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Musing: Grandmama’s Kitchen

April 26, 2010
My grandmother's cinnamon bread

Yeast, kneading, and a bit of patience...

It’s been a rough week of sleepless nights.  Last night, my daughter was awake from 1:44 am until 4:53 am.  At some point during the bleary night, she discovered that she could make a rhythmic symphony by running her hands along her crib railings.  Thud thud thud thud.  Pause.  Thud thud thud thud thud.  Repeat.  My husband is on day two of a headache.  We are considering drastic measures.

Walking a semi-asleep toddler in the hush of pre-dawn hours, her footed-pjs tapping my thighs with each step, her cheek bone pressing though cheek muscle against my collarbone, it’s easy to become frustrated.  I have a growing list of friends whose babies sleep blissfully through the night.  I, on the other hand, am beginning to despair of ever bonding with my pillow again.  And I do so love my neglected pillow.  Suddenly Bill Murray’s experience in Groundhog Day seems sapped of humor. I’ve actually resorted to bargaining with God: “Dear God, you created the universe.  Surely getting a baby to sleep through the night is less work than, say, setting up a tide table or ripening a kiwi.  If you’ll just do this for me, I will [insert brainstormed sacrifice here].”

So far, God hasn’t taken me up on my offers.  I guess that means His answer is “No.”  Unless I want to wander down nihilistic paths, I have to assume that “No” comes with some lesson I’m supposed to learn.  Either I’m incredibly hard headed (which I am), or I’m just not quite sure what that lesson is supposed to be.  How to cover up dark bruises under your eyes?  I hate to sound whiny and complaining.  I am aware it could be worse.  For example, I could have been born before the invention of flushing toilets, Midol, or NPR.

Truly, in comparison to these worst-case-scenarios, I feel pampered.  Even with my 3.5 hours of interrupted sleep, I feel pampered.  An example: driving home from our beach vacation the other week, we needed a place to stop for breakfast that didn’t include “smothered biscuits” on the menu.  Out comes the iPhone and a variety of apps are consulted.  Bingo.  Mimi’s Cafe. Then, since the restaurant’s website kindly offers a sign-up coupon, I instantly have a buy-one-entree-get-one-free coupon waiting in my inbox.  After a belly-satisfying breakfast, I experience one of my frequent cravings for a soy latte.  Surely a Starbucks has to be nearby.  One app consult later, bingo.  Less than a mile.  And of course I have an air-conditioned, leather-seated, automatic automobile to usher me around to all of my stops.  And I’m complaining about a few nights’ lost sleep?

I don’t want to take for granted my ease of life, even during a difficult sleep season.  I don’t always want everything to come as easily as a “If you’ll do this for me, God” kind of bargain or a quick swing through the Starbucks’ drive-thru.  This morning, then, I opted for a kitchen boot-camp session of bread-making, and that meant the bread machine could remain undisturbed under its layer of dust in my basement.  I’m making bread the way my mother made it and her mother before her.

My grandmother set a high standard for kitchen craft.  She took gourmet cooking lessons for fun and threw swanky cocktail parties.  She had a custom built kitchen that begged for the challenge of multi-course meals.  When I was young, I had a hard time imagining her growing up on a farm in Lanark, Illinois, chopping off chicken heads and hoeing beans.  While I’m sure she knew how to can and preserve, the legacy she passed on was how to serve canapés.  Farmhouse gems, however, can still be found among some of her recipes.  She was a master at bread baking and passed her expertise in flour, salt, yeast, and wooden spoon lore to my mother.

In my teenage years, back when I was well-acquainted with my pillow, I spent most mornings sprinting to the school bus with backpack barely anchored to a shoulder, a tape-player and headphones in one hand, and two pieces of butter-drenched cinnamon bread in the other.  Crisp, flaky crust topped a field of honeycombed bread interrupted by a gooey swirl of cinnamon sugar.  I can still picture the bread rising in its silver bowl, a yeasty dome rising like a sloth’s magic trick under a damp tea towel.  Bread-making required a day’s worth of patience punctuated with a few interludes of stirring, kneading, and rolling.  The pay-off was nothing short of mouth watering.

