When I was little, my grandmother made lemon bubble rolls each holiday. They were one of my favorite foods, along with turkey and my mom’s stuffing. The ring of rolls came out of the oven warm, and the butter and sugar on top made them sweet and sticky.
I made them last year for Thanksgiving, when my grandmother was sick and on my mind a lot. I was very excited, since I’d never made them before and only recently got the recipe from my aunt. The smell of lemon and baking bread filled the house, and when I pulled them out of the oven, they were just the slightest bit golden brown on top. I wanted to eat them right away.
And I should have. I took them to G.’s mom’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, and no one ate them. Not one! Both G. and his mom asked me if they were cake. The ring is made by piling the rolls in a bundt pan, and I think they thought the ring was all one. When I explained that the ring was individual rolls to be pulled apart, they nodded and still didn’t touch them. The rolls weren’t part of their tradition, and they weren’t going to be added.
I had the whole ring of rolls to myself to eat, a thought that would have thrilled me as a child. But that’s a lot of food. I ate some and froze some, and when they started to go stale, I made bread pudding. I felt depressed.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a family holiday with my family. With this company, I’ve worked four out of the past six Christmases, and I’ll be working this Sunday. I usually work Thanksgiving too, and I worked holidays in my previous job. Sometimes my mom and her boyfriend come visit, and we spend the afternoon or evening together when I get off work. But holidays are an expensive and hectic time to travel, so usually I see them at other times, and I spend the holiday — after work — with G.’s family.
I wanted something from the holidays that I grew up with on the table to make it feel like home. G.’s mom does turkey, stuffing, pie and side dishes her way, and that’s fine, it’s her house. I just thought lemon bubble rolls might slide in, but it wasn’t to be.
So, this year, I held alternate holidays. On the Wednesdays before Thanksgiving and Christmas, I made my own holiday dinners and invited friends over. And I made rolls.
I didn’t make the lemon bubble rolls because I knew I would end up with too much leftover. My grandmom was cooking for a gang. I was cooking for four each time.
Instead, I made sweet rolls using a bread machine recipe that ends up tasting almost exactly like my grandmom’s rolls, and I put her sugar topping on them.
It worked great. I had the smell and taste I remembered, and because the rolls looked like rolls, people ate them. For our dinner this past Wednesday, I had a little bread basket cover embroidered with a Santa that my grandmother made to use in serving. My mom gave it to me when I visited her earlier this month.
The new recipe makes a dozen rolls, so we have some leftover, but not too many. After eating the leftovers for breakfast for a few days, I’ve had my fix, and I feel set until the next holiday.
I felt a little pang of sadness and guilt in giving up my grandmom’s recipe. But then I thought, she was cooking for a big family. She didn’t work on holidays, and she didn’t commute between states with limited time to cook. I’m taking the essence of what she did and making it fit my circumstances. Isn’t that how traditions survive? By adapting?
Sweet Rolls with Lemon and Mace
For the rolls:
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon yeast
For the topping:
zest of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon mace
3 tablespoons sugar
Combine the ingredients for the rolls in a bread machine and set it on the dough cycle.
If you don’t have a bread machine, put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix them with your hands until a dough forms. Knead on a flat surface for about 15 minutes. I use a wooden cutting board dusted with flour for this. Then put the dough back in the bowl, cover with a clean towel and put in a warm place to rise for two hours.
When dough is ready, take it out of the machine or bowl and divide it into 12 equal chunks. Rolls chunks lightly in your hands to shape into balls. Place each ball into a muffin tin.
Combine lemon, mace and sugar to form the topping. Sprinkle a little on each ball. If you want, you can melt butter and coat the top of each roll with a bit of butter before sprinkling on the sugar to make it stick. But I find it sticks OK without the extra butter.
Cover the rolls with a clean towel, and let them rise for another hour. Then, bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.