For Thanksgiving Day and Christmas morning, I used to get up really early to start making fresh cinnamon rolls and dinner rolls for my family on these very special days. I would set my alarm for 4 a.m., go downstairs and begin the process of mixing the dough. I’d turn on the oven light for a bit, just long enough to warm the oven up a little, while I got the ingredients together.
The milk went into a large pan and onto a burner to warm to just the right temperature. When it got warm enough, I’d take it off the burner and add in the butter to melt and pinch of salt, gradually mixing in a flour/sugar/yeast mixture, along with the eggs, and then beat it on high for one minute. After that, I’d start adding more flour bit by bit and mixing by hand, eventually pouring the mixture onto the freshly-washed and floured kitchen table, kneading the dough until it was just the right consistency. Once it was all mixed to the perfect consistency, the dough (covered by wax paper and a clean kitchen towel) went back into the now-greased pan and into the oven that had been warmed by the oven light. There it would sit until it had risen to the perfect, fluffy height.
I’d go back to bed, setting my alarm to wake up and go back downstairs in another hour and a half or so. I would pull the dough out of the oven, carefully remove the wax paper, and then poke two fingers down into the dough. Sometimes it would have risen so much it would look like a muffin with dough pooching over the side of the pan. There’s something so satisfying about poking fingers into beautiful, raised dough. And it smells so wonderfully yeast-y. I’d then fold the dough in on itself to deflate it a bit so I could get it ready for the next step.
I’d take a big knife and carefully section each of the dough balls into quarter-portions – some for dinner rolls and the rest (most of it) for cinnamon rolls. I started with the dinner rolls, because they were the quickest to put together. Half dollar-sized chunks of dough were pulled off and rolled into little balls. Into greased cupcake pans they would go, three to a cup, to make cloverleaf dinner rolls. Covered and set onto the stove to rise, I’d move onto making cinnamon rolls.
The remaining sections of dough were individually rolled one at a time into rectangular shapes, and then slathered with partially-melted butter and generously sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar. Some had nuts and raisins added, some only nuts, some neither nuts nor raisins. The dough was then rolled up tightly into a long roll and scissored into sections with dental floss. Into the greased, waiting pans the dough would go, ready to be covered and set in the still-warmish oven to rise again.
This time, because the cinnamon rolls and dinner rolls didn’t need to rise as long, I usually set my alarm just to make sure I put them into the oven in time, but I didn’t sleep. Sometimes I’d use the time to take a shower and clean up the kitchen, although I usually cleaned as I went along.
Once my alarm went off, back to the kitchen I would go to begin the baking process. The whole house filled with the wonderful smell of fresh bread and cinnamon. That usually brought everyone downstairs and we would begin our Christmas morning traditions – eating warm cinnamon rolls while Joe read the Christmas story. Orange juice, milk, coffee, and fruit would complete our Christmas morning feast.
We all munched cinnamon rolls while listening to the story of the birth of our Savior, sometimes taking turns reading so Joe would have time to enjoy the his cinnamon roll while it was nice and warm. The oven would then be repurposed to bake Christmas Day dinner – sometimes a ham, sometimes a turkey, sometimes both.
I usually would mix up two or three huge pans of dough, having been sternly told by my family the night before to make sure I made enough cinnamon rolls. Believe me, we never ran out of cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. People would drift back into the kitchen all morning and into the afternoon to get another bite of a cinnamon roll.
I don’t make cinnamon rolls any more. I tried to continue with the tradition, but it never brought the same joy. That first Christmas after Jason died, I’m sure my tears were added to the dough. It was such a tough year to celebrate Christmas at all. Jason had asked me the year before to teach him to make bread, especially cinnamon rolls. He wanted to get up with me on the next Christmas morning and help me make them so he could learn. He didn’t live to see that next Christmas morning.
Yesterday, my husband and I went for lunch to a local cafe here in town called City Bakery. It’s really a combination coffee shop/bakery/sandwich shop. It has a very comfortable vibe with people drinking coffee or eating a sandwich while chatting with a friend or relative, students studying or people on their laptops.
One menu item that City Bakery has is something they call “sticky buns.” They look and taste almost exactly like the cinnamon rolls I used to make. Mine were a little bigger and had a little more gooey stuff inside, I think, but to eat a warm cinnamon roll at City Bakery is like slipping right back in time to those Christmases when Jason was here and I got up early to make cinnamon rolls.
Sweet memories, but, oh, how I miss my boy. I would give anything to go back to those days.
© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney