This past Sunday, I felt inspired to write while I was baking Cinnamon Buns. The following is what I wrote—it’s longer and unlike much that I’ve published here before. I hope you enjoy it.
June 7, 2020
As I stand at the counter in my kitchen, socked feet, yesterday’s clothes, I push my fists into the soft combination of flour, yeast, sugar and warm milk I carefully combined in the biggest bowl I own, moments before. The smell of the instant yeast releases from the dough and floods me with unexpected memory, of Sunday Bunday as we called it as kids, when my grandmother would bake a batch of white buns and another of cinnamon buns big enough to feed her seven children, their spouses and fourteen grandchildren, or any combination of people that showed up Sunday morning for a visit. Raising children isn’t easy—I only have two—and she had seven, spanning many years, my mother the youngest as her older brothers and sisters were approaching their twenties, the generations overlapping, some of my second cousins older than the firsts.
It’s been awhile since I thought of my grandmother, and as I watched the time tick slowly towards zero on the timer I set on my watch while I rolled the dough, pressing and pulling it over and over again, I welcomed the fuzzy thoughts into my quiet mind. My arms don’t tire, but I wasn’t making nearly as much dough for buns as she would have, and I thought of what a strong woman she had been, and how I never realized it at the time. Adding pinches of flower to my inexperienced hands when the dough became sticky on my faux-granite countertop, I thought of myself as a little girl, the youngest of twelve grandkids for most of my growing years, sitting in the kitchen of my grandparents’ quaint house on acreage in the outskirts of Prince George. An opposite reality to the one I live now, the television holding my kids’ attention in the other room, a special occasion for no reason at all with their breakfasts in their laps, a favourite show in front of them on a screen. I remember sitting, watching Grandma mix, no measurements required, the recipe laid out in a well-used, tremendously-loved cookbook in front of her, the words faded from the paper to her memory, age craving reassurance from the browned pages she routinely placed on the counter as she baked.
What must have she been thinking, as she kneaded the dough with ease, her strength evident now in the fluid movement of the flexible dough, laughter of my cousins, her grandkids, echoing through the open window, where her pale flowered drapes were teased by the wind, tickled with beauty removed. I never knew what was on her mind, and certainly won’t now. By the time I was grown enough to think to ask questions more meaningful than when is lunch ready, my grandfather had passed and I don’t recall eating Grandma’s fresh-baked buns again, the house sold, sealing memories in its wake. The moments that shaped my childhood, our large family gatherings, quiet moments when my parents needed a break, Sunday mornings with Grandma, alone in her kitchen, can never be changed. I cannot go back and ask to help, check in on how she was doing, wonder aloud what thoughts were crossing her mind, her struggles buried instead of shared. That’s just the way things were for our family, precious times we shared together covered with fun and food, feelings left to slide off the tin roof, like the traces of flour I see at the sides of my work surface where I am kneading the dough.
I check my watch, sure that the suggested time of five minutes has almost passed, and I’m told instead that my strength is weak, I need to build my baking skills if I’m ever going to knead dough or bake buns with ease.
Exactly two minutes have passed.
I roll my eyes at my watch and return to the dough, brushing more flour across my palms in hopes that it will help smooth the surface of the ingredients in my hands, food that will feed my family, a new treat for them, and for me. My breathing is light, the repetition reflected in the turning of dough, folding, pressing, rolling it again and again. To have done this for the span of an adulthood, your children’s childhood layered in time, seeing their kids grown and following family footsteps, gathering together weekly just to be, I can’t imagine it. The time I’m in so vastly opposed to this era I grew up in, living hours away from our closest family, my kids have two cousins on both sides of our families, closer to our friends’ kids than family. By choice, but that’s another story, perhaps the thoughts will trickle in if I try my hand at baking bread or cooking beef stew.