I’ve turned from teenager to mother, and as a rite of passage, I’ve undertaken my grandmother’s cinnamon bread recipe with my mom’s tutelage.  Her hands know the dough best, can coax just the right elasticity out of the chemical reactions between sugar, yeast, and flour.  I’m learning both how to make the bread and how to master the patience that must accompany the process.  And that’s why I had a session of kitchen boot camp this morning.  I needed to be reminded of the zen of patience.  Both in bread and sleep (or the lack thereof).  This morning it was just me, the bread bowl, and Good Morning America’s Sunday morning news anchors.  The baby monitor remained silent as I added scoops of flour, almost forgot the yeast, dumped a doughy basketball onto the counter, and whumped the heels of my hands left, right, left into the thickening dough.  Eight hours, two kneadings, and one rolling later, four loaves line my counter waiting until the oven hits 375 to complete the final 30 minute sprint to the finish line.  Outside, thunder gathers and grumbles, sending a chill breeze to set spring leaves dancing.  Iron and Wine hums a repetitive ditty through my computer speakers.  Sleep worries seem less important, for now.

To treat yourself to some delectable bread after your own kitchen boot camp session, stock up on some cinnamon from Penzey’s Spices.  I’m currently loving their “Vietnamese Extra Fancy Cinnamon.”  Pittsburghers should visit the Penzey’s store located in the Strip District.  All others are left to plunder the slightly confusing website.

Grandmama’s Cinnamon Bread

2 packages yeast dissolved in 1/2 cup of warm water

3 1/2 cups warm water

2/3 cup powdered milk (I substitute 3 1/2 cups of warm soymilk for the warm water and powdered milk)

2 tablespoons salt (I use 1 TBSP)

1/2 cup sugar

11 cups flour

1/2 cup oil

Cinnamon-Sugar Filling:

2 cups sugar

8 teaspoons cinnamon

Mix in a large bowl the water, powdered milk, salt, and sugar.  Make sure the yeast is working (mixture will create small bubbles along surface), and add to above.  Mix, then add 4 cups flour and mix.  Then add 1/2 cup oil and mix.  Then add 3 more cups flour and mix.  The dough will be stiff.  Turn out onto a floured surface and knead 5-10 minutes.  Grease a large bowl, put dough in and turn so top is greased.  Cover with a damp towel. Rise until double (about 2 hours).  Punch out air, cover, rise again until doubled (about 1 to 2 hours).  Then punch out air and divide into 4 equal portions.  Flatten each portion into a rectangular shape about 1.5 inches thick.  Mix 1/4 cup sugar and 2 tsp cinnamon for each loaf.  Sprinkle cinnamon sugar onto each dough rectangle, roll tightly, and place in greased bread loaf pans.  Rise, uncovered, until bread-loaf sized (about 1 hour).  Bake at 375 for 30-40 minutes.  For a shiny crust, brush each loaf with melted butter after removing from oven.  Allow to cool before slicing.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy permalink
    April 26, 2010 10:06 am

    Oh how I love your mother’s, grandmother’s, and now your bread!

  2. April 26, 2010 11:47 am

    Brought tears to me eyes and teases to my taste buds!! Your blogs are all wonderful–can I go so far as to say enchanting (which far encompasses enjoyable and entertaining). They transport me to a land less-worried and for that I thank you. Love, (proud) Mom

  3. Melissa Taylor-Malloff permalink
    April 26, 2010 7:21 pm

    Dear Beth,

    The entire time I read this entry all I could think about was that delicious cinnamon bread I remember having on so many summery cogan station mornings, and of course it was accompanied by the indulgence of rich fresh chocolate milk! So many times my mom and I have shared in some sub par store bought cinnamon bread in our kitchen, and every time one of us would make the comment that it just didn’t compare to your mom’s bread! I was thinking of a way to ask for the coveted family recipe and then as I scrolled down… there it was. Now I have to decide if I should attempt to make it here in Japan with our slightly strange ingredients or if I should save it and have another delightful memory to look forward to when I step foot on American soil again. Thanks for sharing the recipe and your stories. I really love them.
    – Melissa メリシサ

  4. Lindsay Heath permalink
    April 27, 2010 10:07 pm

    Hi Beth!
    This entry makes my mouth water. You will be proud to know that I made the rolls last week for Jarrod. They came out hard as a brick, but Jarrod still ate them (what a good husband). I blamed it on the yeast. You inspire me to try the recipe again. Your writing is so engaging and your stories of sleeplessness are good birth control for me. Keep blogging and running!
    – Lindsay 🙂

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