There were only a handful summers I visited my great-grandmother and grandmother in the small town of Palatka, Florida. It was a town that in my eyes had never had anything to it besides my mother's fond high school memories and the thick spanish moss that made everything seem haunted. She would gather us all in the car and we'd make the drive down from Maryland; the only thing worth doing along the way was counting down the Pedro Sez billboards until we saw the giant sombrero in the sky. We knew we were getting even closer the more we smelled the paper mills -- that rotten-egg smell I will never forget...that smell that with some strange personal disappointment disappears a little more each time I drive north. We watched the trees change until we made our way through miles and miles of pine flatwoods. Crossing the St. John's river, unaware that in another 10 years it would be the river I'd call home. Paved roads turned to gravel. Mobile homes and double wides dotted yards comprised mainly of sand, crab grass and parked cars. Sticky suffocating heat. Mosquitos. A lightning show at night that both entertained and frightened the hell out of me. Sulfur water. These are things that will always mean Florida to me. And I hated them at the time, but I was 13 and demanded to be entertained with cable television and shopping malls and chain restaurants.
Up until Oma Jo's death at age 96, she had lived in her own tiny home not far from my grandmother's double-wide. I was horribly shy around the both of them and if asked, my choice was always to stay with my grandmother for the modern conveniences of cable television and air conditioning. But sometimes I spent the night at my great-grandmother's house, uncomfortable with the nights that never seemed to cool down, wondering as I listened to the wind pick up and the thunder barrage us if this tiny house would make it another night.
The house had wood panelling and orange (or maybe green, or a mix of both) carpet and those dolls with giant crochet skirts. Everything seemed to have a giant crochet skirt. Kitchen appliances seemed better suited for a museum. It was absolutely nowhere I wanted to be at the time and everywhere I'd want to be given the chance to go back to those beautiful, miserable days.
The best thing about visiting, of course, was eating. And these were Oma Jo's specialties: Tamale Pie and Milk Rolls. Two dishes my mother talked about with such passion that they had become nearly mythical to me. Both the kind of recipes you would find in a spiral-bound church cookbook, where the contributor's name was not hers but her husband's prefaced with a "Mrs." The kind where the addition of canned pineapple deserved a recipe title worthy of a Pacific island. My favorite kind of cookbook.
And both recipes revolved around one thing: a humble, brown ceramic bowl. A bowl that had made countless breakfasts and dinners, fed hungry mouths for generations, sat around tables for countless conversations.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. It wipes away the pain, the stress, the everyday boredom. In the present, we seek out a better future while wishing we could go back to a fonder past. How any of this makes sense, I don't know. I look back at photos and think "gosh you really had it great back then" only to remember my perpetual impatience for what was around the corner. Maybe telling a 13 year old to slow down and savor the present is futile...but taking these lessons to heart 17 years later is something worth trying, even if for only a moment.
I should note that to remain 100% authentic to Oma Jo's milk rolls requires the rolls to be cooked in a (very) rich sauce of milk, butter and sugar. Something she was able to cook with so delicately but in my impatience, it always turns out heavy-handed. My cinnamon rolls vary slightly from her recipe, though honestly once you've made one cinnamon roll you've pretty much made them all. The bowl, however, is all hers.
Kobocha Squash Cinnamon Rolls
1 cup kobocha squash (canned pumpkin also works)
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 1/2 cups AP flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
Mix it all together in a bowl -- it should be pretty sticky. Place dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 90 minutes or until doubled in size.
While you wait, mix together:
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon
And have 1/4 cup of craisins and 1/4 cup of toasted chopped pecans ready
Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface (big enough to roll out to about 14x22") - it should be fairly thin. Sprinkle cinnamon-sugar mix all over dough, keeping about 1/2" margins at the top, bottom and left; for the right side, leave double the margin for the final seal. Scatter the craisins and pecans over the cinnamon sugar.
Starting from the left side, roll the dough tightly until the end; fold over remaining edge and pinch to seal in place. Cut the roll into thirds, then into thirds again so you have 9 uniform-ish pieces.
I placed the rolls into a lightly greased pie tin -- but you can also use an 8x8 square baking dish. I also think I had to omit 2 of my rolls so they could fit...but that was for aesthetic reasons...just squish em all in.
Bake for 25 minutes at 375. Let cool for 15 minutes and add icing (which is just a cup of powdered sugar, a tablespoon of softened butter and 2 tablespoons milk).