One evening recently I got out the big, yellow, ceramic bowl, my mother’s bowl originally, and set it on the kitchen counter. The yellow bowl features a crack – a critical fault line – which runs from one rim down to the base, where it disappears, only to reappear on the opposite side and run up to the top.
On that side a big chunk of the bowl is missing, and two or three pieces are missing from the bottom, these cracks and faults making it seem impossible that the bowl survives in one piece.
Miraculously, more than 50 years later, the yellow bowl waits on a shelf for times like this, when bread dough will rise inside it, double in bulk and still not touch the tea towel that covers the top.
Earlier that evening, I realized we were out of the Pillsbury Crescent Rolls that come ready to roll up and bake after you get them to explode out of a blue, paper-and-metal cylinder with aluminum caps on each end.
For weeks now, my morning routine includes turning on the oven set to 350 degrees, opening the tube, unrolling the pre-cut crescent roll dough, sprinkling the dough with cinnamon sugar, rolling up the neatly cut triangles into crescent shapes and then baking them for exactly 11 minutes.
Once the oven beeps three times, I use a pancake turner to put all eight rolls on a blue plate and pour my son a glass of milk to go with them. On most mornings, he clears his plate, empties his glass, grabs his lunch and heads off to Pima Community College’s Aviation Technology Program, where he is learning to be an airplane mechanic.
But that evening, we were out of the Pillsbury tubes, so I got out the big yellow bowl, gently placed it on the counter next to a 3″ x 5″ recipe card and began to make rolls from scratch, using my mother’s recipe.
We asked her for the recipe decades ago.
“Well,” she said, “I really don’t have the recipe written down . . .”
So we asked her to make bread with us, so we could take notes. Then we practiced, found our notes were not detailed enough and asked her to make bread with us again, explaining more the second time around. The 3″ x 5″ card, in my wife’s hand writing, is the result.
My mental note to myself is to make the water coming out of the faucet so hot it hurts to hold my finger in the streaming water, but not so hot I burn myself.
When my son measures the temperature of a liquid, he gets out a thermometer and uses the microwave oven to get a precise reading. I stick my finger under the faucet and get the feel of it.
I poured the cups of hot water into the bowl and added the packages of yeast.
Just then, the yeast still merrily making bubbles, my wife passed through the kitchen and gave me an appraising glance. She knew what the yellow bowl meant and made no comment about how late at night it was to just now be starting to make bread that was supposed to rise twice before baking.
When I added the powdered milk to the sugar and salt mixture in another bowl, I thought about my son being puzzled, years ago.
“Why would anyone want to make milk into a powder?” he asked.
Just then, he appeared in the kitchen, a college student now, looked at the enormous yellow bowl and said with a smile, “Ahhh! What are we making here?”
“Rolls from scratch,” I said. “We’re out of Pillsbury.”
His eyebrows rose and I could see him making a mental note to return to the kitchen later, for a progress check.
My mother’s original recipe did not involve the use of measuring cups for flour. She simply took a big handful of flour, and then another, and said, “Then you get some flour and you add it to the mixture until it’s not too sticky, but if it is . . .”
When my Mom taught us how to bake bread and rolls, we made her let us measure out the flour. She beamed the way she always did and went along, happy to be with us, smiling at our need to be precise.
That night, even after I’ve added four duly measured cups, I found myself grabbing a handful of flour, and then another, just as she used to, adding and adding until the consistency of the dough was just right.
The last step after kneading is the frightening step. I must wash out the big yellow bowl, rub Crisco on its interior, and put the dough back in it, to rise. Washing the bowl scares me.
The big yellow bowl is heavy, doesn’t fit in the sink well, and makes a clunking sound as I wash it, no matter how gentle I am. The nicks and scratches in its great basin invite ingredients to nestle in and that makes the bowl hard to wash.
Silently, I talk to the bowl. “Please don’t break tonight. Please stay with us, keep my Mom here with us.”
With bread, waiting’s the hardest part. Will the dough rise? How soon? Will it rise enough? If the water’s too hot, the heat kills the yeast. If the water’s not hot enough, the yeast rises unenthusiastically, or not at all, and the bread has the texture of lead.
Success! The second time I check the dough, it has dutifully doubled in size! The dough smells sweet and yeasty.
When I’m wrestling with and rolling out the dough, Ashley comes into the kitchen and surveys the scene with interest but makes no comment. She likes to cook and bake and she’s good at both, but she after a quick study, she goes back to homework or television in another room.
Maybe it makes no sense to her for the dad in the family to be baking, or maybe she’s thinking about her diet. I don’t know.
Next, I gamble, big-time. Instead of making the dough into rolls and letting the rolls rise for another 45 minutes to an hour, I decide to put the rolls into the oven and bake them right then!
So I squeeze the dough into two balls, one for crescent rolls, one for cinnamon rolls. My Mom’s technique for making cinnamon rolls works well. The scent of cinnamon and brown sugar and fresh dough fill the air.
The crescent roll batch presents a problem. I rarely make crescent rolls from scratch. Pillsbury’s crescent rolls come out of the tube partially pre-cut, dotted cutting lines marking off each uniformly-sized roll. I simply use a butter knife to separate the dough along the pre-cut lines and roll it up.
My own crescent roll dough, however, offers me no pre-cut lines. I stand there and stare at it for minutes, smell its sweetness, know it’s perfect, but I cannot remember a single piece of advice from my mother about how to cut out uniformly-sized and shaped triangles and roll them up.
Finally, I just guess. The result is that my first few rolls are too small and then, abruptly, my next few are too big. Huge. Texas-sized. I put them all on the baking pan anyway and bake the rolls – crescent and cinnamon – at the same time, crescent rolls finishing first.
The yellow bowl sits on the counter, empty now, a hint of risen dough sticking to its interior. It must be washed again, another risk taken. For decades the dough from that bowl made cinnamon rolls and crescent rolls and braided bread and whole wheat bread. Rolls and bread that filled the house with a sweet smell, a promise and an expectation.
Even before the rolls are ready to come out of the oven, my family begins to cruise by the kitchen. My wife shows up and asks when they’ll be done. I suspect my son and Ashley can smell them baking all the way in the back bedroom, even with the door closed.
I sigh with relief and then smile when I take them out of the oven. They’re nearly perfect. Everyone has to sample them, fresh out of the oven, both the cinnamon rolls and the crescent rolls, of course, so much sampling going on that I worry for a moment, silly me, whether there will be rolls left over for my son’s breakfast in the morning.
It turns out, some rolls survive the sample. Both kinds.
The next morning, I confess to using a gentle setting on the microwave to warm the rolls for my son again, but he’s late to leave, so he has to put them in a bag and eat them as he drives to school, his empty glass of milk left behind on the kitchen counter.
As he leaves, he gives me a hug and says something like “those rolls were great last night.”
Then he remembers to reach into the pantry and grab a cardboard container that says “Barilla Italian Entrees Ready in 1 Minute” on the front. On some days, he says, there are not enough microwave ovens for all the students lined up to use them. Some students have to wait so long to use a microwave that they are almost late getting to class when their 30 minute lunch break is over.
When I was in school there were no microwave ovens. My lunch was always the same, the high school years involving a brown paper bag that carried a peanut butter sandwich made with my mother’s home-made, whole wheat bread.
I realize it must be 50 years now of dough coming out of the big yellow bowl, first with my mother’s hands on the dough, then mine or my wife’s and on rare occasion, my son’s. My son knows how to make the bread, and some day Ashley will, too, my Mom handing off the recipe, the bowl and to dough to me, and my hands tracing the line onto a new generation. If the bowl can hold together all this time, surely we can, too.