I grew up in an abusive household. When I was a teenager, I was essentially adopted by my then-boyfriend’s family, and it was there, in the presence of the women of this family – notably my great-grandmother Gramma Grace, her daughter-in-law, my Gramma Charlene, and Mom – that I learned to really love.
Grace died just before I graduated high school. I lost Mom in 2009, and Gramma Charlene passed in 2011. One of the legacies that I have of Mom and Charlene in particular is their recipes; I learned to cook some of my favorite things in these women’s kitchens.
Solstice is my big holiday. As an atheist, I don’t really put much stock in the “holy” days, but Solstice, to me, feels special. I don’t know whether it’s the ancient quality of the celebrations or the very cool stone circles or because I really love the astronomical implications of the day – when we reach the darkest point and, from here on out, it’s only going to get lighter – but I have always felt that Solstice deserves a special recognition. We do Christmas in the Chili house because of culture and peer pressure, but I feel like, if I were to have a “holy” day, it would be Solstice.
We celebrate the day by inviting friends-who-are-family to the house for fortifying foods, lots of candle and firelight, and presents. Every year, though, I trot out this recipe for my Gramma Charlene’s cinnamon rolls. They’re decadent, positively LOADED with butter, and taste just like her love; warm, sweet, and comforting.
To start, combine 1 cup of warm water, 2 envelopes (or 4 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast, and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a bowl. While that’s getting cozy, mix 1 cup of warm milk, 2/3 cup of sugar, 2/3 cup of softened butter (this can be melted, as well, if you prefer), and 2 lightly beaten eggs in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add the yeast mixture and stir, then add 3 1/2 cups of flour, one at a time, and continue mixing until everything smooths out.
From there, you’re going to add 4 or 5 more cups of flour; you’ll know the dough is ready when it gets very smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Dust a work surface – and your hands – generously with flour, turn the dough out, and knead to your heart’s content; this is a lovely, smooth, delightful dough, and kneading it really is a wonderful exercise. Add flour – a little at a time – just to keep the dough from sticking to you or the counter. When it’s all smooth and perfect, plop it in a well-greased bowl, cover it with well-greased cling film, and put it in a warm place to rise.
When it’s doubled (keep an eye on it; I made the mistake of leaving the house for a bit while my batch was rising and it escaped the bowl!), turn it out again onto a well-dusted work surface and press or roll it into a large rectangle. Brush the surface with 1/2 cup of well-softened or melted butter, then sprinkle over 1 1/2 cups of sugar mixed with 3 tablespoons of cinnamon. Here, if you like, you can add the nuts of you preference and/or raisins, but my family prefers straight cinnamon-sugar.
Roll the dough into as tight a roll as you can manage, then crimp the edges and lay the thing on a cutting board. Grease a couple of 9×13 glass pans very well and sprinkle over that any cinnamon sugar mixture you may have leftover (I always have leftovers). Using a serrated knife, cut your rolls and lay them, edges touching, in your pans.
From here, I stash the pans in the fridge (or, more often as not, in the garage) overnight. When you’re ready to bake them, pop them in a preheated, 350° oven for between 25 and 30 minutes – watch them carefully because the bottoms WILL burn if you look away too long.
Let them cool a bit, then glaze them with 4 cups of powdered sugar mixed with 2/3 cup melted butter and as much vanilla extract as you like, finding the perfect consistency with a little hot water (I usually use about 1/4 cup).
Really; make these. As you take your first, glorious bite, send a little good energy into the Universe on behalf of my Gramma Charlene; she of the big heart and generous kitchen.