Nut roll nostalgia: Family baking job was a sweet ritual

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Early December is nut roll-making time at our house. It has been that way for longer than 30 years.

My wife shops days before this event for the flour, sugar, nuts, honey and all other ingredients required to complete a day of baking. This recipe has been handed down from generation to generation and has been adjusted to satisfy the taste of the ultimate customer: me. Nut rolls and adjustable belts are a big part of my holiday season.

My job has always been the nut grinder and dough mixer. This year, as I set the grinding attachment onto the Kitchen-Aid mixer, my thoughts drifted back to years ago when our three small children were so excited to help with this annual event.

We would start just after breakfast with grinding the nuts. Each child had a small step stool and would crowd around the mixer.

Our youngest child, Christopher, had to make everything into a construction project, so my arm became the crane boom. I would lower my arm down toward the floor where one-pound bags of walnuts waited to be connected to my fingers. My daughter Amy had the job of sister scissor hands. She would cut open the bag and slowly pour the nuts into the grinder.

Our middle child, Joshua, used a wooden plunger to push the nuts into the auger. Out through the grinding sieve poured a fine mixture of nuts that piled up like coal from a conveyor. Bag after bag of nuts was hoisted up to counter height by the human crane arm and ground up as the sound of the powerful mixer whirled through the kitchen.

My wife took over from there and added the sweet ingredients to the ground nuts and started the slow cooking process at the stove. My crew of step-stool helpers moved over to the kitchen island, where the dough-mixing party was about to begin.

Aprons were required for all participants from this point as I opened the large bag of flour. We were closely supervised by my wife, because only she holds the knowledge and experience of generations of nut roll bakers. She knows all too well that if left unattended I tend to alter recipes by adding beer or hot sauce.

She would hand me a mixing bowl large enough in which to bathe a small child. I dumped in a large amount of flour, and my daughter made a well in the middle. My wife next gave me a mixing spoon large enough to row a canoe across the Ohio River, with instructions to start blending the flour with the liquid foaming yeast mixture she had brewed.

Amy and Josh would attempt to hold down the bowl as I churned with the mixing oar. My wife continued to slowly pour the remaining yeast before adding the eggs, then salt and vanilla and other ingredients from this ancient recipe. Time after time the instruction for just a bit more flour would be given by the chief baker.

My stirring arms throbbed as again I heard, "A bit more flour -- we are almost there." Finally the wife would touch the dough and proclaim it perfect.

The next step was dough-kneading, using a technique that only my wife is capable of performing. She uses a pushing and folding method, and only by experience does she know when it is done. Gently, she would place the dough into a clean bowl, then lay a cloth over it with the reverence of a religious ceremony.

The kids were all amazed at the expanded size of the dough when it was removed from the oven. They all put a fist into the pillow and pushed out the air, and each was given a softball-sized clump of the precious dough.

A cloud of flour would surround the table as rollers pressed out the dough into a large pancake. After my wife added the correct amount of nut filling, the pancake was rolled into a log. The ovens leaked the aroma of sweet bread as tray after tray of nut rolls were baked to perfection. Finally, they'd be ready to be wrapped and mailed to friends and family who cherish these gifts above all other presents.

Our grown children have graduated to the mailing list and have left the baking duties to my wife and me, but still we recall memories of baking day when the children were young. As I start the grinder during another sweet December, I can almost smell the coffee brewing and taste the nut roll.

Oh, I can't wait for Christmas morning.

intelligencer

Alan Meyers of Robinson, a retired construction superintendent and union carpenter, can be reached at ameyers104@gmail.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Holiday Herald" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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