By Leo Morris
For The Republic
My sister Judy made our mother’s famous – within our circle – yeast rolls for Christmas dinner this year.
They were a little heavier than the ones we remembered, but tasty nonetheless. She vowed to keep trying until she got it right.
That was exactly the reaction I had the last time I tried to make them. Tasty but not quite light enough and, if truth be told, not as wonderfully fragrant. I, too, pledged to keep practicing.
I doubt if either one of us will get the perfect batch we yearn for. Following someone else’s recipe, even if step by exact step, won’t take into account all the nuances and subtleties that can’t be reduced to words on paper.
It’s not even a real recipe. Our mother had made the rolls so many times that she didn’t measure ingredients in the traditional sense. Some of this, a little of that, and her experience told her when things were right. It only became a set of printed instructions when Judy made her go through the process while she took meticulous notes.
And the rolls weren’t even our mother’s unique creation.
Our father was a cook in the Army, specializing in baking. Early in the marriage, my mother looked through one of the cookbooks he had brought home. She found the recipe for yeast rolls and did a little math, figuring out how to make it serve a small family instead a company of 200 men.
Maybe it’s just a family legend, but if it’s not true, it should be. It embodies the first important lesson I learned about cooking: Don’t be afraid to pare. What you subtract can be just as important as what you add.
That lesson was reinforced when I created my oft-requested breakfast quiche dish.
I discovered the casserole – which uses hash browns instead of pastry for a crust – at a bed & breakfast in Texas’ Hill Country, and started playing around with it until I had a version to call my own. Then I started serving it at work for a group I was part of that did birthday and holiday carry-ins.
It turned out there was something in that recipe that at least one person didn’t like. One hated onions, another couldn’t stand mushrooms, nobody especially wanted green pepper. Eventually, I reduced the recipe to the bacon-cheese-egg-half & half concoction that became famous (again, within a certain circle).
As my mother had adapted my father’s recipe for her family, I adapted mine for my friends’ tastes, using the same technique: Pare, pare, pare.
I should mention here that I offer my baking advice with a certain amount of authority, not as a professional, but as a committed amateur of longstanding zeal.
My father knew a number of mountain crafts, like how to cane-bottom chairs and carve objects out of coal. By the time I was aware enough to learn them, he was too ill to teach them, so I looked for some other way to connect with him.
That is how I came to take an adult-ed class in baking at the local Ivy Tech campus. There I learned the essence of bread making, which I think is worth sharing.
All you need are two numbers: five and three. To make bread, mix five parts flour to three parts water. And that’s it. Yes, you throw in a little yeast for leavening and a little salt for taste, but if you know five parts flour to three parts water, you can always bake bread, any time any place.
From that baseline, you can get creative. Add the fats, the eggs and milk, favorite herbs and spices, pieces of fruit or bits of vegetable, a fabulous array of ingredients from which to choose that can add magic your next loaf.
You can do that by poring over the millions of recipes in books and online, but, personally, I recommend just experimenting. But first, strip it down to the basics as a starting point. Five parts flour, three points water. Pare, pare, pare.
If you want to make that a metaphor for life, stripping down your existence to the core of what’s most important to you before worrying about the add-ons, feel free. This is the end-of-year cycle in which people do that sort of thing.
Just be careful of the yeast and salt. Lots of trial and error there.
Happy New Year.