These classic beauties are simple to make and perfect for a holiday dinner.
When I was little, the drive from our house on Capitol Hill to West Seattle seemed to take so long, it was like a trip to another state — and this was before Seattle had traffic. We went several times a year to Aunt Edith’s — my mom’s aunt and the de facto matriarch of that side of the family, a warm, no-fuss woman who loved us and, I found out years later, loved poetry.
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Even then, I knew this trip also involved time travel. Aunt Edith’s house was a dream of a split-level midcentury, with glass blocks surrounding the front door and a magical push-button countertop range, separate from the oven set in the kitchen wall. There was always a bowl of hard candy, to which children could help themselves, and always Uncle Jack, taciturn in his leather recliner. The carpet was luxuriously wall-to-wall, the furniture regal, antique. The house always smelled, tantalizingly, like the dinner to come.
My brother and I would play in the basement, putting together our older cousin Johnny’s ancient Hot Wheels set. Dinner happened at a specified time, not just whenever it was ready, at the table with its linens instead of paper napkins, its pretty china. Aunt Edith’s cooking was different from ours — we had pesto, she had pot roast. She made things like deviled eggs, wiggly and delicious, and twice-baked potatoes, ethereally creamy and piped with fluted edges back into their jackets. More magic!
The light at Aunt Edith’s house had a different quality. There was a view, in the distance down the hill, of the glinting water of Puget Sound. The hours there, afternoons shading into evenings, lasted longer, halcyon. On the drive back, I’d fall asleep in the car, and my dad would carry me up the stairs and tuck me into bed. Later, I’d pretend I was asleep in order to get carried, until I got too big.
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Aunt Edith gave me things over the years: some of her costume jewelry, including a pin shaped like a funny little dog with rhinestone spots, and several gorgeous, glossy-black manual typewriters from the days when she and Jack ran a real-estate business. For her birthday one year, she took the whole extended family to Canlis, which I was old enough to appreciate as a proper paradise. Later she gave me her Desert Rose dishes, an incredibly full set including a butter dish, gravy boat, cookie jar, teapot, coffee pot, cups and saucers, rosebud-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers, little footed dessert dishes and more.
When, as a grown-up, I admired her dinner rolls — simple, tender, always served warm with butter — she was delighted. “They’re so easy!” she said. And she wrote out the recipe on an index card, with “Rolls Good + Easy,” in her perfect cursive at the top, the words underlined for emphasis.
Edith Gunning’s Good + Easy Dinner Rolls
Makes 12 large or 16 small rolls
“Start about 4:15 for 6 o’clock dinner,” the index card my great-aunt wrote the recipe on helpfully notes. She used shortening instead of olive oil, and I’ve halved the amount of sugar.
1 packet yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons or, in Aunt Edith’s era, 1 cake)
¼ cup lukewarm water
½ cup warm milk
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 ¼ cups flour
1. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, in order. (I like to give it a stir after the milk to get the yeast thinking, then after the egg to combine; I also like to sift the flour, partly because I like sifting and partly because this recipe just seems almost too easy. — B.J.C.)
2. Beat with a spoon until glossy (if it gets sticky, you can use your hands to knead gently).
3. Let rise (in a warm place, covered with a clean dish towel) until double in bulk, about one hour.
4. Stir down and divide into buttered muffin tin — grease fingers and roll smooth off spoon. (To get them all the same-ish size, I pull the dough in half, then divide each half in two again, then into thirds for 12 rolls. If you want to get fancy, you can divide each individual roll-ball into thirds and nest them together in the muffin-tin compartment, so each roll pulls apart into three lobes when eaten.)
5. Let rise again about half an hour to top of muffin cups.
6. Brush top with melted butter. (Here, Aunt Edith offers a forgiving parenthetical: “I don’t bother.”) Bake at 375 degrees for 10-15 minutes. (Serve warm with lots of butter!)