When I checked my watch again, two more minutes had passed, I was in the last minute of my first cinnamon bun kneading experience, alight with the feelings of happiness from my grandmother’s kitchen, always welcoming, ready to feed the family. The ball of dough I had formed was uneven, my inexperienced ways unsure of how to troubleshoot, what to do to fix it, or recognize whether it even needed fixing at all. At the ring of my timer, the pride I’d had in myself for even starting this process swelled, and I watched the dough for a moment after it left my busy hands, noticing how it settled into itself happily, its equivalent to what I imagine to be a satisfying smile. I gently picked up the ball of dough, covering it in vegetable shortening before delicately placing it at the bottom of its mixing bowl, nothing to do now but wait.
I set another timer, something I don’t think my Grandma ever would have done, and as I wait for the small dough ball to double in size, the expected time an hour and a half to rise, I make small preparations, readying the filling, spreading shortening in the baking dish and deciding whether or not to add glaze or icing to the buns, once complete.
Once the timer goes, I wash and flour my hands, pressing the air from the dough, watching it let go with a satisfying puff, bursting multiple bubbles, before I reach for the often-unused rolling pin and proceed to roll out the now-smooth dough.
There’s an art to baking that makes me less skilled at it—I am not one to follow directions well. As I roll out the dough, shaping it into a rectangle larger than the prepared pan that the rolled, seasoned and cut buns will be placed in, I acknowledge the imperfections in size, shape and skill. I’ve done my best to follow the recipe, thoughts of my grandmother’s apt hands embracing the same project with muscle memory, and I choose to leave the dough misshapen, accepting imperfection in its edges, resolving to do better than the imperfections of my past. I spread the softened butter over the flat lay, then sprinkle the brown sugar and cinnamon mix I’d set aside on top. I use my hands more often than a tool, and I enjoy the grit of sugar between my fingers and under my nails, appreciating the edible canvas in front of me, avoiding crushing odd lumps of sugar, dreaming of how they will dissolve in the heat of the oven, or on my taste buds once they’ve baked and cooled. With anticipation of the final product, I read the recipe once again and realize that they will sit, once more, to let the yeast do its job, the buns rising to size together in shape before taking their raw place in the 350-degree oven to bake.
And, so, I wait again.
When it’s time to put the buns in the oven, I set another timer, this one on a kitchen appliance instead of my own wrist, and consider the tools that Grandma would have used in her own baking adventures, so many years ago. The touch, sense, reaction to what’s occurring in her product, the yeast as it rises, the buns as they brown, so much of that instinct removed by recipes and better bakers than myself that have come before me. I think of her baking pans, spatulas and spoons that I’ve seen her lick and, more often than not, put right back into the batter that she was mixing. I can imagine that they still exist physically in the world, not in someone’s kitchen, where they prepare food for loved ones, but rather on the earth somewhere, in a landfill, buried in years of debris. It makes me sad to think about them, about her and her non-existence on this plane any more, but then, like the pans that are still out there somewhere, I know that she still exists, too. In these fleeting memories, spurred on by smell, in the hearts of all that loved her, and love her still.
I make the mistake of checking on the cinnamon buns while they’re in the oven … oh what an art this beast of baking is. Standing bold in my choice to see beauty in my creation, I close my eyes instead of staring at the inside of the buns pushing up towards the sky and hope that they’ll taste better than they look at this point. I breathe in, smelling deep baking, browning buns and crispy cinnamon accompaniment, played sweet by the symphony of sugar, unexpected and sharp like the plucking bass or blasting horn.
My mind falls again to that little girl in Grandma’s kitchen, so innocent, reflective now, of the time when I was awarded quiet moments, with not a care in the world, no responsibility on my shoulders, the enchantment of my family to guide me, cook for me and stand by my side. Times have changed, but the memories will always live on. I see the knots browning, the sugar shining, and I think of the sweet glaze I’ve prepared for the unexpected peaks.
Just a little extra sweetness, to add to the fluff of the inside, steaming and ready for eating. To share with my kids, my husband, and to enjoy, at least one, for myself. For they may look a little odd, misshapen, unique. But that just makes them special, and doesn’t affect the taste in the least.
I take a bite, the bun cooled, glazed and ready to serve its purpose.
I’m still discovering mine; I will be until life takes over, ends and continues in a different form.
Cinnamon Buns turned Cinnamon Knots
Baker at heart,