Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nice Buns!

Here's a secret that I found out about Ken right before I married him--his first love was the Cafeteria Lady at his elementary school. He loved her even before the Danish babysitter (whom I am fairly sure was more fair in memory than in reality) whom he swears was the sweetest, kindest and prettiest woman ever. But--she couldn't make rolls like the Cafeteria Lady who was much older and a lot less sweet, but had such a place in Ken's heart that we even have--no joking--a letter that he wrote to his mother during a first grade penmanship lesson. To quote, the letter says, "Dear Mom. School is fine. Lunch is good."

He wasn't talking about the spaghetti, or the meatloaf, or event the fried chicken; instead, was writing about the rolls. These rolls would take on such a significant memory for him, that they would become one of the many topics of conversation in our lives and on many occasions, although he never came right out and said it, he inferred that his life would be perfect if only I could duplicate those rolls.

What followed over the course of the next decade was a parade of rolls that couldn't even be classified as such, as I, a very competent and fine cook, could not seem to get the jest of bread making. While cooking requires imagination and less science, baking, specifically, working with yeast, comes down to an exact science and an understanding of such abstract terms as: "elastic; sticky; kneadable; double"--not to mention, judgement; how does one really judge if something is double in size and why stop there, when it's really quite sporting to see just how big a ball of dough can rise? Needless to say, Ken never once ate a second roll during the 'experimental years' and on most occasions, barely ate one.

I was at war with a woman I had never met, but who loomed larger in my husband's heart than anyone he had ever dated. I had to beat her; somehow, someway, I had to succeed in my roll making. Sad to say, but Cafeteria Lady, who by all accounts had probably been dead for years, had to die a real death in my husband's mind and the only way I could do that was to figure out the secret recipe for the rolls.

My quest spanned every sort of medium imaginable. Newspapers, church cookbooks, cookbooks, word of mouth, magazines, and the internet. I searched for years online until finally, I came across a recipe that enticed me, mostly for it's simplicity, but also because it didn't have a lot of abstract verbiage.

So, this past Sunday, while the rain came down in buckets, I cranked up the furnace, took out the flour, and decided to take another stab at Cafeteria Lady. The two things I discovered as possibilities of past failures were measurement and temperature. Here was a recipe that called for 1 Tablespoon of yeast, which is not a packet of yeast; in fact, 1T. of yeast is one and one half packets; most recipes called for a packet of yeast, but the same amounts of liquid and flour. Had I solved the problem. Next up was the water. The recipe called for WARM water, but once again, how abstract is that? What is warm? Since Ken and I had had an interesting conversation earlier in the week about a cooking thermometer and temperature versus time, I decided to take the temperature of my water. Surprisingly, what I thought was warm was only 78 degrees (my research taught me that warm water in bread making is water that is 110 degrees) which was really far off. I tried again, and this time what I thought was warm was only 93 degrees, and so it went until I finally hit 111 degrees, which was good enough for me.

I then proceeded to let it 'foam' and man, was I excited when after five minutes, I peeked in the mixing bowl to see something bubbling and foaming like nobody's business. I added the flour, turned on the mixer, and let it go. Of course, Ken was all eyes, following my every move from the shadows. He had a vested interest in the success of the recipe. If I hit the jackpot, he would have to let the memory of  Cafeteria Lady die away, no small feat after carrying a torch for her for over 40 years. So, I said very little and tried my hardest to keep my rising joy to myself.

I needed somewhere warm to stash the dough. Somewhere to let it double--maybe even triple--in size. Somewhere where Ken wouldn't look at it every few minutes. Somewhere secret. So, I put on my slippers and crept into the basement, pulled open the door to the laundry room and looked lovingly at the old mid-century furnace roaring away, the blue tips of flames steady on the grate. I set the bowl down right under the furnace, on the shelf where nothing lives except a rusty old screwdriver and a vacuum attachment, and possibly, but not worth noting, a family of spiders.

