Photos | Donna Battle Pierce
By Donna Battle Pierce
Each year, our family’s June calendar squares jam more fully than any other month, crowding June with occasions posted by the dozens to remind us to cheerfully celebrate, solemnly honor or both. This year, on June 19 and June 21, we gathered to celebrate three nationally recognized holidays — Juneteenth, Father’s Day and the Summer Solstice, with traditional dishes celebrating our culture and traditions.
Throughout the month, we gathered around the table on specific dates to honor our ancestors’ birthdays. Granny, my “Down the Bay” maternal grandmother, first taught me to honor departed family members by preparing and sharing their favorite dishes, which she taught me how to cook and bake in her Mobile kitchen. This year, on her June 26 birthday, I was reminded of the deep gratitude I felt about her patience while passing down baking instructions for the brioche-like “Rene’s Rolls” she had adapted from the recipe learned from her grandmother.
We called them Granny’s Rolls, and they were one dish securing Granny’s reputation as one of Mobile’s finest cooks. I was honored to serve as her chosen apprentice while she effortlessly combined flour, room-temperature eggs, a palmful of fine-grained white sugar and butter for light, tender rolls.
At Granny’s side, my “assistance” must have doubled the customary time spent turning out her folded and buttered pastry masterpiece, but she said my cooking and baking lessons were worth every moment and that they would serve as my most valuable inheritance from her.
She said she learned “the Creole approach” from her Mama Dean, who had learned from her great-grandmother Rene. One day, she said, it would be my responsibility (as well as honor) to teach the next generation what I learned in her kitchen. During her long visits to our family in Missouri, I earned extra credit from her while shopping, prepping, cooking and baking at her side.
Her patient instructions offered lifelong lessons as well. Granny taught me that quality counts. She taught me that mistakes aren’t fatal and often offer life’s best teachings. I learned it’s usually a mistake to take shortcuts, and time spent preparing to offer loved ones with passed-down specialties is well spent.
I learned that a grandmother who understands all of this and who spends a lifetime patiently passing it down to you is precious. Now I have become a grateful trustee of my grandmother’s love and culinary knowledge.
Shortly after her funeral, four decades ago, I invited almost 40 people to my Sausalito condo and prepared some of the family dishes she had been so careful to pass down. This was my first cooking session that she was not at least a phone call away.
My rolls had never been so delicate or delicious. The gumbo over rice was perfectly spiced and had my friends sneaking seconds directly from the pot.
I still treasure Granny’s long-ago comments about how it brings fortune to “dine around an inspired cook’s table,” because we will always remember a part of their spirit. Now, as an elder, I’ve also come to more deeply appreciate Granny’s reminder about the inspired cooks who teach us, always being with us in our kitchens.
2 packages (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for pinches and brushing
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups warm milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups flour, plus more as needed
Place yeast in a large bowl. Add 5 1/2 tablespoons of the softened butter plus the warm water. Gently stir in sugar and sprinkle salt over the mixture. Set aside until mixture foams, about five to 10 minutes.
Pour half of the warm milk into the foamy yeast mixture. Stir in 1 cup of the flour. Stir in eggs, one at a time. Gradually alternate adding the remaining milk and flour, stirring with a wooden spoon until the dough reaches cookie dough consistency. Cover dough in the bowl with a tea towel. Set in a warm place. Let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Transfer half the dough to a lightly-floured board. Knead several times to a smooth dough. Roll with a buttered and floured rolling pin until the dough is about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 2-inch circles with a buttered round cutter or the top of a crystal glass. Press a pinch of softened butter into the crease of each roll, folding to place the seal on the bottom and placing it on a buttered cookie sheet.
Cover pan with a tea towel; repeat with remaining half of dough. Let both pans of unbaked rolls rise, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, heat oven to 400 degrees. Melt remaining butter, plus more butter as needed. Bake until rolls first puff, about 4 minutes. Brush with melted butter. Bake just until rolls are firm and beginning to brown around the edges, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven. Brush hot rolls with remaining melted butter. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Makes about 3 dozen rolls.
About the author:
Former test kitchen director and assistant food editor for the Chicago Tribune, Donna Battle Pierce says she feels her Mobile, Alabama, ancestors smile when she researches and writes about her culture’s under-reported, under-respected and often hidden culinary contributions and recipes. (Her paternal and maternal ancestors come from Mobile’s Williams, Peters, Battle and Davis families.) Pierce’s stories, essays and columns have appeared in BET, NPR, Ebony, Upscale Magazine, the Chicago Defender and Eating Well, among other publications. She researched Black culinary history with a Visiting Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 2015.
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