I like to cook, especially for the holidays. The house smells amazing and you get to use your hands instead of your brain for awhile.
Mine tends to be a freewheeling sort of cooking, requiring pretty much no precision or discipline of the mind. I like to make things to which you can add a little more of this, or not, and it generally turns out fine.
This Thanksgiving, I wanted to be different. So for my birthday this year, I asked not for a purse or a gift card, but a secret. Okay, not a secret exactly, more like a mystery, at least to me, one about flour and water and maybe — eggs? I wasn't really sure whether eggs were involved.
Every year, my mother-in-law makes these dinner rolls, incredibly light and warm and slightly dusty with — what, yeast? Flour? Dinner guests cluster by her oven to wait for them. I'm telling you, if a group of cloistered nuns had devoted their entire lives to making dinner rolls to perfection, well, somehow she got the recipe.
I should say for the record my mother-in-law is not like some mothers-in-law you hear about. She has been a nurse, ran a business and raised kids. She has a cadre of interesting friends and, in retirement, hikes foreign hills with them and goes on adventures with her young grandson. She grows things effortlessly, the tomato plants in her back yard taller than me. I asked her to teach me about rolls.
We set aside a night and she brought out a battered, decades-old recipe card that said "Sweet Dough." It listed a mere eight ingredients and no instructions whatsoever. She handed me a fresh index card on which to take notes. In retrospect: Ha.
I learned if you do not eagle-eye the pot of milk and butter it boils over in a split second and you get to start over. I saw you had to add new things slowly and steadily. I watched her stir and kneed and shape in this competent way learned from women before her, from all the years of doing this for her family, saw her reading the dough with her fingers for when it was finally right. The microwave sat empty and quiet.
I dutifully wrote on my card about being patient enough to let it rise in the bowl beneath its towel in its own time. Dinner guests hunting a snack sometimes lifted the towel for a peek, deflating it, or someone in the crowded kitchen might lean across it in earnest conversation, mashing all that effort flat. You had to keep it from harm's way.
So our dough rose and had to rise again. I was lightly floured myself by then. We worked in a warm kitchen that started to smell of baking bread, and I filled my index card front and back plus three more sheets of paper, printing as small as I could. I still don't think I got it all.
But hours after we started, we were pulling dozens of golden rolls from the oven, burning our fingers to butter and taste them while they were still hot. And if I didn't technically make them, I think I at least understood them a little better.
For Thanksgiving this year, we'll be in different houses. So I plan to fly solo on the rolls, fingers floured like she showed me, and also crossed.
I am a practical person: I will also have some sadly ordinary auxiliary backup bakery rolls, in case of failure or towel-peeking, so my guests do not have to politely gnaw at golden-brown pellets.
I will also have my mother-in-law's cellphone number ready, because I have a lot to learn.