Monday, February 1, 2010

Potluck 1/14 - The Great Reunion

I say this potluck was the great reunion... but only because I was on an airplane somewhere over Lake Michigan when the real first potluck of the year occurred the week before. There were many delicious dishes at potluck (lemon-egg soup, an Indian dish with mushrooms, spaghetti, a tuna bake), but the stars, in my opinion, were the cinnamon rolls and buns made by our gracious hostess, Lana. I wondered if she would share the recipe, but found out that there was something better she had to share - a great story about family and the origins of the recipe. It doesn't hurt that Lana's specialty is writing... so, I'm happy to bring you Lana's story about her grandmothers buns. Since there's no recipe accompanying the story (it's a family treasure, I'm told,) I've included at the end a recipe for my contribution, cranberry cake.

For potluck on January 14, I made buns. And more buns. There were two kinds: cloverleaf buns and cinnamon buns. Both came from the same batch of dough, which I made using my grandmother’s recipe. Cloverleaf buns are my grandma’s specialty. She brings them to every family holiday gathering, and she has been making the same ones for as long as I can remember: little golden, airy, buttery puffs. I remember when I was very young, being in the kitchen of the farmhouse where my grandparents lived at the time, and watching them make these buns together. There was a woodstove in the corner near the door, and my grandparents would place bowls of dough covered with tea towels near the stove so the dough could rise in the warmth, away from any drafts. That is such a strong image for me, the magic and mystery that happened under those covered bowls.

I remember watching my grandparents make the buns, and having the privilege of “helping.” They used very specific techniques that they had created and revised and honed over many years. To make the cloverleaf shape, you must shape three small balls of dough for each bun and place them together in muffin pans. When they rise and bake, the little groups of dough expand into the right shape. However, my grandparents didn’t shape the balls just by rolling them. They used a method which involves placing a piece of dough in the palm of one hand and then shaping it with the fingers of your other hand. Watching them shape each piece of dough so deftly was like watching master artists at work. I remember being given pieces of dough to shape and being so slow at forming just one ball that I am sure my grandparents finished whole trays of buns while I worked at my one little piece.

Jump ahead in time to 2010. I just moved to Madison about five months ago, and with no job yet, I have a lot of time on my hands. To fill some of that time (and to have food to bring to potlucks!) I decided it was time to learn how to bake. I am 800 miles from my grandma (and my mom, who is also an excellent cook and baker) and now I decide I want to learn!

I started off with quick breads, cookies, cakes and pies. My mom emailed me recipes and advice and I asked her questions over MSN as I went. It was like having a personal online tutor! I enjoyed those lessons, but the time came when I thought it would be fun to try to make my grandmother’s fabled buns. My mom didn’t know how to make them nor did she have the recipe, so our online lessons weren’t going to get me very far. My grandma thought about writing out her instructions and mailing them to me, but she said that the best way for me to learn would really be in person, because so much of her process involves instinct and knowing how the dough should feel. So we decided to wait and do a lesson when I took a trip home. And that’s what we did. One afternoon in November, my grandma taught me her secrets. I won’t divulge them all here, but I will write a little of what she told me. She said that when she was young, the people she knew who made bread would try to add as much flour as the dough would hold. They ended up with really tough, heavy breads. My grandmother thought there must be another way to do it, so she set out to experiment with ways to make breads the way she thought they should be. She came up with her own method and recipe, and the result is indescribable; her buns are truly the lightest, airiest bread products I have ever tasted. I’m still working on mastering the technique--mine don’t come out nearly as light as hers do--but she has a whole lifetime of practice on me!

I am still learning and I am far from perfecting anything I have baked, especially the buns. But I feel incredibly honored to know my grandmother’s special recipe, and to be able to share her buns with the potluck crowd!

Thanks, Lana! And thanks to both you and Carlos (pictured above) for hosting potluck!

Here is the recipe for my contribution, which I found at The Kitchn, and made one or two changes to. (Go here for the original recipe!)

Cranberry Cake
makes 1 9x13 or 1 10" springform cake (I used a 9x13 pan)

3 eggs
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon kirsch (optional)
2 cups flour
2 1/2 cups cranberries, defrosted if frozen

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9x13 pan or a 10" springform pan.

Beat eggs and sugar together for 5-7 minutes, until they are pale yellow. Add butter and flavorings and beat for 2 minutes. Stir in flour and fold in cranberries. The dough will be rather stiff, especially if the cranberries are still cold. Turn out into the greased pan. If including the nut topping shown below (you should!) spread it on at this time

Bake 45-50 minutes for a 9x13, or a little over an hour for the springform. You made need to tent the cake with foil in the last 15 minutes or so to keep the top from browning.

Cool completely before serving.

Optional nut topping:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup nuts, like walnuts or pecans, broken into halves or quarters

Heat the butter in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the sugar and stir. Add the nuts and cook for several minutes, stirring, until the butter and sugar mixture is shiny and smooth and the nuts smell toasted. Spread over the cake batter and bake as above.
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  1. Andi, your cranberry cake was the real star of that potluck!

  2. I just found this online and read it with a tear or two in my eye...I must try and print it out for Lana's Grandma....

  3. Andi, thanks for posting your recipe, I must try it! sounds yummy....should have included this in the post above but not sure what I am doing!!