My Mother’s Cookbook
Val’s Refrigerator Rolls, Vernie’s Brunch Casserole, Cherry Pie with Crisco Crust and Danish Puff
My mother began a new phase of her life when Dad died in 1979, after over fifty years of marriage. Although the transition to widowhood must have been difficult, she never complained about the adjustments she faced learning to live alone. But she often said she missed “having someone to talk things over with.”
She wanted to stay in the house where she’d lived all her married life. That seemed to make the transition easier for her. My oldest brother, Ben had moved back to our hometown by then, and he became the person with whom she could talk things over. They enjoyed planning for and preparing holiday meals and lunched together most days of the work week. Ben kept his weekend activities separate, except when family members were in town. Mom wisely ignored what she must have suspected about his sometimes rowdy behavior with his fourth wife, a local girl younger than his own daughter whom he’d recently married, and their motorcycle-riding friends.
The traditional separation of marital powers defined my parents’ marriage. Dad earned the living and kept track of money matters, arranged for home repairs and made all their travel arrangements. Mom ran the household, kept in touch with relatives and planned their social life. He left her with enough income to live comfortably, so her most pressing need was to learn how to manage those finances.
One of her women friends, good with numbers, offered to help. She taught Mom to use a simple accounts book, pocket calculator and labeled file folders. Knowing how to control her financial affairs gave my mother a new feeling of independence. Frugality ran deep in her Midwestern soul and, even though generous with others, the family assets increased under her management.
Small town living fosters the kind of friendships that develop gradually over many years. Mom had always enjoyed her female friends, and now they mattered even more to her. Two of them, single for decades, were sisters who lived in the house of their Danish grandparents. As Mom adapted to being a single woman, her friendship with them deepened. The older sister, Val had a brief marriage and raised her only child to adulthood alone. Her sister Vernie never married.
When I began my own long hiatus as a single, I got in the habit of coming back to Iowa in August for my birthday and to sample the summer’s yield of sweet corn and tomatoes. Val’s birthday was close to mine, so she and Vernie would invite us out for coffee and cake to celebrate the birthdays. I felt a calm contentment as we sat first in their living room talking about local news or their newest volunteer adventure, then to the dining room for refreshments.
It reminded me of the quiet order Val had brought to the town library where she worked as librarian throughout my childhood. She would smile tolerantly whenever a gang of us kids trouped noisily down the basement steps to inspect the collection of Native American artifacts. Those fascinating items, displayed in glass cases so we couldn’t touch them, had been donated by a local woman who taught Native American children at reservations in the Southwest earlier in the 20th Century.
Before brown and serve rolls became ubiquitous on grocery shelves, busy cooks relied on premixed “ice box” rolls to give them a head start towards serving fresh bread for dinner. The dough, once removed from the refrigerator, still had to be kneaded, risen, shaped into rolls and risen again before baking. Not exactly the kind of convenience food we expect today, but this recipe from Val reminds me that cooks have always looked for shortcuts to ease the pace of their hectic days.
Val’s Refrigerator Rolls
¾ cup milk
¼ cup (or less) sugar
3 tablespoons shortening (solid vegetable oil, lard or butter)
1 tablespoon salt
1 package (or more) dry yeast
¼ cup water
3 ½ cups flour
Scald milk. Add shortening, sugar and salt. Cool. Dissolve yeast in warm water. After yeast begins to bubble, add to milk mixture; add beaten egg. Mix well.
Add half the flour, beat well, and then add all but ½ cup of remaining flour. Form dough into ball and store in covered bowl in refrigerator until ready to use. Remove dough from refrigerator, let rise in warm place for two hours. Knead dough, adding enough remaining flour to make it smooth and shiny. Form into 18 dinner-size rolls and place in greased 11 by 13-inch baking pan. Let rise again until doubled in size. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes until nicely browned.