I peeked one last time into the saran wrap covered bowl, said a silent prayer to the roll gods, and then turned off the light and shut the door. I wiled away the next two hours reading a book and am thoroughly convinced that Ken never noticed that I only turned the page twice, for instead of reading, I was deep in my own plotting and imagining myself the hero of a never ending saga of bread making victories. If I could manage rolls, and not just any rolls, but THE ROLLS, then what could possibly stand between me and a good loaf of wheat, or, the unimaginable--BRIOCHE. I envisioned myself mastering the abstract world of bread making, a thermometer tucked recklessly into my apron pocket (I would have to buy one) and the easy choice for a seat partner at any gathering. Who wouldn't want to latch onto my success and learn my secrets?

There were also the diabolic imaginings. Cafeteria Lady, in her worn hairnet and stained uniform leered at me, a spatula in her hand and a scowl on her face. Her lips were tightly drawn between two parentheses, her chin loose with age and sparsely covered with thick white whiskers. She had reigned for decades and like a greedy dictator, she wasn't keen on moving on. We battled, the two of us, until finally, without a choice, I pushed her, hairnet and all, into the oven and closed the door. It was unkind; I know, but it was my husband's heart at stake, and my honor, so, I simply had to do away with her.

At last, the timer buzzed; all that stood between me and victory was a final lap from the basement to the kitchen and 20 minutes in the oven. My heart pounded furiously as I pulled the door open and walked into the laundry room. I could smell the weak odor of bleach and laundry detergent, but rising above that was the aroma of yeastiness. Cautiously, I peered into the bowl and then, I simply lost all composure--the  little clump of dough had turned into a massive, perfectly formed ball almost the size of a basketball. My screams were lottery screams, deep and throaty and punctuated with peals of laughter. I took the steps two at a time and when I turned into the kitchen, there was Ken, the residue of an afternoon nap still on his brow and a look of concern on his face. "What's wrong?" he demanded, as I realized he was most concerned about me; he hadn't even been thinking about Cafeteria Lady.

"I think I did it," I said. "The rolls. I think I've figured out the secret recipe." Then I shoved the bowl towards him and like a magician, pulled away the saran wrap to reveal the huge entity that had grown in our very own laundry room. "Look!" I squealed. After, he smiled and leaned against the counter as I  gently deflated the dough, cut it into squares and rolled it into balls. I carefully lined them up in the baking pan, brushed them with butter, and covered them with a dishtowel while the oven heated, and then, without a word between us, we slid the pan in, shut the door, set the timer, and left the kitchen.

How would we make it without peeking, I wondered? What would we talk about? I thought about suggesting a mock funeral for Cafeteria Lady, but that seemed like a sure way to curse myself, so I said nothing. Plus, I figured Ken was going through the breakup in his mind and I wanted him to have a little privacy with Cafeteria Lady--at least for the last few minutes of their relationship. I turned to see the emotional content of his face, but he had already resumed his newspaper and was obscured behind its pages.  So, I studied my slippers and tried to ignore the crazy good smell of the rolls baking away in the next room. I was no fool; all the rolls smelled good baking (yeast, butter, yeast butter), but it had been a cruel olfactory trick. The only way to know if I had truly won would be to wait until the timer sounded, and right as I thought this, the timer did sound.

I bounded to the oven, said a final prayer, pulled open the door, and viola--the most beautiful rolls ever. I was lost in a moment of reverie when Ken leaned in and whispered in my ear, "Nice buns." And you know what, they were. And they were even nicer with butter. Ken ate five and as he was licking the glossy tips of his fingers for the remnants of butter, I asked him about Cafeteria Lady. He looked up at me, his eyes drowsy with love and said, "Who?"


  1. Loved reading this post!! Part of me was like "I hope her dough rose and her yeast was fresh!!"

    Yep, 110 is the magic number - but what a pain in the ass to get it to that number - pouring a bit of hot water in warm water, testing it again. But great bread is pure heaven and worth the effort!

    I am adding you to my blog roll! Biz

  2. haha...Mel...loved the tale of the buns! Now you must move on to bigger yeast adventures, you know!

    and look^^^^ Biz is adding you to her blog roll....I am not even privy to that! lol

    and so, when I finally make it out there to visit you...I am requesting these rolls as well!

  3. lol... Way to kill the Cafe Lady!

  4. I love this. Ken was surely not alone in this preconscious love of the lunch lady. Freud tried to define this in describing the Oedipus Complex but Lunch Ladies were "pre-Freud." You make me smile.