A few weeks ago I felt an inexplicable craving for sweet rolls. Now, we go to a shopping center quite often that has a Cinnabun shop. All through the place you can smell that delicious cinnamon/butter smell. It always makes my mouth water, but we never buy any. They are delicious, don't get me wrong, but they're not homemade sweet rolls . . . the taste may be extraordinary . . . but for me, a key component of having homemade sweet rolls is the visceral experience of making them. I love working with yeast, watching the dough change it's properties while you knead it, let it rise, punch it down, let it rise, roll it out, form it up, let it rise again, and bake it. I love making sweet rolls, and usually I only make them once a year . . . at Christmas. But this time, I knew I had to make them for my book group potluck, which is tomorrow. When I was a kid we used to go to big family picnics several times each Summer, and someone would always bring sweet rolls (store bought, but as they were from great bakeries, they were very good), slathered in icing and butter.
So this morning I got out my favorite bowl, my favorite spoon, and let the ingredients all come to room temperature (just like my home ec. teacher taught me). It struck me, then, how very sensual and marvelous this whole process is for me. It's ritualistic, almost like some pagan right of nature. The perfect handmade stoneware bowl . . . the well-loved wooden spoon (oh, how many batches of brownies and cookies and sweet rolls it has made with me), the old pyrex measuring cup (inherited from my Grandma's collection when she passed away), and the recipe card, written out in by my mother in her perfect teacher's script. Then there are the ingredients themselves: yeast moistening in warm water, eggs rolling around on the counter, my luke-warm milk in the glass container, and of course, real butter (never used for anything other than cooking very special baked goods in this, The House of Heart Disease). At this beginning point, it is all about anticipation.
Then I mix - I put in all the ingredients, mixing them slowly together in the bowl at first. As the flour is added, I have to mix more strenuously, putting real muscle into the process as the dough becomes sticky and unyielding.
There is always a point in the process when I must move the dough to the counter, and when I think to myself "Oh, yes, this is why I don't do this very often." The dough is sticky and messy, I put my wedding ring into my pocket and start pushing and mixing the last of the flour in, on the counter. It is so messy that I nearly always falter, I think I may never get to the smoothness that I long to find.
But then, sweet bliss! The dough starts to take on that new quality of smoothness. It becomes elastic and firm at the same time. There is nothing that feels like this kind of dough at this point. It is beautiful - that transition into real dough. Soft, just a bit sticky, but not sticky enough to stay on your hands. This is when I fall in love with the baking again, and I love kneading this, my dear friend, the dough. But soon I realize that if I keep on kneading, it would make the dough too tough and chewy, and I must gather it into a smooth ball and place it aside to rise.
I put a thin layer of oil (today I used softened margarine) all over the inside of my perfect, beautiful bowl, and slather a thin layer all over my ball of dough so it won't stick or crust in the rising. Then it gets covered in my clean linen towel (another beautiful item that inspires me) and placed on in a warm spot. Now I am free for a few hours, knowing that soon, soon I will get to punch all the bubbles out. As the day goes by I'll let it rise another time before forming it into the delicious rolls.