Mary’s Rolls

I grew up in a little midwest town during the “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” era. It was, as they say, a different world then. We wore hats and gloves to church. We actually went to church. Kids rode their bikes everywhere, over the brick paved streets. Even after dark. Nobody tried to kidnap us. And as my parents became upwardly mobile, they acquired a cleaning lady. A “colored” cleaning lady. Don’t give me any grief about this, because back then, that is the way it was. We didn’t know any better.

Mary, the cleaning lady, was a very unique person. I lost track of her over the years, but she was a very important part of my childhood. Recently she died at the age of 105. I wish I had told her that I remember her fondly.

I talked to Mary while she ironed (unless she was watching her soaps), and listened her stories. Sometimes when my parents traveled, Mary would come and stay with the 4 of us kids. She had a deep faith, and encouraged us to be good children (fat chance, Mary. But for you, we tried). One of my sisters helped Mary study for her GED when Mary was in her 60s.

When my Dad died in 1968, one of the first people at our house was Mary. I don’t know how she found out, or who she cancelled on that day, to come be with us and take charge of our house and our kitchen and all the details that Mom was unable to handle, but Mary was there, a little piece of stability and peace for our family. None of us will ever forget her loving, familiar, and unexpected presence that day.

Lots of times, we talked Mary into forgetting the ironing to make rolls. Mary made the best rolls in the entire universe, and my brother and I would snitch the dough when she wasn’t looking. I suspect she knew all along, though, and let us get away with it. I watched her shape that dough into cloverleafs, and fantans, and Parker House rolls, and sometimes into cinnamon rolls. She taught me to make those rolls. I had to stand there and make notes and estimate measurements, because she cooked by guess and by feel. Those rolls are an important part of our family tradition, and are known as “Mary’s Rolls”, to this day. I have made them wherever I have lived (Colorado, Idaho, Utah) and there are friends who ask for “Mary’s Rolls” whenever they visit. Now, the Baby in Massachusetts makes “Mary’s Roll’s”.

If you want to sample these ambrosial baked goods, here is the recipe:


Melt 1 stick of butter in 1 cup of milk.
Add 1 cup of sugar and stir to dissolve.

Let cool.

Meanwhile dissolve 2 pkg of yeast (or 4 1/2 teaspoons)
in a little bit of warm (not hot) water – about 1/4 cup or so. Let it sit while you are beating eggs, to make sure it is gonna rise.

Beat 3 eggs. Add milk/sugar/butter mix.
Add yeast mix.

Add 3 cups of flour (a little at a time) until smooth. This makes a sponge. Cover and let rise until double.
Beat sponge down, and add flour (a little at a time) to make a soft dough. This is usually around 3-4 cups for me. I use the Kitchenaid bread hook, but you should knead it till it is smooth. Cover and let rise until double.

Beat it down, and knead.
Shape into rolls. If I make the Fantans, I roll the dough, brush it with melted butter, cut it into rectangular strips – about 2 inches wide – and stack 5-6 strips on top of each other. Then you cut the stacks into sections about 2 inches long and place them on end in a greased muffin pan. You can pinch off small balls (roll them like for Snickerdoodles) and put 3 in each muffin cup (known as Cloverleafs). You can also cut them out with a biscuit cutter and fold them in half (Parker House rolls). Or roll the dough out in a large rectangle, brush with melted butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar – and raisins, if you like ’em – then roll the whole shebang up like a jelly roll, slice, and place the spiral slices in a greased pan. But not too close together, because you need to leave room for them to rise. Once again, cover the little devils and let rise till double.

Baking is kinda iffy for me. In my Utah kitchen the rolls do best at about 400 degrees and bake about about 15 minutes. You have to watch them to see if they are brown enough. That means hang out in the kitchen and keep an eye on them till you see how your oven performs. When they are golden, remove from oven and as long as we’ve come this far into cholesterol land, go ahead and brush melted butter over the tops. You need a lot of butter to make and consume these rolls. Go ahead, though, I guarantee it is worth it.

You may have the will power to let them cool before you start eating them, but nobody in my family does. If you made cinnamon rolls, and really want to gild the lily, whip up a glaze of powdered sugar and milk, and drizzle it over the still warm rolls.

Ahhhhh. Doesn’t that make you hungry? And the smell of these rolls baking is a sensory overload all its’ own. If you pass this recipe along, I would appreciate it if you include the story of Mary. You need to celebrate the important people. Pass that on, too.


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