall out and make a mess, or get pushed out of the dough during the rising, only to get over-cooked and caramelized on top. But they do cut the sweetness a tad, and while every time I consider substituting pecans for the raisins, it’s not our tradition. And I don’t even consider myself to be that much of a traditionalist! How many things are like that in families, that we do because we have always done them even though a small change could make them better?
The best part of the tale is what’s missing in the recipe. After you take them out of the oven, if you are going to serve them right away, you want to invert the pan so all the gooey caramel syrup runs all over the rolls. Like so much family lore, Nana just assumed I knew that. But I don’t know as much as she thought. So many stories, like why these are called Philadelphia rolls in the first place, are lost. There are so many things I would have liked to have asked. I would have given a lot to have made these rolls with her and Sis, just once, to learn their tricks. How do you deal with the raisins, Nana? And so much more there was to ask.
I don’t make them that often, but some years I feel this tug at the heart to bust out the recipe. We always complain they are too sweet, but finish them anyway. Some in the family (Mom, I’m looking at you) have been known to put butter on them, because you know they aren’t really that rich. But it’s the smell more than anything that keeps me coming back to them: memories of childhood, the excitement of Christmas morning, the loving embrace of my aunt and grandmother, that are much richer than the rolls themselves.
In giving the recipe, I take no responsibility for your dental work. These are sticky and more than one tooth has been lost (seriously true) from eating these. Enjoy!
Combine in a saucepan and heat to scalding:
3/4 c milk
3/4 c sugar
1 t salt
1 c butter or margarine
Cool to lukewarm. In a separate bowl, combine:
3/4 c warm water
3 envelopes yeast
5 beaten eggs
Add the milk/sugar mixture to the yeast mixture.
Using in all about:
5 c flour
begin by beating in 2 c flour. Continue to add flour to make a soft dough. Knead 5 minutes. Shape dough into a smooth ball, put in a greased bowl, and let rise until double in bulk. Meanwhile, prepare the pans.
2 1/2 c brown sugar
1 3/4 c dark Karo syrup
1 3/4 sticks (7/8ths of a cup) of butter or margarine
Combine the topping ingredients in a sauce pan. Heat to boiling, then simmer 2 minutes. Pour into 4 8×8 or 9×9 inch pans.
Once risen, punch down the dough and divide into four parts. Roll each quarter to a 15×8 rectangle. Spread with
soft butter or margarine (will need at least 1/2 c for 4 segments)
1 c sugar
1 1/2 t cinnamon
Sprinkle 1/4 of the cinnamon sugar over each rectangle. Sprinkle
1 1/2 c raisins, divided into four parts
over the dough rectangles. Roll lengthwise. Cut each roll into 12 slices and arrange into the prepared pans. Let rise 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 375°. Bake for 303-35 minutes. The rolls should be nicely browned and somewhat crusty on the top surface. If serving immediately, let cool for just a minute, then invert on a serving plate. Leave the pan on the inverted rolls long enough to drip all of the syrup onto the rolls. Alternatively, reheat in the pan and serve individually, inverting each roll as it comes out of the pan.