(by JoAnn Ross Cunningham)
Before I was allowed to drive legally, there’s a recipe I rode all the way to Chicago. At age 15, I was the champion bread maker at the Washington State Fair. My reward: travel by train to Chicago with 22 other state winners in various categories for a week in the big city: museums (with an introduction to abstraction and pointillism, which blew my farm girl’s mind), Miss America, the Carpenters, Mayor Daley, and a convention of some 1600 kids. We stayed at the luxurious and, I’m told, haunted Pick Congress Hotel. If any ghosts were around, I imagine they went into hiding from the clamor of so many teens away from home.
It wasn’t just any bread that got me off the farm, but a recipe for Orange Rolls perfected by my mother, an ace homemaker who graduated from college with a Home Economics degree in the mid-1940s. At home on the farm, she offered balanced, generous meals to our family of five and the hired man—mostly meat and potatoes to satisfy my father’s simple tastes. Accompanying most meals was garden produce and—if not fresh—fruit canned in season. Only occasionally did she stray into more creative dishes. Both my mother and father were third-generation farmers; he was mostly of Scottish ancestry; she was mostly German. Their combined ethic: thrift, hard work, self-sufficiency, traditional roles, a love of the land.
After my mother gave birth to my two older brothers, I’m told that for me, her third and final child, she was so excited and happy to have birthed a girl in the wee hours of the morning that she couldn’t sleep. It’s nice to be wanted. She had big plans for me. She made us matching outfits and trained me up in the kitchen from an early age. Part of my mother’s parenting plan was to keep me so busy that I wouldn’t have time to go astray. Not that “astray” was much of a concept there in the isolation of our high desert family farm in eastern Washington, the farm my grandfather bought from the homesteader, then eventually passed to my father.
Until the end of active parenting, my mother’s keeping me “busy” meant farm chores. I was gathering eggs from 200 chickens from the age of five, until the flash flood years later raged through the henhouse and wiped out the flock. (We had sold eggs to the school for the lunch program—another source of income.) I helped my mother water and weed the vegetable garden. I fed livestock and herded cattle on horseback with my father. “Busy” also meant participation in various 4-H projects in the community club my mother helped found. My projects were many: cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, dog training, sewing, cooking, and bread-making. While I won the overall showmanship recognition at the county fair in a round-robin faceoff of dairy, beef, hogs, and sheep showmen (and -women), that didn’t get me to Chicago. A bread recipe I could perfect could provide that ticket.
I practiced the Orange Roll recipe at least weekly for county competition, then state competition. Orange Rolls: Think the shape of cinnamon buns but with a filling of butter, sugar, and grated orange peel. Just out of the oven, the rolls are frosted with a glaze that includes orange juice. They are almost completely unhealthy and delectable.
I kept practicing and practicing. Withholding salt until the yeast has developed gives the yeast a good start. Kneading the dough to smooth and satiny texture is essential. Eight to ten minutes should do it. Rolling the dough to a uniform thickness matters. Placement in the oven slightly below middle is perfect. Too hot an oven makes the roll’s center pop, messing with visual presentation.
While the aroma of yeast bread fresh from the oven routinely warmed our house, the supply overflowed. What to do? I routinely took the results of all my practicing to the “neighbors.” On my family’s cattle farm, the neighbors were horses (and their owners): thoroughbreds and Tennessee Walkers. When it came time for my mare to be bred by their Tennessee Walker Secret Venture known as Zeke, I had already paid the stud fee—in Orange Rolls.
Before I boarded the train from Spokane to Chicago that chilly autumn night, though my family was completely undemonstrative, I decided it was time to show my parents some affection and gave each a peck on the cheek. After all, I would be away for a whole week. The expression on their faces was surprise and delight. When I bite into an Orange Roll, I see their smiles.
JoAnn Ross Cunningham is a retired high-school teacher of language arts who lives in Haines, Alaska. She can be found at email@example.com.
2 c. warm water
2 T. dry yeast
1/2 c. white sugar
2 t. salt
2/3 c. powdered milk
1/2 c. softened butter
7 to 7 1/2 c. sifted flour
1/2 c. butter
1 1.2 c. sugar
pinch of salt
grated rind from 1 orange
1 c. confectioners’ sugar
1/4 c. orange juice
In a large bowl, combine water, yeast, and a pinch of sugar.
Let stand until the yeast develops and bubbles.
Stir in remaining sugar, salt, and powdered milk.
Stir in eggs and butter.
With an electric mixer, add sifted flour, then switch to mixing with a spoon.
Remove dough to a lightly floured surface, and knead for 8 - 10 minutes.
Place dough in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled.
Punch down dough, and let rise again.
Combine ingredients for filling.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Divide dough in half, punch down, and use rolling pin to spread into a rectangle about 8 x 14 in.
Spread with half of filling and roll up from the long side.
Cut into rolls about 1 in. thick and place in a 9 x 12 in. baking dish or cookie sheet with sides.
Cover and let rise.
Repeat the process with remaining dough and filling.
Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Combine confectioners’ sugar and orange juice for frosting.
Remove from oven and brush with frosting.
Makes about 2 dozen.
Note: At Christmas time, I have made Orange Rolls on a cookie sheet, placing unbaked rolls in the shape of a tree (2 rolls as bottom of trunk, then rows of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 rolls to create the tree shape. A little red and green candied fruit is placed here and there to represent lights.)